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A Passage to India: Can we call E.M. Forster anti-imperialist?

E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India” is a story that explores the dynamics of the complex relationship and the cultural clashes between the British and Indian people during the British Raj. Forster is praised for his keen insight, and an unparalleled understanding of the diverse Indian cultures, a notable accomplishment for an English writer. But can we declare him as an anti-imperialist based on this? Does he explore the dynamics between the ‘colonizers’ and the ‘colonized’ with the same depth?

Credits: OutMagazine

Set in the fictional city of Chandrapore, the novel, on the surface, is a clash of the East and the West, and on a closer look, it deals with the dilemma of human relationships. The question that the story begins and ends with is, “Is it possible for an Indian and an Englishman to be friends?” With the innumerable differences in their ways of life and thinking, and the colonial institution in the backdrop, Dr. Aziz and Cyril Fielding navigate their unusual friendship with the same question in their minds. In spite of many differences in their beliefs and characters, the two men succeed in creating a unique friendship, but the atmosphere of animosity between their races is persistent, and continues to threaten their friendship.

Be it Dr. Aziz’s friendship with Fielding, his troubling encounter with Miss Quested or Adela’s inability to find “India ”, the cultural gap portrayed is profound. On the other hand, the physical and social divide in the city of Chandrapore, where British colonizers inhabit a separate “civil lines” area while native Indians reside in the “bazaar,” is a representation of the imperial subjugation of the natives by the British. The subsequent trial of Dr. Aziz, marked by racial tensions, highlights the systemic bias and injustices within the colonial legal system.

Forster’s novel, through a third person omniscient narrator, presents a multifaceted portrayal of both British and Indian characters, highlighting the flaws and merits of individuals on both sides of the colonial divide. This allows readers to see the humanity and complexity of the characters, rather than reducing them to mere representatives of their respective cultures or biases.

But something in the story feels amiss. Though Forster is unusually perceptive, he doesn’t explore the dynamics of the actual subjugation, the relation between the colonizers and the colonized with as much transparency. He condones the attitudes, the moral decay of the British within the system, but never the structure of imperialism itself.

British imperialism, under the guise of the East India company in India, exploited the Indians economically, especially the lower, unlettered classes, which unlike the educated and middle classes do not find a mention in the novel. Imperialism and its ravages were entrenched in every layer of the Indian society, but Passage to India only manages to talk about one certain class of individuals. Their [the Empire’s] policies and taxes were cruel and inhumane, and they showed an utter disregard for Indian lives and cultures. The western world and most of Britain especially is built upon the backs of colonial labor.

Derek S. Savage, a Marxist critic, criticized Forster for completely overlooking this crucial element that would have contextualized the situation and the tension he seeks to create. Savage argued, “The ugly realities underlying the presence of the British in India are not even glanced at, and the issues raised are handled as though they could be solved on the surface level of personal intercourse and individual behavior.”

Credits: Moneycontrol

Hunt Hawkwins, another critic points out that, “With the exception of the punkah wallah, we never see an Indian performing physical labor. Thus we have little sense of why the English are in India in the first place. The importance of recognizing economic exploitation is that it puts the issue of friendship in perspective. There are much larger, if less personal, reasons for opposing imperialism.”

Fielding, often compared to Forster himself, is a strong voice throughout the novel as he distances himself from the British establishment. However, after he leaves India, he marries and becomes associated with the government, his perspective on the Empire changes as well.

He declares that he has “no further use for politeness,” emphasizing that the British Empire cannot be done away with because doing so would be impolite. Fielding’s stance was not wavering from the beginning, but he underwent a change of perspective as a result of his new position in the imperial structure. He also began to believe that the Empire was indispensable because the Indians needed them. For Forster to make a character like Fielding, recognized for his disillusionment with the Empire, change and justify the necessity of the British Empire, raises questions about Forster’s own perspective. It prompts reflection over whether Fielding mirrors Forster’s own eventual realization of the indispensability of the Empire, regardless of his goodwill.

Mukaram Shakeel is a student pursuing English Hons. from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Gunjit Verma

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Written by Mukaram Shakeel

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