A Passage to India: Prelude to Civil War and Division


In 1984, I went with a group to see A Passage to India, starring Alec Guinness, James Fox, and Peggy Ashcroft—based on the novel by the British novelist E. M. Forster, who published it in 1924. Guinness and Ashcroft were already long past their prime when they did A Passage to India. Guinness first appeared in the 1946 movie, Great Expectations, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Ashcroft had starred in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps from 1935. Even James Fox appears too old to play Cyril Fielding. What they lack in youth, at any rate, they more than make up for it, with a relaxed professionalism.

Except for our group, the movie theatre was almost empty, which says a lot about the loss of recognition-value for Forster's work, at that time. I had majored in literature in college and may have heard his name mentioned in passing, as an influence for later writers, or for his contributions to the development of the novel-genre. That was all. I had not read a single book of his and would not have recognized their titles.

All I can say is that this filming of Passage to India and the subsequent filming of A Room with a View and Howard's End gave Forster's reputation a needed boost, and led to the publication of several new editions of his works. Sometimes movies have that effect, in the case of Bernard Malamud, for instance, with the filming of his The Natural, starring Robert Redford, and Saul Bellow, with the filming of his Seize the Day, that starred the late Robin Williams. I only wish more movies would promote a book or an author. You can watch a movie and later identify a literary character from the actor who plays his role.

Like any really good novel, Passage to India requires a mini-series that will exhibit its inherent strengths and give it the respect it needs. A mini-series allows viewers to delve into the art of character development, retain a cumulative sense of many social interactions, and glean the common-sensical insights from all the hit-or-miss actions. Passage is simply one of the best novels I have ever read.

The screen-play for the movie, on the other hand, was written by Santha Rama Rau. She makes it too one-dimensionally pro-Indian. Interestingly, Rama Rau preferred to live in the United States, rather than her native India, suggesting a conflict in her own sense of loyalty.

At any rate, her screen-play works well enough, so that if you ask most people to say something about A Passage to India, they will say it concerns racism and the Indian independence movement. This one-liner works pretty well, in a pinch, You could also contend it concerns an Indian-Muslim who goes on trial for raping an Englishwoman, more or less the same plot-line as To Kill a Mockingbird, published nearly forty years later. That makes it simple enough for busy people to grasp.

My own take is that Passage explores the durability of human relationships, between men and women, between children and parents, between government employees and private citizens, and finally, of course, between people of different races and religions.

Much of the racial tension in Passage concerns the Indians, themselves. The location of the novel, Chandrapore, has both large Muslim and Hindu populations, and Forster takes pains to demonstrate the animosity between them; so the story does not concern just the enmity between whites and Indians, or Indians and their colonial overseers; it spans the range of human issues—a much broader, complex subject than Rama Rau cared to know.

About Chandrapore, Forster writes that “it trails for a couple of miles along the bank (of the Ganges), scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. . . . The streets are mean, the temples ineffective . . . houses are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest. . . . Houses do fall, people are drowned and left rotting . . . like some low but indestructible form of life.”

Since Passage concerns the burgeoning independence movement, Forster's setting is of major concern. The idea of independence may inspire revolutionaries to take up the sword and lead the fight, but it also means that any problem faced by British India will also haunt an independent India. Let us say, Forster presents India in transition, which gives it a special distinction.

And not just because of its independence movement. Forster also describes the early stage of the nascent religious conflict, which would lead to a civil war, cost India at least a million lives, and lead to the break-up of British India into four new nations—India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

In one remarkable scene, Forster tells the story of a Muslim doctor named Aziz, who  has to miss a few days at work when he contracts fever, after drinking unclean water. Colleagues from his medical practice and his friends in the government, both Muslim and Hindu, call on him to wish him a speedy recovery. They end up in a petty, partisan quarrel, with some intimations about what will happen in the future.

In fact, Forster writes as if everyone knows about the divisions in India already. Only the poorly-informed British overlords do not. When Aziz's guests inform him that a prominent Brahmin has diarrhea, Aziz declares, “That settles it. In twenty-four hours, he will be dead.” But Forster continues that, “Before long, they began to condemn (the Brahmin) as a source of infection.” One Muslim contends, “All illness proceeds from the Hindus.” At Muslim conferences, they dismissed the Hindus “with biting scorn.”

    Aziz liked to hear his religion praised. It soothed the surface of his mind, and allowed beautiful images to form beneath. . . . Not as a call to battle, but as a calm assurance came the feeling that India was one; Moslem; always had been; an assurance that lasted until they looked out the    door. . . .

    And the sister kingdoms of the north—Arabia, Persia, Fergana (Uzbekistan), Turkestan—stretched out their hand as (the Muslim poet Ghalib) sang, sadly, because all beauty is sad, and greeted ridiculous Chandrapore, where every street was divided against itself, and told her she was     a continent and a unity.

Nearly any scholar who delves into Forster will find him ironic as hell. If my reader studies the text carefully, he will conclude that the sincere, humane Forster finds in India a problem, seeing how it can go on as a country, and the ensuing history of it, especially after World War II—its emergence as an independent nation and descent into bloody civil war. You get the feeling that no one was present in India or Britain to take Forster seriously. Everyone thought of India as a single nation, and ignored the growing conflict—present even at this early date, 1924.

Forster continues:

    Of the company (Aziz's visitors) only Hamidullah had any comprehension of poetry. The minds of the others were inferior and rough. . . . Hamidullah had called in on his way to a worrying committee of notables, nationalist in tendency, where Hindus, Moslems, two Sikhs, two Parsis, a          Jain, and a Native Christian tried to like one another more than came natural to them. As long as someone abused the English, all went well, but nothing constructive had been achieved, and if the English were to leave India, the committee would vanish also.

The arrival of Aziz's doctor Dr. Panna Lal, a Hindu, “driven by the horrid Mr. Ram Chand” brought home the magnitude of India's problems for everyone to see. Forster describes Ram Chand as someone “desirous of fomenting trouble.” The schoolboy Rafi provides the diverse group its flash-point:

    “There is no reason you should bring a charge against a doctor,” said Ram Chand.
    “Exactly, Exactly,” agreed Hamidullah, anxious to avoid an unpleasantness. Quarrels spread so quickly. . . .
    “It is only a boy,” said Dr. Panna Lal, appeased.
    “Even boys must learn,” said Ram Chand.
    “Your own son failing to pass the lowest standard, I think,” said Syed Mohammed suddenly.
    “Oh, indeed? Oh yes, perhaps. He has not the advantage of a relative in the Prosperity Printing Press.”
    “Nor you the advantage of conducting their cases in the courts, any longer.”
    Their voices rose. They attacked one another with obscure allusions and had a silly quarrel.

At the end of Passage to India, even Fielding and his old friend Aziz quarrel over India's future. Aziz wants the British to leave and give India its independence, while Fielding is disgusted that Aziz cannot see the looming conflict in a nation with such different religious and ethnic prejudices and rivalries.

After the British leave, Aziz says, they can become friends again. Fielding replies, “Why can't we be friends now?” He explains, “It's what I want. It's what you want.”

Forster concludes the novel with a rude truth—beautifully subjective language, the best in the business:

    But the horses didn't want it—they swerved apart; the earth didn't want it, sending up rocks through which the riders must pass. . . . the temples, the tank, the jail, the birds . . . they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”

I think of all the name-calling in our nation, the U.S., the attacks on reputations, and although they sound like tempests in tea-cups, the same could be said about the petty quarrels in Aziz's home. They may have started as petty quarrels, but, as Hamidullah said, quarrels spread so quickly, like cases of diarrhea.