passage-to-indiaThe book for September was E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

But wait! Before you click away from this blog post, you need to know that this English writer was a man ahead of his time. As evidenced by our book, Forster was advocating a form of civil rights and condemning racism, imperialism, and exploitation of England’s subjugated races decades before any of us were even born, much less speaking out against social inequality ourselves. Our book is an early exposure of particularly British sins in their treatment of the Indian state over which they ruled. Champions of racial equality today should associate Forster’s name with those who broke from the majority in the early 20th century to become advocates of social justice.

Those who have read the book (or at least seen the 1984 film adaptation) will remember the central conflict in which Doctor Aziz agrees to take the young Adela Quested and the elderly Mrs. Moore on a tour of the Marabar caves. In an enigmatic turn, Miss Quested, momentarily alone in one cave, imagines herself to have been molested by Dr. Aziz, who at the time was musing to himself outside the caves. Adela flees the cave and gets a ride back to the English dwellings, and later accuses Aziz of the barbaric attack.

A trial ensues during which tensions between British and Indian natives seeth to a boiling point. On the stand, after weeks of build up and imprisonment of Dr. Aziz (on nothing but Adela’s testimony), Adela admits to her own shame that Dr. Aziz is innocent. But it doesn’t matter. forster1British are convinced that her exoneration of Aziz is due to mental frailty and that Aziz is guilty even without Adela’s testimony. The Indian people are enraged at the injustice and ill-treatment by their subjugators and riots ensue. History tells us that it would not be too many more years until the expulsion of the British Raj and independence of India and Pakistan.

Mention was made of Forster’s skill in setting up the action and fallout at the Marabar Cave. Events led naturally to the set up of a dangerous situation for Aziz. Contrary to all propriety, he and Adela are left alone to explore the caves through a series of unplanned miscues: a missed train, the headache Mrs. Moore suffered following the strange ringing of echoes in the first cave they entered. Adele’s fiance’, Ronny Heaslop, the magistrate in the local province, is especially confounded by the event which works to the worsening of the situation for Aziz.

We noted the irony in the decline of Mrs. Moore who, after the incident at the caves and the ear-ringing echoes, becomes depressed and deeply cynical about life. Though she is seen as the friend of the Indian people and champion of their cause, a goddess whose name is chanted with fervor, she leaves the country before the trial and dies on the voyage home.

The most poignant observation of the evening was to note the ways in which the racial bias and malice between the British and Indians so closely parallels racial tension in the United States. Our history is fraught with stories in which a black man is falsely accused and lynched upon even the suspicion of offense toward a white woman. The automatic suspicion of guilt, the malicious treatment by white law enforcement, the cursory deliberation of juries and judges is all too familiar in the United States. A sympathetic reading of A Passage to India would be good medicine to a many in our country with racial bias—a chance to recognize his own offenses dressed in the guise of other peoples and lands.

forster2Finally, it was interesting to note the friendly toleration between Muslims and Hindus living in the same proximity with each other at the period of the book. It was a poignant aspect to the reader who is aware of the coming murderous conflict to ensue between the two groups 40 years later, another subtle message from the author about the fickleness of human nature.

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