A Passage to India ~ A Capsule Book Review

A Passage to India ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

E. M. Forster’s 1925 novel, A Passage to India, is number 25 on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred greatest fiction books in English of the twentieth century. It is set in Chandrapour, India, in the 1920s, during the English occupation of India. As one might expect, India was eager to be free of English domination and declare its independence, which it eventually did.

Adela Quested is an English lady in her thirties who travels to India with an older woman, a widow named Mrs. Moore. Miss Quested is described as plain and physically unattractive. She is the nervous type, inclined to hysteria. She goes to India with the intention of marrying (maybe not) Mrs. Moore’s son, a British government official named Ronny Heaslop. Ronny is very British, lacking in warmth and spontaneity. He follows all the rules assiduously and is overly concerned with “appearances.” (A union between Adela and Ronny sounds like a recipe for misery.)

In India, Adela and Mrs. Moore meet Cyril Fielding and Dr. Aziz. Cyril Fielding is principal at a government-run English school. He is 45 years old and is cynical about the world, but especially cynical about the English occupation of India; he doesn’t like the way most English people treat the native Indians. Dr. Aziz is a young Moslem doctor (most Indians are Hindu), a widower with three small children. He lives modestly in a rundown bungalow because he sends most of his money home for the care of his children (they live with their grandmother). He and Cyril Fielding are good friends.

Having made the acquaintance of this small group of English people, Dr. Aziz wants to treat them to a picnic at the famous Marabar caves. At great expense, he arranges the food and train transport, and sees to all the details of the outing, including elephant transport from the train to the site of the picnic. After seeing one of the caves, Mrs. Moore becomes tired and decides to rest in the shade while the others see the other caves. That leaves Adela and Dr. Aziz alone in the caves, along with the guide.

A little while later, Adela runs out of the caves, disheveled and hysterical. She claims that Dr. Aziz assaulted and attacked (insulted or violated her) her in the caves, the details of which remain vague (not exactly attempted rape, but something less). This sets the stage for an ugly legal battle between the British and the native Indians, bringing to a boil all the ugly racial tensions that exist between the races. The English naturally believe in Dr. Aziz’s guilt, while his Indian friends all stand beside him and maintain his innocence. Alone among the English, Cyril Fielding believes in Dr. Aziz’s innocence.

A sensational trial follows, during which conflicting testimony is given. The question becomes one, not of guilt or innocence, but of racial allegiance: Who are you going to believe, based, not on the evidence brought out in the trial, but on the race of the two principal parties involved?

A Passage to India is a great classic novel that has stood the test of time. It is still relevant today, not at all dated or stale, nearly a hundred years after its publication. It’s a book I first read many years ago and find it well worth another look. The excellent 1985 movie version directed by David Lean captures the essence and the nuances of the novel.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

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