Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What ‘decolonisation’ means: E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India

With all the talk about “decolonising” university curricula (see, which has again cropped up among the demands of the protesting students, I thought it might be productive to remind students and academic staff alike of one of the most eloquent – in fact, together with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, exemplary – critical literary explorations of colonialism, and of the question, what “decolonisation” would entail. I am thinking of E.M. Forster’s classic, A Passage to India, which was also made into a classic film by David Lean.

If you don’t have access to the novel (which may be downloaded free, by the way), do yourself a favour and watch the cinematic version, which is a stirring visual evocation of India under British rule, centred around the drama of a young Indian doctor (Dr Aziz) being accused of having attempted to rape a British woman (Adela Quested), who is visiting her probable future husband (Ronny Heaslop) – who happens to be the city magistrate in the colonial city of Chandrapore – with his mother, Mrs Moore. As is usually the case with film-adaptations of novels, there are passages in the novel which do not have their counterparts in the film, and vice versa, but by and large the essential element – relevant to the question of (de-) colonisation – is preserved in the film, namely, what one has to do to “find” or understand “India” (that is, any country colonised by a foreign power).

The narrative is easily summarised, but to be able to appreciate Forster’s literary and psychological genius one has to read the novel. Nevertheless, David Lean managed splendidly – by means of his discerning direction and the talents of outstanding actors – to convey the atmosphere and the psychological nuances captured in literary terms by Forster. The reason for my saying that it is a novel (and film) which students and academic staff (including “management”) would benefit from reading (viewing) – and reflecting upon, of course – has to do with the manner in which the unfolding narrative constitutes a multi-faceted answer to the title of the novel/film, “A Passage to India”, if the latter is understood as a question: What does a “passage to India” amount to? Applied to each of the main characters, this question, which comprises an interrogatory grid of sorts, yields interestingly divergent answers.

Briefly, Miss Quested and Mrs Moore are on a visit to the city of Chandrapore (a “city of gardens”) in India, more particularly to see Mrs Moore’s son Ronny, the magistrate, who also happens to be (potentially) Adela Quested’s prospective husband. The nature of colonialism is insightfully conveyed in many ways by both the novel and the corresponding film – in different registers, of course, one being a literary and the other an audio-visual medium – for example when, in the novel, a group of Indian friends discuss whether or not “it is possible to be friends with an Englishman”, and in the film, where Dr Aziz and a colleague, on their bicycles, are roughly forced out of the way of a car carrying the British Viceroy and his wife, and yet do not show noticeable (and justifiable) exasperation in the face of their rude treatment.

Mrs Moore and Dr Aziz inadvertently meet in a mosque where he is enjoying the peaceful surroundings, and she is seeking to escape the stuffiness of the Club. They are taken with each other – she, because she judges people intuitively and without the usual “colonial” prejudice, he – because she comes across as being the first sympathetic English lady he has met, who understands his dissatisfaction about the condescending way he is treated by the British. He even gives her the compliment of telling her that she is “Oriental”. Miss Quested (as well as Mrs Moore) is interested in discovering the “real” India – much to the incomprehension and dismay of the other British (including Ronny Heaslop), who hold only contempt for Indians, thinking the “natives” are below them, and that India is a “benighted country”.

Adela is particularly interested in the famous, if not notorious, Marabar caves about 20 miles from the city (about which Professor Godbole, an Indian philosopher, is strangely and portentously evasive), and as things turn out she and Mrs Moore are invited to go on a picnic to the caves (because Aziz is too ashamed of his humble bungalow to invite them there). On the day of the picnic Mrs Moore, after an unpleasant experience in the first cave, decides not to accompany Adela, Dr Aziz and a guide to the big “pocket of caves” of the Kawa Dol because it involves climbing. In the course of a conversation about love – Adela having realised with a shock that she does not love Ronny, although they have just got engaged – Aziz is discomfited by her questions and “escapes” into a cave to have a cigarette. Not seeing Aziz, Adela also enters one of the caves, and when Aziz emerges she is nowhere to be seen, although the guide tells him that she went into a cave.

It turns out that “something” happened in the cave, and Adela fled from it “in a state” to the bottom of the hill, coincidentally arriving there when a British woman was dropping Mr Fielding, a schoolteacher who had missed the train that morning. Little knowing that a catastrophe is in the process of occurring, Aziz and Fielding – who are friends, unlikely as it may seem for a Brit and an Indian to be friends – joke with each other, but on their return by train to Chandrapore, to his consternation Dr Aziz is arrested by the inspector of police, on suspicion of the attempted rape of Miss Quested. To cut a long story short, although Dr Aziz is implicated by a deposition signed by Miss Quested, in the course of the court case – where Ronny recuses himself to allow his deputy (an Indian magistrate) to preside over proceedings – something totally unexpected happens.

For most of the British, who regard the proceedings as a mere formality preceding the foregone conclusion of Aziz’s (feverishly desired) conviction – an expectation shared by hundreds of Indians, mostly outside the courthouse, but for different reasons, and anticipated with feelings of righteous indignation – it comes as an incomprehensible shock, therefore, when Miss Quested, under interrogation by Mr McBryde, hesitates when he asks her whether Dr Aziz followed her into the cave, and then, more firmly, replies that he did not. When she finally insists that she is withdrawing all charges, and the presiding magistrate declares Dr Aziz fee to go, pandemonium erupts. The British are outraged and the Indians overjoyed, and in that moment one understands what it means to be colonised, and to score an unlikely victory against the coloniser. This is brilliantly executed in the novel, and David Lean does justice to it in the film.

Regarding the question, which of the principal characters manage to make the “passage to India”, that is, to discover India, the answer is complex. Dr Aziz, an Indian, who was under the spell of British power to begin with, despite his occasional grumblings about their treatment of him, is lionised by the crowd after his acquittal, and gains new self-confidence as an Indian. He opens his own clinic away from Chandrapore, and makes the “passage to (rediscovering) India” most successfully – that is, he resists the domination by the British successfully. Cyril Fielding and Mrs Moore, who, of all the British, see Dr Aziz as a true friend, may be said to make this passage to the extent that foreigners can do so, while Miss Quested does not.

Nevertheless, the novel (and film) ends with Dr Aziz finally writing her a letter to acknowledge that her courage, to speak the truth, was what gave him his freedom. Right at the end of the novel there is a passage where Dr Aziz and Mr Fielding – having married Mrs Moore’s daughter – go horse-riding together, and in their agonistic conversation it becomes clear that although they are friends, they would only truly be able to acknowledge this friendship when India is free from British rule. The truth about decolonisation: it is NOT to return to some mythical state that supposedly existed before the arrival of the colonising settlers; it is to reclaim your own independence, to refuse the domination of the colonising power. The question therefore arises: What is the colonising power that one should refuse today?

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