BRITISH INTELLIGENCE BOOK CLUB
A PASSAGE TO INDIA
BOUM GOES THE RAJ
1st July 2020
Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
ONLY one person gets diarrhoea in A Passage to India. There is also precious little about curry and the horrors of digestion under the sweltering climate of the subcontinent. Anyone who has read David Burton’s The Raj at Table: A Culinary History of the British in India will know that food was consumed in quantities to make a modern trencherman blench. But of toilet and table we hear very little in EM Forster’s masterpiece of 1924, and their absence, even in decorous allusion, made the present writer a little suspicious. I was reminded of a scene in Anthony Burgess’s enormous novel Earthly Powers where a doctor in the tropics is speaking of deficiencies in Joseph Conrad’s presentation of the East: ‘Conrad left out the hookworm and the malaria and the yaws.’ He goes on: ‘Tropical paradise, that’s a lot of nonsense. Bacilli and spirochaetes like the hot damp. Vicious mosquitoes, snakebite. The Malays are mad, they won’t report a snakebite, superstitious, then they die smiling, the bite’s supposed to bring good luck. Straight to paradise, perhaps, sherbet and houris for ever and ever…the Eastern mind, the West can’t touch it, they say only Karl Marx can get into an Eastern mind because he’s down to rockbottom, more rice and kill the bosses…’
Tropical menaces do occur in A Passage to India. As do negative observations of the natives, but Forster tends to make them more racist, and put them in the mouths of British civil administrators in the fictional Indian town of Chandrapore. This is not to say that Forster’s novel is like a left-liberal narrative from today where the fault is all on one side, whites and white men in particular, but there are a good deal of blimps, as no doubt there were in reality.
‘Oh yes,’ said Forster in Aspects of the Novel, ‘oh dear yes – the novel tells a story ... and I wish that it was not so.’ What would he have preferred? Perhaps an epic symbolist poem; if so, then A Passage to India is as close as he dared to that.
The story goes like this: Adela Quested and her friend Mrs Moore, to whose son, the local magistrate, Miss Quested is engaged, arrive in Chandrapore, a village in British-controlled India. During their introduction to the local white social scene they are brought together with Cyril Fielding, the head of a college for Indians, and Aziz, a young Muslim doctor. Dr Aziz, keen to make friends, organises a trip to the Marabar Caves, a sort of beauty spot. Two things happen as a result of entering them: the sound of the echo inside the caves – ‘bou-oum or ou-boum’ – spooks Mrs Moore into an existential crisis from which she never recovers; and Miss Quested mistakenly thinks she has been sexually assaulted by Dr Aziz in a cave, though he is in fact in another one at the time. Fielding refuses to believe Miss Quested’s accusation. Dr Aziz is arrested and put on trial, though Miss Quested sensationally changes her story in the courtroom. Riots and rows occur as a result of the episode.
At one time Forster was a byword for a certain type of liberalism and he sets out his objections to the British in India very clearly in A Passage to India, which was named after Walt Whitman’s poem of almost the same name (revealing sample line: O secret of the earth and sky!). However, things have moved on in academia. The novel was once held up as a useful reflection on the conflicts among cultures and the problems of imperialism, but now it has been combed and damned for 'racism' in its text: its terms would not get past a ‘sensitivity reader’ in modern publishing. This is what I call the Robespierre Moment, when a radical from a previous epoch is metaphorically veg-pelted in the tumbrel. It has happened to plenty of people, Dr Germaine Greer for one. Forster is clear-eyed about the snobberies and social striations of the Raj as he is about the pros and cons of India and Indians, the latter being forbidden in today’s culture. Evidently he draws Fielding as a man after his own heart. An Indian says to him:
‘Goodbye my dear Fielding, and you actually are on our side against your own people?’
He regretted taking sides. To slink through India unlabelled was his aim. Henceforward he would be called ‘anti-British’, ‘seditious’ – terms that bored him, and diminished his utility. He foresaw that besides being a tragedy there would be a muddle; already he saw several tiresome little knots, and each time his eye returned to them they were larger. Born in freedom, he was not afraid of muddle, but he recognized its existence.
Born in freedom, he was not afraid of muddle. How many elite left liberals of today does that describe? Freedom taken for granted and not afraid of muddle until the muddle turns really nasty. And even if it does turn really nasty, nowadays the answers are easier: however nasty the muddle gets, you blame Trump or Boris Johnson, or white privilege or global warming or systemic racism, and you keep your eyes on the never-to-be-seen shining utopia somewhere up ahead, and bask in your social media likes.
Still, you can’t help liking Fielding. He sticks by Dr Aziz when all the local petty officialdom takes the view he is guilty. Then there is this:
[Fielding] felt dubious and discontented suddenly, and wondered whether he was really and truly successful as a human being. After forty years’ experience, he had learned to manage his life and make the best of it on advanced European lines, had developed his personality, explored his limitations, controlled his passions – and he had done it all without becoming pedantic or worldly. A creditable achievement, but as the moment passed he felt he ought to have been working at something else the whole time – he didn’t know at what, never would know, never could know, and that was why he felt sad.
The really interesting thing about A Passage to India is not its view of imperialism. Kipling of all writers diagnosed the vulnerable overreach of the Empire 30 years earlier with the fallible white ‘gods’ Dravot and Carnehan in The Man Who Would Be King. What is fascinating about Forster’s book is Mrs Moore’s change of outlook after a few minutes in the Marabar Caves, when the cave’s echo managed to murmur: ‘Pathos, piety, courage – they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.’ If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same – ‘ou-boum’. If one had spoken with the tongues of angels and pleaded for all the unhappiness and misunderstanding in the world, past, present, and to come, for all the misery men must undergo whatever their opinion and position, and however much they dodge and bluff – it would amount to the same, the serpent would descend and return to the ceiling. Devils are of the North, and poems can be written about them, but no one could romanticize the Marabar, because it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind. . . . But suddenly, at the edge of her mind Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from ‘Let there be light’ to ‘It is finished’ only amounted to ‘boum’.
Anyone who has had a mortal go of Delhi Belly is capable of slipping into that state of mind, even if they have only picked it up at the curry house in their local high street. Indeed, I remember in the Nineties encountering a hippie friend of mine just back from a long stint of ‘travelling’ in India, during which he drank a glass of Ganges water and also found a human skull on the riverbank (he posted it back to England and kept it on top of his television set in East London, as you do). I asked him how his trip went. Blank-eyed, he replied and repeated: ‘Nothing means anything.’
Forster proposes no answer to all this larval postmodernist nihilism except, perhaps, finding some sort of joy, even if it be in the garish Hindu knees-up so brilliantly described in the third part of the book.
Forster, having spent time in India as a secretary to a Maharajah, no doubt knew whereof he wrote when in fine prose he produces vivid sections about India: ‘Heaven and earth both looking like toffee.’ He also had a crush on an Indian student he tutored and perhaps he wanted readers to see something of this in Fielding’s friendship with Aziz, a friendship prevented by symbolic rocks, ‘only connect,’ Forster’s prescription from Howards End, being frustrated by imperial arrangements. I would have liked Forster to have added a postscript, detailing how things may have stood between Aziz and Fielding two decades later after independence (he added a similar appendix about Lucy and George Emerson to A Room with a View in 1958). Would they be friends now the Viceroy had been sent packing or would Aziz have a new list of grievances?
After all, as Forster writes after Aziz’s trial collapses:
His Indian friends were, on the other hand, a bit above themselves. Victory, which would have made the English sanctimonious, made them aggressive. They wanted to develop an offensive, and tried to do so by discovering new grievances, many of which had no existence.
Remind you of anything?
The novel’s criticism of the British presence in India is sound, and illusions of the Raj are gently mocked at times. But the undogmatic reader of history will probably reflect that the British did some good in their colonies alongside all the gallivanting, exploitation and the sneering colonels and their wives. Being investigations into reality, serious novels about imperialism ought to reflect that, and Forster’s almost does, but he is more interested in numinous issues and the ultra-thin ice on which civilisation’s claims stand, notwithstanding civilisation being the only way his criticism and art could be formed. In some ways his position is analogous to the bien pensants of today, who are bafflingly confident about the survival of politically corrected Western Civilisation despite aiding and abetting its repudiation and destruction at every turn.
We know what happened after the close of the book: Forster never wrote another novel (he died 46 years later at the age of 91), having evidently said all he wanted to say in fiction; India gained independence and the British have had an ear-bashing about it from intellectuals ever since, and have been subjected to the punitive measures of mass immigration and doctrinal multiculturalism (which for the most part have been taken with forbearance and good humour, the same spirit in which the British public took jingoism, bible-bashing and imperialist blather when they were the great manias of the ruling elite); the Left have taken over western culture completely and, ironically, A Passage to India, far from being seen as a properly liberal book, is now an exhibit in the museum of ‘orientalist’ culture crimes. Fielding journeying back to England:
The Mediterranean is the human norm. When men leave that exquisite lake, whether through the Bosphorus or the Pillars of Hercules, they approach the monstrous and extraordinary; and the southern exit leads to the strangest experience of all. Turning his back on it yet again, he took the train northward, and tender romantic fancies that he thought were dead for ever flowered when he saw the buttercups and daisies of June.
It is an excellent novel despite its lack of onion bhajis and gastroenterological pathology and also Forster loading the dice against certain characters, such as Mrs Moore’s son, the pompous Ronny Heaslop, who ‘persists in unkindness’ to his mother because she took Aziz’s side.
We must hope the book survives the permanent Cultural Revolution we are entering.
What would Forster say about all that? ‘Ou-boum,’ probably.