E. M. Forster’s last novel still resonates as a mirror to modern Indo-British relations, as complex as they were then as they are now despite the deep-rooted linkages that join the two

In the story of modern India, the year 1924 is rather unremarkable, as it does not carry the halo of other landmark years of that period such as 1919, 1920, 1931, etc. This is the period when World War I, India’s escalating struggle for freedom, the Great Depression and its impact on colonies became some of the chief defining features of global and Indian history — events that would shape the narrative of the 20th century and bleed into that of the next as well.

Yet, 1924 proved seminal in freeze-framing the India story, a behemoth of a colony seen from the colonial perspective. This was the year when E. M. Forster’s last novel to be published in his lifetime, the very well-known A Passage to India, was released. 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of this path-breaking novel that has — to put simply — stood the test of time and strengthened its position as one of the most important books written on India in English.

Even those not fond of reading are familiar with Forster’s definitive book. It has been labelled Forster’s ‘greatest success’, for its critical yet humane evaluation of the relations between India and Britain — to be read as an epitome of relations between the East and the West — at a time when Britain’s self-proclaimed superiority over the world was developing fundamental cracks, and its practice by its officers on the colonized was increasingly becoming a caricature. Though much water has flown in both the Ganga and the Thames since then, the book remains an exact recapitulation of the tenuous relations between India and the UK, as complex as they were then as they are now despite the deep-rooted linkages that join the two.

Fraught Relations

The characters of A Passage to India, living in the fictitious town of Chandrapore, such as the local doctor Aziz Ahmed, the principal of the government college Mr. Fielding, city magistrate Ronny Heaslop, visiting lady Mrs. Moore (Heaslop’s mother), Miss Adela Quested (a young English woman travelling with Mrs. Moore, with the vague intention of marrying Heaslop), advocate Hamidullah and Professor Narayan Godbole find a place in your mind with just one read of the classic.

A Passage to India, by virtue of its success, has been debated and analyzed threadbare. It has been labelled a novel of great different varieties, but it essentially remains a commentary on the delicate relations between the ruling sahibs and the native Indians. The entire spectrum is explored through relations between different characters — from close friendship between Dr Aziz and Mr. Fielding on one end to the stiff, starched social civility between the white rulers and their brown subjects.

In 1924, when Forster sketched the friendship between Dr Aziz and Fielding, it was venturing into the untrodden path — an anomaly, considering that the British had been ruling the country, first as merchants and then through the Crown, for more than one hundred years by then. In a review of the book, published by The Guardian on June 20, 1924, the critic — identified only as C. M. — wrote: ‘“Why can’t we be friends now?” he [Fielding] says at the end. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.” But India answers: “No, not yet…No, not there.”’

India was trying to break free of the centuries-old colonial yoke and, therefore, it prized its protest against the colonial rulers more than any possibility of friendship with even the best of them. That’s the zeitgeist of the 1920s and Forster captures it succinctly.

UK: Not A Preferred Choice

A hundred years on, the UK and India remain guarded towards each other. Whether as a choice of residence, choice for higher education, or as a trading partner, the UK is not among the top favourites for Indians. As per publicly available figures, the UK stood 15th in the list of the largest trading partners of India by the end of FY 2022-23 with the top spots being occupied by the US, China, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Russia, in that order. As per the Government of India figures up till the year 2022, top five education destinations for Indians are the US, Canada, UAE, Australia, and Saudi Arabia.

According to figures of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, top countries with Indian diaspora till the end of February 2024 are the US (4.4 m), the UAE (3.4 m), Malaysia (2.9 m), Saudi Arabia (2.5 m), and Myanmar (2 m) as compared to 1.7 m Indian origin people living in the UK. And for a population whose immediate ancestors were treated as second class citizens by the white rulers, it seemed an unintended irony when Indian-origin Rishi Sunak became the first non-white Prime Minister of UK in October 2022.

Clearly, Forster wouldn’t have anticipated this turn of events in 1924 even though the writing on the wall for the British rulers of India was very clear to him as a dispassionate author and commentator of contemporary issues. Accusation of molestation by a white woman — Adela Quested — against an Indian, Dr Aziz, drives a sharp wedge in Chandrapore with the White aligned on one side (except for Fielding) and the entire brown population not just united against them, but up in arms with unconcealed hostility. This becomes the backdrop for Forster to capture the ‘Quit India’ sentiment of the Indian populace as the local court, where the hearing takes place, becomes the scene of an unmitigated snapshot of freedom struggle.

A Passage… its Politics

A lot has been read into the narrative of A Passage to India by way of literary criticism in one hundred years. With the benefit of hindsight, these critiques offer far more perspicacity than that must have been intended at the time of its writing. The most prominent has been the criticism of its Orientalist depiction of India, which, however, was in keeping with the nature of writing of its time. But one cannot ignore that the sentiment was also in keeping with the nature of relations between the two — Britain and India — at that time.

A still from David Lean's adaptation of A Passage to India

Long colonial rule had succeeded in making the people of India, as also people of other colonies, believe that they were an inferior race. It took a long, long time for enlightened Indians to shatter the glass wall and instill pride among Indians for their own roots. It began with Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the late 18th century, and after passing through successive stages of growth, reached a crescendo in the 20th century, powerful enough to force the British Empire to retreat.

The postcolonial critique of Orientalism in the book has also seen the presence of an undertone of the Hindu-Muslim division in the story as propounded by the British, and as a card that they would most dishonorably exploit while retreating from the subcontinent.

Literary criticism of the novel has not missed the position of women in the West in the early 20th century, with Adela Quested’s quest to find a rich and powerful husband being the defining aspiration of her generation. The novel is a reflection of Forster’s time spent in India in 1912-13, when he served as private secretary to Tukoji Rao III, the maharaja of Dewas in present-day Madhya Pradesh. Women were still not part of the workforce, or the universe of career in the pre-War years, though were just nearly there.

An Apology for the Raj

Renowned British filmmaker David Lean brought A Passage to India on big screen in 1984, which The New York Times called ‘Lean’s best work since The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia’. As Lean honestly reflected Forster’s vision, Fielding’s pursuit of Dr Aziz long after they had both left Chandrapore, made it a humane story of friendship.

But it did not become an apology for the Raj, which anyway, would have been unthinkable in 1924, just as it was unthinkable for the British when then UK PM David Cameron visited Jallianwala Bagh in 2013 and stopped short of apologizing for the massacre, unleashing widespread disappointment.

The contemporary narrative is defined by in-depth research by prominent members of Indian intelligentsia on colonialism — such as Utsa Patnaik’s critique of Britain’s $45 trillion loot of India, or Meera Mukherjee’s analysis of the reprehensible 1943 Bengal Famine, a disaster for which there have been loud calls of a British apology, besides books on similar themes by Shashi Tharoor and William Dalrymple, among others.

Forster couldn’t have foreseen calls for an apology, but he did see the clock ticking for the Empire. And in presenting an unconventional relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, he broke new ground, and ensured enduring success for his novel; perhaps, even the possibility of a lasting friendship beyond the lifetime of the Empire, which eventually, did not happen.

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