Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: A Passage to India by E.M. Forster




First published:-1924

Star rating:-

Read in:-December, 2014

Make no mistake. This, to me, will always be Forster's magnum opus even though I am yet to even acquaint myself with the synopses of either Howards End or Maurice. Maybe it is the handicap of my Indian sentimentality that I cannot remedy on whim to fine-tune my capacity for objective assessment. But strip away a colonial India from this layered narrative. Peel away the British Raj too and the concomitant censure that its historical injustices invite. And you will find this to be Forster's unambiguous, lucid vision of humanity languishing in a zone of resentful sociocultural synthesis, his unhesitant condemnation not merely of racism, casteism, religion-ism and what other noxious, vindictive 'ism's we have had throughout the history of our collective existence but of the fatalistic human tendency of rejecting a simple truth in favour of self-justifying contrivances.

Yes there's the much hyped 'crime' analyzed in the broader context of presupposed guilt and innocence . There's the issue of race, class and privilege factoring into the ensuing judicial process. The ripples of the eventual fallout of this mishap disrupt the frail status quo that all parties on either side of the race divide were tacitly maintaining so far and pose crucial existential questions before people of all communities. 
Then there are hypocritical Englishmen who cannot choose between preserving the sanctity of the Empire's administrative machinery and upholding their own prejudices. And hypocritical Indians who righteously accuse the Englishmen of institutionalized hatred while stringently maintaining their own brand of intolerance. But greater than the sum of all these thematic veins is the connecting thread of Forster's sure-footed, measured prose which explores not only the inner lives of the central characters but tries to penetrate the heart of a nation-state in the making.

The India depicted here is a foreign country to me - a time and a place yet to be demarcated irreversibly along lines of communal identities that are presently dominating our political rhetoric. It is of little appeal to the newly arrived umpteenth Englishman but, nonetheless, presents itself as an amalgamation of unrealized possibilities. Not once did my brows knit together in frustration on the discovery of any passage or line even casting a whiff of Forster's bias against the people or the land. My senses were stretched taut all the time in an effort to detect any. Sure, Dr. Aziz is a little infantilized and his importance is sometimes reduced to that of a plot device used for manufacturing the central conflict while Adela Quested, Mrs Moore and Mr Fielding appear before a reader as upright individuals who stand for the truth. The other Indian characters seem to be defined by their general pettiness. But these imperfect characterizations can be more than forgiven in the light of what Forster does accomplish.

The song of the future must transcend creed.

There are times when the narrator's voice dissects the drama unfolding against unfamiliar Indian landscapes with a kind of fond exasperation and times when it dissolves into a withering regret for the way the engines of civilization continue to trundle along towards some catastrophic destiny without ever pausing for the purpose of self-assessment. And it is the profound clarity of Forster's worldviews and his sensitivity and forthrightness in deconstructing the enigma of the 'Orient' that elevates his writing even further.

Perhaps life is a mystery, not a muddle; they could not tell. Perhaps the hundred Indias which fuss and squabble so tiresomely are one, and the universe they mirror is one.

It's not the 'handicap of my Indian sentimentality' after all. Forster sought to extract the kernel of truth buried underneath layers of artifice and his craft could successfully flesh out the blank spaces between that which can be expressed with ease. Those are always worthy enough literary achievements in my eyes.


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