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Book review Politics

A Passage to India Argues Powerfully Against Orientalism and Imperialism

In this book review published at Qrius, I revisit E. M. Forster’s best-known novel. A Passage to India demolishes the racism that sustains imperialism; the novel exemplifies the power of literature to catalyse social progress

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Originally published at CounterCurrents.

Exploitation has a long history. Nations subjugate other nations and enslave peoples.

Exploitation imposes psychological costs. Not just on the exploited. On the exploiters, too. How do exploiters handle these psychological costs, in order to keep exploiting?

From Romans to Nazis – imperialists, slave-owners, and other exploiters have relied on othering their victims. Othering uses language to psychologically distance another group away from, and below, ourselves. Othering makes it easier to brutalise people, plunder their resources, and ignore their plight.

Othering takes various forms. Racism is the belief that a certain race, their culture, and their lifestyle are inferior, meriting exploitation. Orientalism is umbrella racism: westerners’ view of all eastern peoples – from the Middle East to India – as mysterious, emotional, and uncivilisable. Othering people, via racism and orientalism, provides the psychological justification for imperialism. If a people are considered inferior, then ruling them becomes justified as the ‘white man’s burden.’

Our actions are justified by our beliefs. Our beliefs in turn are powerfully shaped by literature. Who we are, what we can achieve given our race/sex/social class, and how we relate to others. All literature is political. Literature can be mimetic, reflecting the status quo and implicitly legitimising inequalities. Or literature can challenge the status quo and catalyse a better world. Throughout history, some books have challenged our beliefs, thus destabilising the structures of exploitation that those beliefs uphold.

In the month of E. M. Forster’s 50th death anniversary, let’s look back at his novel A Passage to India (1924). Do the book’s politics support or challenge (a) the orientalism justifying imperialism, and (b) imperialism itself?

Passage’s central incident is an allegation of sexual harassment that a British woman brings against an Indian man. The ensuing court-case surfaces racial tensions, tests character loyalties, and raises profound questions about exploitation. Can imperialism ever by just? Do races differ in ways that create permanent, natural hierarchies? Or is it imperialism that creates these differences?

Images of British India
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Passage’s characters are orientalist

Passage is set in the fictitious north Indian town of Chandrapore in 1920s India. This was a momentous time in Indo-British history. The British were foreseeing the end of their rule in India, but they weren’t going to quit India easily.

Most of Passage’s Britishers are openly racist: viewing Indians as all the same, and all inferior. Turton, Chandrapore’s Collector and ‘burra sahib,’ repeatedly breaks appointments with Indians, wasting their time. When one Indian is accused of a crime, Turton considers that all Indians have been revealed in their true nature.

Police Superintendent McBryde believes that ‘all natives are born criminals.’ McBryde’s orientalism is subtler than Turton’s. A philosophical man, McBryde disguises his orientalism as the pseudoscientific concept of geographic determination: ‘They can’t help it. It’s the result of being born below 30° South. If we English settled here, we’d be just the same.’

The British administrators’ wives, too, treat Indians with scorn, and infantilise them. When the Indian women invited to a British party turn out to know English, the British women exclaim, “How wonderful!” right in the Indians’ faces.

Passage’s British characters are orientalists. But what is Forster’s view of India and Indians?

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But Passage itself is not orientalist

Forster depicts the Indian landscape as backwards and mysterious. Chandrapore is bleak: “the streets are mean, the temples ineffective.” The Indian summer is a character in its own right, a monster that shapes moods and constrains plans. The Marabar caves, where Passage’s central incident occurs, embody the orientalist notion of the ‘exotic east.’ Externally, the caves are unremarkable. Granite, small, undecorated. Inside, they have a bizarre echo. Boum. This echo powerfully affects at least two Britishers’ minds. Clearly, for Forster, the Indian landscape has supernatural elements. It’s dangerous and unknowable. This othering of India – clearly contrasting it with Britain: the cultivated, fertile landscape that birthed the Industrial Revolution – typifies orientalist othering.

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Dr. Aziz and Mr. Fielding from the film version of *Passage*. Image source

But Forster’s view of Indians is anything but orientalist. Every Indian in Passage is an individual, just as every Britisher is. The Indians aren’t passive products of their environments: they’re humans responding and adapting to their environments. This heterogeneity of Passage’s Indian characters is key: for, by definition, racism homogenises all members of the ‘other.’

Dr. Aziz, one of Passage’s protagonists, enjoys having “very sad talks” over dinner, and reciting Urdu poetry on “the decay of Islam and the brevity of love.” Aziz is friendly with other Muslims, but unconstrained by race ties. He befriends Fielding, the English head of the College; he also attempts friendship with other English men and women. Aziz has less admirable qualities, including his views on women. But these are the views of an individual. Aziz is fully characterised as his own man. Not an Indian. Not a Muslim. Just an interesting, flawed man shaped, but not determined, by his environment. Forster’s characterisation of Aziz contrasts with McBryde’s view of Indians being passive environmental products.

Equally nuanced and sensitive are Passage’s portraits of other Indians. Godbole, the “Deccani Brahmin,” typifies Hindu imperturbability and atemporality. No real-life event shocks him, because his mind is occupied with philosophical questions of eternity. But Godbole is no dogmatist blindly reciting shlokas. Debating with Fielding, Godbole cogently defends his beliefs. Equally competent are Das and Amritrao, who execute their roles in Passage’s court-case independently guided by the principles of justice. Their competence is particularly admirable given that they answer to British functionaries.

Does Forster orientalise the Indian landscape? Yes. Personally, I don’t blame him. A scorching, endless north Indian summer without AC is an experience with psychedelic-like qualities. But when it comes to Indians, Forster repudiates orientalism. Passage’s Indians are as individual and as human as its British.

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Aziz and his firang friends. Image source

It’s not racial difference, but imperialism, that obstructs harmonious human relations

Adela Quested comes to Chandrapore to decide whether to marry Ronny Heaslop, a British functionary. Adela and Heaslop used to be friends. Fellow idealists. Adela finds that India has changed Heaslop: has “developed sides of his character that she had never admired… He seemed more indifferent to other people, more certain that he was right.”

Adela’s evaluation of Heaslop reveals Passage’s central thesis: that it’s the social environment, created by people, that in turn shapes a person. Adela and Heaslop were once alike. What changed? Their environments. To do his job as an administrator, Heaslop needs to believe that the British should rule India.

Throughout Passage, social environment shapes individual psyche. The novel’s driving question is: Can Britisher and Indian be friends? Early on, Aziz befriends Fielding. The two try to understand one another. Fielding longs for intimacy with a human. Any human. But subsequent events – the allegation brought against Aziz, and the way he’s treated by the British – disillusion Aziz. He no longer believes in the possibility of friendship between ruler and ruled. At Passage’s end, Aziz tells Fielding: “We shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea. And then you and I shall be friends.”

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En route to the Barabar Caves. Image source

Subject-ruler relations distort every dyadic relationship in Passage. Not just between Britishers and English. Within races, too. Adela wants to treat Indians as individuals; Heaslop treats them as types; these ideological differences estrange them. Mrs. Moore, Heaslop’s mother, articulates ideas of universal brotherhood; though these are Christian ideas, Heaslop can’t reconcile them with his job, and dismisses his mother as senile. Britishers also create divisions among Indians, turning the Indian hospital staff against each other as spies.

Throughout Passage, Forster repeatedly demonstrates the real cause of interpersonal conflict. Not racial differences – but the distorting influence of subject-ruler relations on human perception. In an imperialist world defined by racial identity, Forster argues, all human relations are poisoned, and society becomes corrupt. Passage begins with the hope of a cross-race friendship that defies social norms. It ends with Aziz confronting the truth: as long as the British rule India, large-scale inequalities will trickle down to pollute all interpersonal relations.

This is a powerful thesis, turning conventional wisdom on its head by reversing cause and effect. The logic of imperialism is: ‘Some races are inferior; therefore we are justified in exploiting them, for our good and their own.’ Passage argues: ‘Humans are equal, but systemic injustice alters human behaviour in predictable ways.’ There are no meaningful differences in group behaviour that justify imperialism. Imperialism itself creates these differences.

Passage shows systemic injustice shaping human behaviour. Aziz and his friends sit around complaining about the British. At first, this looks like classic ‘oriental passivity.’ Why don’t they unite to take action? Passage shows us why. Status quo bias. Aziz and his friends are subjects, but they’re not badly off. So they drift on. Not because they’re passive orientals. Because systemic injustice elicits from them a universal human phenomenon: preferring the unsatisfactory present over risking a change that might make things worse.

A Passage to India attacks orientalist racism, and argues against imperialism.

In 2020, exploitation continues. Globalisation makes virtual slaves out of sweatshop workers, and concentrates the world’s resources in the hands of a small elite. These economic injustices are supported by the implicit belief that some lives matter less than others. Nations pass anti-minority laws at home, and undertake self-interested interventionist wars that destroy other countries. Racist paternalism – the idea that some people don’t know what’s best for themselves – is invoked to justify interfering with, and exploiting, people.

In an unjust world, literature is a crucial catalyst of progress. Let’s support literature that questions injustice. And let’s celebrate classics that dared to challenge the status quo.

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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