“A Passage to India” on Its 100th Birthday

Sameer Pandya at the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB):

THIS YEAR marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I’ve never loved the novel, nor have I been able to let go of it. And so I started reading it again as I began a passage of my own to India—where I lived until I was eight—with my wife and our two teenage sons.

Across his work, but particularly in Passage, Forster uses miscommunication, or what he calls “muddles,” as a productive source of narrative tension and propulsion. “Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.” The opening line sets up the location of the novel’s primary action in a cave that produces only an echo—the absence of real communication.

A young Englishwoman named Adela Quested arrives in British India with Mrs. Moore, her prospective mother-in-law, so that Adela can determine if she and Mrs. Moore’s son, Ronny, are the right match.

Adela quickly notices the clear divide between the colonists and their native subjects and desires to see “the real India.” Hearing of her interest, an Indian Muslim doctor named Aziz agrees to take Adela, Mrs. Moore, and Cyril Fielding, the principal of a local government college, on a day trip to visit the Marabar Caves.

Trouble ensues when Adela enters one of the caves and rushes out, accusing Aziz of having made “insulting advances” in the darkness. Fielding refuses to believe Aziz would do such a thing, and as the accusation widens the gulf between the British and Indians, he stays on Aziz’s side. During the trial, Adela finally admits that she’d made a false accusation, leaving Aziz angry at everyone around him, except Mrs. Moore, who at this point has left India to make her way back to England. She dies as she crosses the Suez Canal, in the approximate spot between East and West.

For much of 2023, as we planned our trip, I was mired in a bureaucratic muddle of my own that made it unclear if I would be able to go to India at all. In order for me to get an Indian visa, I had to officially renounce my Indian citizenship, which I had essentially done 30 years ago when I became a United States citizen. For a trip that turned out to be full of easy metaphors, having to officially renounce my Indian citizenship in order to revisit my Indian childhood seemed too on the nose.

I read Passage for the first time when I was in graduate school in the mid-1990s. And here I want to distinguish the verb to read between the private act—in which one sits simultaneously in discomfort and enthrallment with how an author creates character and tells a story, all in the comfort of one’s head—and the public act—in my case, reading as a chore I did in graduate seminars, for my doctoral exams, for essays I wanted to publish to enter the profession of literary and cultural criticism.

The novel struck me then as a book that articulated British anxiety about its declining empire. Forster seemed to be examining it critically by using Adela’s accusation of rape to consider the impossibility of communicating across racial difference and, more broadly, to question the legitimacy of the British colonial enterprise.

At the same time, Forster had also created in Aziz an Indian character I absolutely hated. My reaction may have had less to do with the character that Forster had produced on the page and more to do with Victor Banerjee, the Indian actor who played Aziz as a pathetic sniveler in David Lean’s early-1980s film adaptation. How would I understand Aziz now? What would I make of the homoeroticism of Aziz’s friendship with the schoolmaster (and perhaps Forster stand-in) Fielding? What of Adela’s desire to see the “real India” and Mrs. Moore’s ability to bridge East and West? And what about that cave and its unique echo? “Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. ‘Boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it.”

Reading it this time as a private act, I settled into the book as we made our way across the Pacific, through Singapore, on to Bombay—now named Mumbai—late one December night, several days before Christmas. After all these years, was it time to let the novel and the place go?

The driver that the hotel had sent to pick us up didn’t say anything until we passed an enormous house overlooking the Arabian Sea. I was sitting in the front seat, but it was my white wife he addressed in the back: “Madam, this is the house the richest man in India gifted to his daughter.” Mukesh Ambani had built his own 27-story home a few miles away, on the site of a 19th-century orphanage.

The next morning, our first stop on what my sons called “the tour of dad’s childhood” was the Waterloo Mansion, an Indo-Gothic style apartment building in the Colaba neighborhood. Though she has never been much of a sentimental storyteller, my mother always had plenty of details about growing up in the second-floor apartment in the 1940s and ’50s: the religiously and racially mixed upper-middle-class residents, the great height of the apartment’s ceilings, the art deco Regal Cinema across the street where she would go see movies on Sunday afternoons.

But now, as we tried to locate the window, we saw that the building was in absolute shambles. On the ground floor was the Dave Brothers photo studio, which my maternal grandfather ran from the 1930s to 1958. Now, the current owner, the nephew of the man who bought the shop from my grandfather, runs a very light business in visa and passport photos and a makeshift art gallery. On the street outside the building’s entrance, a vendor runs a brisk business selling knockoff NBA jerseys. From there, we visited the modern apartment building I lived in as a child; it was completely shut down, for residents and visitors alike, because it was being gut renovated. And nearby, my old school, aptly named New Era, had closed and was now in complete disrepair.

While the new Mumbai was being constructed all around us, the primary places of my family’s Bombay childhood had finished with their old lives. Their new lives were yet to be born.

Forster traveled to India for the first time in 1912 and a second time in 1921. Years later, he wrote about starting the novel before his second visit and taking the pages with him: “But as soon as they were confronted with the country they purported to describe, they seemed to wilt and go dead and I could do nothing with them.”

When we arrived at the Victoria Terminus train station, the late afternoon light made the building—a 19th-century Gothic edifice that was designed for deep English winters, built in the middle of humid Bombay—glow orange. VT happens to be the main location of a novel that I have tried and failed to write over the last 20 years, and as we stepped in, I thought about Forster’s description of Fielding arriving at VT: “This Mr. Fielding had been caught by India late. He was over forty when he entered the oddest portal, the Victoria Terminus at Bombay, and—having bribed a European ticket inspector—took his luggage into the compartment of his first tropical train.”

When it was completed in 1888, the heavy footprint of the station was certainly a signal by the colonial power that they had no plans of going anywhere. By the time Fielding took that tropical train, Gandhi and a broader nationalist movement had arrived on the political scene, and there was already talk of a postcolonial India. Upon publication in 1924, the novel sold incredibly well in Britain and the United States. Perhaps the readers wanted the news of what was happening in Britain’s jewel colony.

More here.

The author of this article, Sameer Pandya is the author of the novel Members Only, a finalist for the California Book Award and an NPR “Book We Love” of 2020, and the story collection The Blind Writer (2015), long-listed for the PEN/Open Book Award. His forthcoming novel will be published in 2025 by Ballantine/Random House in the United States and Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom. His cultural criticism has appeared in a range of publications, including The Atlantic, Salon, Sports Illustrated,andESPN. He is an associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.