Thursday, May 25, 2017

Book 78: A Passage To India

"He longed for the good old days, when an Englishman could satisfy his own honor and no questions asked afterwards. Poor young Heaslop had taken a step in this direction, by refusing bail. but the Collector couldn't feel this was wise of poor young Heaslop. Not only would the Nawab Bahadur and other be angry, but the Government of India itself also watches- and behind it is that caucus of cranks and cravens, the British Parliament. He had constantly to remind himself that, in the eyes of the law, Aziz was not yet guilty, and the effort fatigued him."

Read: August 12-15, 2016

Rating: 4/10

Lists/Awards: Time All-Time 100 Novels, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012)

When I was in law school, I had a part-time job manning the circulation desk at the law library. I mostly worked evenings and weekends, which was great since it was almost always slow and I got a lot of homework done. Often the library would have been empty for hours by the time we closed up and I needed to go around and turn off all the lights and make sure everyone was out. There was always something unnerving about the library was so quiet and still, and sometimes my imagination would get the better of me. I'd reach down to pick something up that had fallen from the shelf and be sure that I felt someone's eyes on my back as I rose. Or I'd swear I'd seen movement out of the corner of my eye. There was never anything there, of course, but imagination running wild can be a powerful thing.

It's just that, the power of the imagination to create an experience in the mind that may or may not have actually happened, that drives the central conflict in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. Plain young schoolmistress Adela Quested ventures to India with her friend, Mrs. Moore, to possibly arrange an engagement to Mrs. Moore's son Ronny, a small-town official in the British administration. While there, Mrs. Moore comes across a young widowed Indian Muslim, Dr. Aziz, in a mosque and they strike up a quick and easy friendship. When she and Adela express a desire to the "the real India", Aziz arranges a trip for them to see some caves outside of town. The trip is supposed to be joined by a British school principal, Cyril Fielding (one of the few unprejudiced members of the white community and a friend of Aziz's), but he misses the train and Aziz takes the women out with just a few servants and a guide to accompany them. In the first cave, Mrs. Moore is shaken by the experience of the echo inside and opts out of further exploration. Aziz and Quested proceed, but become separated, each in a different cave. Aziz frantically searches for her, but emerges only to find that she's running away and getting in a car, going back to the city. When he arrives back in the city himself, he's arrested for assaulting her in the cave.

Since we see the story from his point of view during that section of the novel, we know he didn't touch her. He couldn't even find her! But what did happen in that cave that scared her so badly? And will he be convicted even though he's innocent? The Anglo-Indians, as the British administration expats refer to themselves, are deeply racist, and there's a great deal of consternation that there needs to be a trial at all. The incident stirs up a lot of enmity on the parts of both the British and the Indians, who come together despite their own religious divisions to support Aziz. The only Briton that supports Aziz is Fielding.

Racial divides and the inherent injustices of colonialism are the main themes, and there's nothing really new or interesting in how Forster presents them. In 1924, when the book was published, it was possibly pretty progressive (for context, the British didn't leave India until 1949), but in 2017, it's not going anywhere unexpected. What I found to be the most interesting angle on it from today's perspective is the relationship between Aziz and Fielding. It raises the question of what it means to be a good ally to an underprivileged group, and if there can ever be real friendship between people society holds as unequal. The book posits that as much as they like each other, the answer is ultimately no. Fielding stands by Aziz during the trial, but then seeks to keep him from suing for recompense from Quested...recompense he deserves, but will ruin her. Even though he's presented to us as a fair-minded and fundamentally decent person, Fielding can't help but let his own perspective as a member of the privileged group drive his thinking, and that undermines his ability to really understand where Aziz is coming from.

Honestly, though, I didn't find much to like here. Coming at it from the world of now, the themes are tired and have been done before and better. Forster doesn't have especially lovely prose, nor does he create particularly well-drawn or resonant characters. In its time, it was a major work, but I didn't find anything all that compelling about it. I read it really quickly not because I liked it, but because I wanted to get through it and go on to something more interesting.

Tell me, blog friends...what "groundbreaking" books don't hold up for you?

One year ago, I was reading: Devil in the White City

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