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Book Review: EM Forster – A Passage to India

Today EM Forster’s classic may seem quaint and even naive when compared with more contemporary tomes such as Mistry’s “A Fine Balance”, Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” or even Smith’s “White Teeth”, but I couldn’t help but be impressed with the timelessness of his considered prose and insightful dialog. Earnestly striving for fairness and balance, Forster’s tale of intrigue, despair and hope, shrouded in the deep cultural misunderstandings endemic to the subcontinent, still resonates with its echoes of race and class. A Passage to India begins and ends by posing the question of whether it is possible for an Englishman and an Indian to ever be friends, at least within the context of British colonialism. Modeling the two main characters, Fielding and Aziz, loosely on himself and his longtime friend, Syed Masood, Foster builds to a slow burn a tale of misunderstanding, misdeed and misfortune, turning on an unresolved incident leading to the accusation of rape and eventual vindication of Aziz, but not before irreparably damaging the relationship between himself and Fielding. Clearly troubled by the deep cultural misunderstandings that divide the Indian people and the British colonists (called Anglo-Indians in the novel), Foster strives to reject the prevailing attitude among the British that the colonists were assuming the “white man’s burden”; governing the country because the Indians could not handle the responsibility themselves. This is perhaps best illustrated in the final sentence of the novel, when asked by a contrite Fielding whether Aziz could ever be his friend again, “but the sky and the earth seem to say No, not yet. . . No, not there.” Forster’s final vision of the possibility of English-Indian friendship is a pessimistic one, yet it is qualified by the possibility of friendship on English soil, or after the liberation of India. In today’s world, where Indian companies own legendary British marques such as Land Rover and Jaguar and India is Britain’s biggest manufacturing partner, Foster’s prediction turns out to be truer than he could have ever imagined.

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