The mystery and muddle of A Passage to India

Kate Symondson explores the tensions and dualities at the heart of A Passage to India and the challenges E M Forster faced in writing the novel.

In A Passage to India, India looms as unfathomable, undefinable, or, to use E. M. Forster’s expression: a mystery and a muddle. On his first visit to the country in 1912, Forster’s experience of the ancient city of Ujjain fed his blurry impression of India. Here, he found that:

There was no place for anything, and nothing was in its place. There was no time either. […] One confusion enveloped Ujjain and all things. Why differentiate? I asked the driver what kind of trees those were, and he answered ‘Trees’; what was the name of that bird, and he said ‘Bird’; and the plain, interminable, murmured, ‘Old buildings are buildings, ruins are ruins’.

The India of Forster’s 1924 novel spills beyond all order, all comprehension, and the mystery and muddle that characterises what he depicts as an essentially unknowable country leaves the reader of the story with many unanswered questions, and an overwhelming sense of irresolution. I P Fassett, a critic for The Criterion (a modernist magazine), complained that the novel was ‘all very vague’. Living until 1970, Forster was plagued by readers for decades with the question: ‘what happened in the Marabar Caves?’ His definitive and immovable response? ‘I don’t know’, he would simply – frustratingly – say. Even the incident at the heart of the novel’s plot, therefore, was, like India, maintained as a mystery. In a letter to his friend and fellow author, William Plomer, he connects the plot’s mystery with India’s: ‘I tried to show that India is an unexplainable muddle by introducing an unexplainable muddle – Miss Quested’s experience in the cave.’ In his refusal to give away anything beyond what is contained in A Passage to India, more than ever, it is up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

The Hill of Devi by E M Forster

The Hill of Devi by E M Forster

Photograph of E M Forster in India, pictured with Tukojirao III (the Maharajah of Dewas), Malarao Sahib, a horse doctor, and Deolekr Sahib. Forster served as secretary to the Maharajah.

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‘The sense of racial tension, of incompatibility, never left me’

Writing Passage was not easy. Forster began the novel after his 1912 trip, but didn’t finish it until 1924, following a second trip to the country in 1921. His writing first faltered around 1913. At that time, he wrote to his friend Forrest Reid complaining that ‘The only book I have in my head is too like Howards End to interest me’. ‘I want something’, he said, ‘beyond the field of action and behaviour […] India is full of such wonders, but she can’t give them to me’. India proved too elusive, and, as his memories faded he withdrew into another project: writing the book that was to eventually become Maurice. Though his Indian novel wasn’t yet to be, Maurice did cater to his urge to write something unlike his previous four novels, allowing him to move away from the quaint conventionality and polite restraint of quintessential Englishness. As he pushed beyond the boundaries of Edwardian romance in his gay novel, Forster sought images and a language that also went beyond the bounds of the familiar. India, he felt, demanded the same.

Fragments of a draft for A Passage to India

Fragments of a draft for A Passage to India

Some of the surviving fragments of E M Forster’s manuscript draft of A Passage to India, c. 1913–24.

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After spending time as secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas, Forster returned (though somewhat unhopefully) to his Indian novel. A lot had changed in the decade or so since he’d last worked on it – in India, in England, in the world. The First World War had, of course, had a tremendous impact, and politically, culturally, socially, Anglo-India had significantly, irrevocably changed. In 1919, Colonel Dyer ordered his British Indian army troops to open fire on a crowd of nonviolent protesters who had gathered for a Sikh festival in north-west India. Over a thousand died in the ten minute ceaseless fire, in what became known as the Amritsar Massacre. Forster had already considered himself anti-imperial, but following this, was deeply, vehemently so. With 70 or so pages of the book written before these events and this time-lapse, he faced a chronological issue. His solution was to write the novel ’out of time’. He makes no reference to dates or the ferment of contemporary politics, and it is difficult to say with any certainty whether it is post- or pre- war. The tone of the book had certainly changed however, as he wrote in 1922 to Syed Ross Masood (to whom he dedicated the novel), ‘when I began the book I thought of it as a little bridge of sympathy between east and west, but this conception has had to go, my sense of truth forbids anything so comfortable’. Like Howards End, this is a novel that hopes for connection, but, just as the India of the novel is depicted, the call for connection is ‘not a promise, only an appeal’.

A Passage to India

A Passage to India

E M Forster’s dedication to Syed Ross Masood in the first edition of A Passage to India (1924).

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The Twilight of the Double Vision

As with so much of Forster’s fiction, A Passage to India is unsettled by binary tensions. The central question of the novel – whether an Englishman and an Indian can ever be friends – is played out in the drama of converging and diverging opposites. In his other novels, the solid, ordered world of ‘telegrams and anger’, ‘pickpockets and trams’ is troubled by a sense of the unseen, the metaphysical. In Passage, Forster works his philosophical and aesthetic preoccupation with dualism to its climax.

Writing of the condition of modernity, Forster complained that ‘the heavens and the earth have become terribly alike since Einstein’. In Passage, there is a sense that he is working to restore that double vision of the earthly and heavenly, the solid and the nebulous. The tripartite structure, repeated images – the wasp, ‘mosque, cave, mosque, cave’ – and atmospheric, metaphysical language imbue the novel with a rhythmic, musical quality, suggesting ‘something more’ than can usually be seen or said. Mrs Moore seems to see through the visible, material world to some inexpressible, transcendental beyond. After experiencing the Marabar caves,

She had come to that state where the horror of the universe and its smallness are both visible at the same time – the twilight of the double vision [where…] a spiritual muddledom is set up for which no high-sounding words can be found.

The echo has an extraordinary nullifying effect. It trivialises the systems and structures that order and reassure, and, in the senseless pervasive reverberation of the ‘ou-boum’, articulation fails, and certainties fall into fathomless abyss. In Howards End, the merging of ‘the prose and the passion’, the material and metaphysical realise Forster’s hope for connection. In Passage, however, the unseen forces trouble and thwart resolution. In answer to the question of whether and Englishman and an Indian can be friends, India replies – in her hundred, undefined voices – ‘No, not there,’ ‘not yet’.

The problem with Passage

A Passage to India sold incredibly well: 30,000 copies in the first month in America. Given its vast readership and controversial subject, it comes as little surprise that there is no shortage of negative responses to his handling of the ‘India problem’. Despite his calculated lack of temporal situation, Anglo-Indians and Indians picked on certain details as factually implausible – Aziz’s arrest, for instance – and certain attitudes as out-dated. His depiction of the Anglo-Indians was the most lambasted aspect of this book, and, as one serviceman of 30 years put it, it was felt that he had ‘treated English officials very unfairly’. Ignoring many of these objections, Forster did engage with the latter concern, acquiescing that: ‘I have only been to the country twice (year and a half in all), and only been acquainted with Indians for eighteen years’. Yet, he continues , ‘I believe that I have seen certain important truths that have been hidden from you despite your thirty years service […] several times in your letters when you lay down that certain things can’t happen I am reminded from experiences that they can’. And, replying to another critique of the same ilk he states bluntly: ‘I don’t like Anglo-Indians as a class. […] How can I ever like them when I happen to like the Indians and they don’t?’

The book has weathered this type of criticism. The more significant and persistent issue, however, is levied by post-colonial readings of the novel, and their response, in particular, to the mystery and muddle of Forster’s India. Edward Said reads Passage through the lens of his seminal theory of orientalism. In the novel, the narrator asks ‘how can the mind take hold of such a country?’ For Said, Forster’s depiction of India as ‘unapprehendable’ is an act of evasion rather than understanding; he exoticises and mystifies the nation, rather than engaging and elucidating.

There is weight to this criticism, and it is important not to skate past the discomfiture that a post-colonial reading prompts. But it is also important that this not be the only lens through which we read this complex novel. We risk missing, warping, obscuring so much if we do so. Said finds that ‘Forster’s India is so affectionately personal and remorselessly metaphysical that his view of India as a nation contending for sovereignty with Britain is not politically very serious, or even respectful’. But this is not the only way of reading the binary of the ‘personal’ and the ‘metaphysical’, and reading Forster’s dualism in this singular way perhaps fails to engage with his philosophical concerns and aesthetic innovation.

  • Kate Symondson
  • Kate Symondson has a PhD from King's College London, written on the subject of abstraction in the literature of Joseph Conrad, E M Forster and Virginia Woolf. She is currently working on writers' and painters' use of abstraction to depict the unspeakble tragedy of the First World War, focusing on figures such as David Jones, Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson, and Ford Madox Ford. She also writes freelance academic pieces for publications such as The Times Literary Supplement and The Conversation, as well as managing content for the Shakespeare 400 Archive website, and creating the programme for the King's College London Arts and Humanities Festival.

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