A Passage to India: An Exploration of Human Relationships
by Rakesh Rampertab

As a product of a modern empire that exercised and enjoyed dominion over more than half of the world’s land masses, it seem almost inevitable that E. M. Forster be attracted to a humanistic philosophy, and exceedingly appropriate that he did become one of humanism’s most notable spokesperson. An enormously brilliant and eclectic literary figure, he is also a product of Edwardian England, and an inheritor of many nineteenth-century intellectual traditions. A complex man, his Passage to India is an equally elaborate work of literature dealing with an intimate issue of life, namely, the essence of man’s humanism as best exemplified in his relationships, or as Forster himself said, “something wider than politics,” is a central theme of his 1924 book set in British India.

It can be argued that his influenced is two-fold; first, there is the discipline and pious aspects of the Clapham sect, an evangelical group in England associated with strict moral conduct and the drive to end slavery (although they did not protest the rise of industrialization in England from which they, as entrepreneurs, profited heavily). Secondly, there is Forster’s days spent in Cambridge where he became influenced by not only the Romantics, but was deeply attracted to some of the prophets of Victorianism who wrote strongly against what they saw as man’s inhumanity towards man. John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold are names that spring immediately to mind. And although Forster is not the only writer to pick up where the Victorian left off on humanism, his case is quite exceptional.

Such is the case not because his Passage brought East and West, imperial ruler and colonized, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, the physical and the metaphysical, male and female, superstition and reality, various classes and castes, and nature and man all in one circle of life. Rather, it is because Forster, unlike his predecessors who examined this issue of humanism, continues to speak to us today as we prepare to enter a new century and millennium, offering modern man a way out of the industrial complexity that engulfs his natural environment still. This, his personal philosophy, is the only part that remain of “the fag end” of Victorian liberalism to which he claimed to have belong; “It practiced benevolence and philanthropy, was humane and intellectually curious...” (see “The Second Darkness,” Two Cheers for Democracy. New York, 1951, p.56). Nowhere do we find his voice and humanism more prominent than in A Passage to India, in which human relationships are pushed to their very limits, breaking boundaries of numerous kinds in the process, and attempting to establish a connection between all things and peoples, and all peoples and the universe in which they dwell.

One can trace this humanistic theme and need for connection back to Forster’s book most previous to his celebrated Passage, or Howards End, written some fourteen years before. We find in his intellectual and idealistic Margaret Schlegel, a memorable attempt to address the dilemmas that arrive when people try to achieve successful personal relationships, this time in a very westernized and economically-influenced class-conscious England. The epigraph of the book’s title page which reads “ONLY CONNECT” is a deliberate indication of Forster’s message. But as in Passage, human relationships are the most difficult of social activities, in which all customs of culture, class, race, and religion must play their parts, often leading to misunderstandings, confusion, and fracture affiliations. The very use and importance of personal relationships become subjects for questioning. A small but functional example is when Leonard Bast, who is of the same economic class as the Schlegels, arrives at the Schlegels’ home to retrieve his umbrella that Helen mistakenly took before leaving a concert hall, saying; “To trust people is a luxury in which only the wealthy man can indulge; the poor cannot afford it” (p.37).

The complications arrive as Forster tells us, with Leonard’s own pride; “He knew that he was poor, and would admit it,” but that he would have “died sooner than confess to any inferiority to the rich...” (p.48). And sometime it is not personal discourse that sustain a relationship, but something more abstract like the past, or perhaps nature, as in the case of Margaret and Helen, who are reconciled through the rural sanctity found at Howards End, the property; “Explanations and appeals had failed; they had tried for a common meeting-ground, and had only made each other unhappy. And all the time their salvation was lying around them--the past sanctified the present; the present...declaring that there would after all be a future.” What we found was that an agent of reconciliation can also be an appendage to friendship and unity, and like the punkah wallah at the trial of Aziz, and Godbole, a professor, though they were both Hindus (punkah wallahs generally come from very low Hindu castes), each was associated with human relations that differed according to their religious and social status. The investigation in human relations that started in Howards End both intensified and magnified in A Passage to India.

A Passage to India is, essentially, a novel about how humans interact and how they manage their affiliations when these become affected by various external factors in life, or society. Since a single essay cannot do justice to the intricacies of each main character’s relations, I will concentrate on Cyril Fielding, who is the most Fosterean of all the characters, treating the others in reference to him, in light of their relationships in the narrative. Because Aziz is the primary well-developed and fully-realized character who is most central to the plot, much of Fielding’s humanistic qualities and actions will be treated in regards to the principal’s close relationship with Indian doctor.

It seem appropriate to study Cyril Fielding, the English principal of a government school in Chandrapore, who, as an agnostic like Forster, is also an intelligent, honest, amiable, and rational man who best exhibits the fundamental qualities of humanism. A man who has had a varied life and career before setting foot in India, he “was not unpatriotic” to England, but “found a gulf between himself and his countrymen,” because they could not regard Indians as a people on equal terms with the English, nor perceive the world the way he did; “...a globe of men who are trying to reach one another and can best do so by the help of goodwill plus culture and intelligence...(p.53) Though a member of the club opened to Anglo-Indians only, which he frequently visit to play tennis, Fielding is more attached to Indians, Professor Godbole and Aziz. His relationship with Aziz in some respect is surpassed only by Aziz’s intense friendship with Mrs. Moore.

Fielding is the single direct contact between the subjects of the trial, and alone, he had more to do with their resolving the matter and getting on with their lives, than even Mrs. Moore, whose name had a tremendous liberating affect on Miss Quested while she still heard “echoes” of the cave, and Aziz, long after he had started a new life in the Indian state of Mau. Additionally, he is the only character throughout the novel that fluctuates between both the Indian and the English communities. It is his humanism that makes him the most visible character in A Passage to India. “No Englishman understands us except Mr. Fielding” (p.87), a sick Aziz says, when the principal visits Aziz in his squalid home. For the victory celebration sponsored by Nawan Bahadur after the trial, he is seen “dressed up in native clothing,” and was keen on helping to offset the cost of the expensive picnic Aziz arranged for Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested, even though he arrived late and only spent a few minutes at the Marabar site. For the humility shown in visiting the sick doctor at home, Aziz showed him his most prized possession, the picture of his dead wife; “I show her to you because I have nothing else to show” (p.102). The picture had united them, Indian and English, as “friends, brothers.” But no friendship can be sealed merely by a photograph if it is to sustain the assault of time. It had to be sanctified by some test, and it is during the trial, and after also, that Fielding’s humility, noble principles, and determination towards justice are revealed.

He refuses to “toe the line” of the Anglo-Indian community that believed Aziz to have attempted to rape Miss Quested inside a Marabar Cave. Self-contained, he endures the scourges of the club members, including being called a “swine” as he stated his belief in Aziz’s innocence; “If he [Aziz] is guilty I resign from my service, and leave India. I resign from the club now” (p.170). Staking his career in an effort to prove a man’s innocence, even if that man be a colonized subject was for Fielding, still a small price to pay. Having met Aziz only once before the picnic, but having heard about his credibility, Fielding challenged his own community in every regard possible in favor of his Indian friend, because he recognized an “individual”; “I believe in teaching people to be individuals, and to understand other individuals. It’s the only thing I do believe in” (p.106).

Regardless of their bond, situations and critical moments thrown up by the trial sometimes separate the two. At both times when Aziz was arrested and when he left the courtroom victorious, he pleaded for Fielding’s support and companionship, but experienced his sorrow and happiness almost alone. Other social realities stepped in; “And before they could make their way through the chaos Fielding was called off by the authoritative tones of Mr. Turton, and Aziz went on to prison alone” (p.145) After the trial, the “shattered voice” of Aziz could be heard, “Cyril, Cyril, don’t leave me”(p.210). It was a strange plea because Aziz at this point is a free man, an Indian engulfed by his Indian supporters, yet his appeal reflected a man broken at heart, in faith, and in self-confidence. It was a plea that would never be answered in full by Fielding.

Being a man who “had a natural sympathy for the down-trodden,” he rallied behind the other victim of the trial, Miss Quested, not out of the fact that she was English, but because she was suddenly isolated from everyone, both Indian and English, and therefore hers was a greater need than Aziz’s. He allowed the humiliated young woman to stay at his home in the school yard, eating and sleeping at Hamidullah’s home, and successfully pleaded with an intensely enraged Aziz to drop his charge of twenty thousand rupees brought against Miss Quested. Theirs were not merely discussions anymore, but statements made before each other that questioned each other’s deepest sense of what is right and what is wrong, and in the process, hurt each other personally for the first time, though to the point where their hurt could be redressed.

To Fielding’s demand that he be fair towards Miss Quested for the courage she displayed in telling the truth, Aziz remarked, “If you are right then there is no point in friendship; it all comes down to give and take, or give and return, which is disgusting, and we better all leap over this parapet and kill ourselves. Is anything wrong with you this evening that you grow so materialistic?”(p.230). Fielding, who “respected every opinion his friend held: to do this is essential in friendship,” is hurt only by two types of reactions from Aziz. The first occurrence involves Aziz’s “derived sensuality” which usually borders on some sexual or snobbish vulgarity; it leaves the principal with a distasteful feeling. One example was Aziz’s immature and rude reply on what Miss Quested should write in her apology letter to him; “‘Dear Dr. Aziz, I wish you would come into the cave; I am an old hag, and it is my last chance”(p.229). “Last chance” here means a final opportunity by a desperate woman to be seduced by man. Though the statement was not for Fielding, his integrity in trying to help both Aziz and Miss Quested alleviate their pain and torment, both about themselves and for each other, is mocked by his friend’s disrespect. It marked the first fissure in their friendship that almost began with a photograph. The humiliated principal said to him; “Oh, I wish you wouldn’t make that kind of is the one thing in you I can’t put up hurt me by saying it; good night”(p.229).

The crack in their union would only increase in size as Fielding continued with his request on behalf of Miss Quested, and Aziz, feeling cornered more and more, offered responses that were determined by his emotions and not his head. Rumors of Fielding and Miss Quested being together resided with him “undisturbed for days,” until he believed it. “What is friendship without confidences?” he thought, adding to the “tragic coolness between himself and his English friend” (p.246). The unconfirmed feeling in Aziz mixed with suspicion was the hammer on the trust they had built so painstakingly, resulting in a rare furious attack from Fielding; “You little rotter! Well, I’m damned...” (p.248). And though Fielding, recognizing his disrespectful behavior, seek and received Aziz’s pardon, the damage was done and both English and Indian “bled inwardly” from the misunderstanding.

They would continue to bleed. Aziz’s self-consciousness increased with his suspicion, helped by his friends who brought his tormented ears gossips and news of treachery. When doctor and principal now talked, their “conversations jumped from topic to topic in a broken-backed fashion. They were affectionate and intimate, but nothing clicked tight” (p.252). Fielding’s departure for England only convinced Aziz of some hidden treachery in the principal that involved Miss Quested, and could not prevent Aziz’s dignity from dispensing a cold farewell, symbolic of the fractured future they find again two years later. A letter from each to the other, is how their separation is marked, the one from Fielding who was “conscious of something hostile” but “too fond of Aziz,” offered no severe criticism, but touching lightly on the subject of “women,” and the other, sarcastically mentioning “a poor little holiday” somewhere other than in famed Kashmir, for his “lack of money.” Together, neither served any purpose and only added to an already fractured friendship.

The third and concluding part of the novel, Temple, brings us an Aziz who has developed his dislike for the English, and a Fielding who is older, less tolerant, and more attached to his own race, having married Mrs. Moore’s daughter, Stella. The friendship between Aziz and Fielding is put through its final trial by Forster, hoping to restore it by adding the spirituality of Hinduism, expressed through the dramatization of the birth of the Hindu god, Krishna. We discover that two years after, Aziz has not been able to destroy his suspicions about the English, and ridiculous misunderstandings, always capable of upsetting a sense of unity, lead to a series of blunder about Fielding. He refused to read mailed sent to him by Fielding, believing still that the principal, married to Adela, had cunningly “stolen” his twenty thousand rupees. His pride would not be overcome by rational thinking, and when a note came from Fielding informing him that he, Aziz, would be depended upon to show them around, he destroyed it; “...Aziz tore the note up. He has had enough of showing Miss Quested native life” (p.268).

But the wife was not Miss Quested as he would discover, hearing that the young man accompanying Fielding is Mr. Moore and not “Mr. Quested”; “How did you make such a mistake?” asked Fielding, “more friendly than before, but scathing and scornful”(275). One had aged and seemed more understanding than he was before; the other was older but more confused. Now their relationship seemed more dependent on external factors to free Aziz from his self-conscious confine, and to allow Fielding to do what he could not have done before, discuss his relationship with a woman, namely, his wife Stella. Both needed each other’s companionship but neither one could truly “connect” with the other, that is, until Mrs. Moore’s son Ralph, and Hinduism, intervened. “Aziz...knew with his heart that this was Mrs. Moore’s son, and indeed until his heart was involved he knew nothing. ‘Radhakrishna Radhakrishna Radhakrishna,’ went the chant, then suddenly changed, and in the interstice he heard, almost certainly, the syllables of salvation that had sounded during his trial in Chandrapore” (p.285).

The collision of the boats in the river and the confusion associated with the Hindu festival of Gokul Ashtami, which seemed to transcend over reason and purpose, symbolized the mishaps that their relationship, like all human relationships, had suffer to last and materialize. It also signified the mending of the fissure that affected the friendship between Aziz and Fielding. Stella, who “flung herself against Aziz,” is symbolic of Aziz accepting the English again, while the floating-away of the “letters of Ronny and Adela” was the horrible past becoming dissolve in the river and the mysticism of the function. It seemed that all was indeed well that ended well; Fielding “began to say something but the friendliness of Aziz distracted him. This reconciliation was a success anyhow. After the funny shipwreck there had been no more nonsense or bitterness, and they went back laughingly to their old relationship as if nothing had happened” (p.288). Aziz completed his final unfinished act, his letter of thanks to his “old enemy” Miss Quested for her “fine behavior,” and Fielding discloses his intimacies, of “not being happy about his marriage,” and being “half dead and half blind” before his wife who “did not love him as much as he loved her...” They had grown intimate with each other again on a personal level, clearing up “all the stupid misunderstandings, but socially they had no meeting ground...they were proud of each other, yet they must inevitably part” (p.291). In the social world, they now shared different views which each was defending strongly, though not with the passion that usually lead to arguments, and further, injured feelings; “All the way back they wrangled about politics,” Fielding believing that England is needed in India, and Aziz, confident that India, a nation of “Hindu and Moslem and Sikh” and not what he used to desire, an Islamic India, will drive its foreign ruler “into the sea..” Yes, on a personal level they could “be friends,” but from a political and metaphysical standpoint, the “earth” of India, in “sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file,” were rejecting a “kiss” to pass between the English and the Indian.

Against the humanism of Fielding, and the enormous desire of Aziz to please his English acquaintances, A Passage to India is imbued with English characters that lacked the “benevolence” that Forster speaks about in his Two Cheers for Democracy, in their regards of Indians. Their minds are devoid of any need to “connect” and any time a native comes into contact with an English person, the latter sees it as a chance to humiliate the former. The “bridge party” organized in honor of Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested at the club fails to establish a “bridge” between the Anglo-Indians and the few Indians who were invited, because of an immaturity on the part of Anglo-Indians like Mrs. Turton who “refuse to shake hands” with any of the Indians. While District Superintendent McBride is an exception, being the “most reflective and well educated” of the officials in Chandrapore, some of the others are like Mrs. Callender, whose moral conviction to help others is exemplified by “the kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die,” and most like Ronny Heaslop, an official merely performing his duties; “I am out her to work, mind, to hold this wretched country by force. I’m not a missionary...I’m just part of the Government...” (p.41).

Two of the English who are very different is Ronny’s mother, Mrs. Moore, and Miss Quested, both of whom desire to “see India.” They are both anxious to meeting Indians and like Fielding, despise their own English community with some justification. But each woman represents a very different role in Forster’s study of the genesis of personal relationships. Miss Quested’s true desire is “to see India” and not Indians, is, as Fielding points out, the reason for her apology letter to Aziz being a failure; “ have no real affection for Aziz, or Indians generally...” (p.235).

It is here that the spirit if India that is warm towards both Fielding and Mrs. Moore, that Miss Quested is most lacking. It is not that she is impolite, or insincere, or devious towards India or Indians, but she just has not come to terms with India. Arguably, this is why she becomes the more injured of the two women. This negation towards Miss Quested is expressed by the break that lead to the disaster in the cave; that is, a break in the trust that Aziz had established by holding “her hand”, helping her up the hill’s slope. It was her as a young unmarried, sexually-repressed, woman asking Aziz intimate questions, one that is an affront to his dead wife’s spirit that now mixed with India’s spirit. Though she was “brought up” to tell the truth, and nobly refused to convict an innocent man of a hideous crime, Forster makes it clear that more that “truth” is necessary to make an intimate bond in other people’s hearts. These areas on lacking, as well as her own doubt of being married, which amounts to making “connection” with another soul, are her primary obstacles to finding a sense of unity in India. Thus, she can only see India as a “frieze,” a dead thing consisting of symbols but no movement.

In contrast, Mrs. Moore is, like Godbole, a spirit that is very attached to India; she takes off her shoes before entering a mosque, sees a moon that looked “dead” in England was now alive and friendly, “providing a sense of unity, of kinship with the heavenly bodies” that “passed into the old woman and out like water through a tank, leaving a strange freshness behind” (p.21). India watched her and liked her relation with Aziz, and was certain to return the respect, as is mutual understanding that allows friends to share. They developed the most perfect relationship in the novel, which is more metaphysical that physical, and is able to exist even after Aziz learns that Mrs. Moore has passed away. Even when she learns that the “beautiful” Ganges had “terrible” crocodiles, her association with the river is not severed, but reinforced to contain both beauty and terror, integral of what India represents, as spoken to Arjuna by Lord Krishna;

     “I am the purifying wind,
     The warrior Rama bearing arms,
     The sea monster crocodile,
     The flowing river Ganges.”
    (see “Fragments of Divine Power.” The Bhagvad Gita)

While Miss Quested had a problem in naming the little “green bird,” and perceived it as a “creature of no importance,” Mrs. Moore regarded the wasp in her clothes peg as something beyond importance, she recognizes in it, both spirit and beauty, when she says, “Pretty dear” (p.27). And though Mrs. Moore has her whole “hold on life” disturbed by the disquieting “echo” of the “horrid” Marabar cave, she learns before leaving, that the spirit dwelling within the cave is not “evil” as she thought, but the same Indian spirit that is in beautiful Asirgarh, and in the “thousands of palm-trees” that waved “farewell” to her like true friends. She was allowed to be “one with the universe.” In accepting her body, the Indian Ocean accepts Mrs. Moore, and she becomes glorified by the Indians in their making her into a “Hindu goddess” at Aziz’s trial.

In opposite, Adela is blackmailed on her journey back to England by her own servant, Anthony, whose rumor about Fielding and herself, results in her being left alone for most of her travel across the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Even Mrs. Moore’s “ghost” that followed the first ship up to the Red Sea, refused to accompany her. Even Professor Narayan Godbole, whose name “Narayan” means “son of man” in Sanskrit, and whose “Godbole” includes “God,” must imitate god, not because he must but because this allows Mrs. Moore’s to appear before him as he dances the eternal and all encompassing dance of the Hindu, everything and anything including “stone,” “wasp,” and “an old woman he had seen in Chandrapore,” become part of the web of “Infinite Love.” He represents a different unity not found between Fielding and Aziz; or a mystical, metaphysical type of relationship between human and the cosmic world, and things and the cosmic world, all to achieve some sore of happiness by their being rooting in the spirit and soil of India.

Godbole is not concerned with making friends with the English as Aziz is, and believes that he is already connected, via the universe, to everyone both English and India. His only quest is brings him into contact and involve him into relations with the others is his quest towards an all-inclusive love. The quest fails but Godbole is redeemed by his happiness, and in his happiness, he existed as “one with the universe.” His actions are not the projections of either his emotions or his rational thinking, but actions of an individual who is more indifferent in society than either for, or against someone or thing. This allows him to connect with Moslems, as in his helping Aziz to get a job, the English, as in enlightening the Ladies’ desires of wanting to “see India,” and both the non-living and the metaphysical, as in the “stone” and Mrs. Moore (now a ghost) through his dance. He exists essentially, to help in the formation of relations that are less physical, and more spiritual and metaphysical.

1. Bloom, Harold. Ed. E.M. Forster: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
2. Forster, E.M. Two Cheers for Democracy. New York: Hardcourt, Brace, & Company, 1951.
3. Foster, E.M. Howards End. London: Edward Arnold & Company, 1949.
4. Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1942.
5. Miller, S. Barbara. Translator, The Bhagvad Gita. New York: Bantam Books, 1986.

© 2001