A Passage to India: an underrated classic

Although it was popular at the end of the nineteenth century among commentators such as Wilde to claim that art is always more abstract than it seems, Forster, writing some twenty years afterwards, follows the very grumblings and twitches of his heart throughout his writing, seeking always to represent his personal struggles within his deftly woven narrative.
To outline A Passage to India briefly; protagonists Aziz and Fielding are prevented from friendship because Fielding is one of the Englishmen occupying India and Aziz is a colonised Indian. In spite of Fielding’s efforts, they are torn apart by the weight of the differences between the two cultures. Forster ’s point seems to be that the English and the Indians are not just too different to compare, but are so to the extent that the attempt to merge the two cultures by the English in colonising the country results only in the two national identities and traditions sliding past each other like tectonic plates, mixing and mingling with each other, but always crucially separate. Its tone of loss heightens its pathos: Forster states that the world is a “world of men who are trying to reach out to one another”,  and yet this is lost in colonised India because our national identities mean we cannot become, or realise a different culture. The end of the book illustrates this tragic separation, a separation which is also personal; Aziz and Fielding are thrown apart finally, in a demonstration of the world that does not accept Forster ’s homosexuality: “the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House… they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices: No, not yet… No, not there.” It seems as though Forster hopes that there might be a day when his sexuality is accepted, and when the likes of Fielding and Aziz can be friends. Indeed this tragic separation really does shed a light on the question of colony that even pervades in the present, rendering the novel not only a classic but something that we can relate to this day.
If you need further encouragement to give A Passage to India a try, the novel was selected as one of the 100 great works of 20th century English literature by the Modern Library and was included in Time magazine’s “100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to 2005”. It also won the 1924 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.


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