In the 1920’s, a young woman called Adela Quested yearns to discover ‘the real India’ and we follow her search. We do not learn about true Indian culture any more than she does, but we d0 discover a great deal about how the British behaved at this time.
The British Raj was in existence between 1858 and 1947. It began when the East India Company passed the governance of India to the British Crown, with Queen Victoria later becoming Empress of India. It ended when independence was granted and the states of India and Pakistan were created.
A Passage to India is a very fine novel. In it, Forster provides us with characters who attempt to ‘bridge the gap’ between the British and the Indians and shows how they pay for their fine ideas. Adela is naïve enough to think that she can disregard the rules of the society she has entered and which enable the Raj to exist. Mrs Moore is the old lady chaperoning her. Dr Aziz, a young Muslim, is flattered by their friendship and attempts to impress them with an extravagant visit to the Marabar Hills. Adela thereby achieves her dream of visiting the ancient caves, only to accuse her host of a hideous crime, based purely on the evidence of her own fears and inhibitions. The subsequent trial reveals the extent of the chasm between the two communities.
The genius of the novel is that because of her initial rejection of the culture of ‘us and them,’ we expect Adela to become a traditional heroine. We almost expect a love story between her and Aziz. So when she retreats into her insular white community, it serves to further highlight the gulf between them. Even Mrs Moore, who professes to know that Aziz is innocent, is reluctant to help him at first.
But Forster also gives us Cyril Fielding, of the Indian college, who can move between the two worlds to a greater extent because he inhabits a common intellectual ground. In spite of various misunderstandings, he remains respectful and retains his love of India and its people.
The novel represents not only an age but an idea and it shows how some theories cannot be put into practice.