Race, religion, love, gender, good and evil, justice and poetry – this book has it all. It also has a range of characters that draw you in, as much as you find them all maddening, and you ache for the pain they are causing each other. Set during the Raj, the book is written against the backdrop of the Indian independence movement, which provides a subtle setting of unease for all of the characters.
The first part of the book ‘Mosque’ focuses on the challenges faced by everyone living in India in the 1920s. The book simmers with tensions between British and Indians, Muslims, Christians and Hindus, but what is lovely is that it shows the nuances within each group. So, for instance, the British are broken down into the Turtons and Burtons who represent the ruling colonial order, and of whom Forster is particularly scathing, young Ronny desperate to build his career but never sure of his footing, and Adele and Mrs Moore who are ‘fresh off the boat’ and just want to see the ‘real’ India, who find the entrenched racism of the Club deplorable. We also have Fielding, a headmaster of a local school, who has separated himself from the colonial British society and wants no part of it. In the first part of the book we see all of these people interacting with a similarly diverse cast of Indian characters and the complexity of the relationships, the frequent misunderstandings and the judgements made by everyone are integral to understanding the tragic events of part two ‘Caves’.
In part two the charming Dr Aziz takes Mrs Moore and Adele off on a trip to the mysterious Marabar Caves. By the end of the day he is prison, and the subsequent legal case forces all of the characters to pick sides. It is as though the nuances of their relationships in part 1 are suddenly being forced into glaring daylight where affection withers and it no longer becomes about justice or fairness, but more about which group will prevail. The way this is played out, and the decisions that each character is forced to make, show the power of social conformity, especially in small communities. It is interesting to see how groups turn on those who wont follow the herd in times of trouble, in spite of everything else they believe.
The book has some really interesting discussions about the nature of good and evil, and whether truth and justice are important at all in the face of higher aims. It questions what we value, and how driven we are by what society wants. And there are some fascinating discussions of religion, from which this one excerpt really made me laugh
“Ronny’s religion was was of the sterilized Public School brand, which never goes bad, even in the tropics. Wherever he entered, mosque, cave or temple, he retained the spiritual outlook of the Fifth Form.”
And there is also a lot of love within the book. We see the troubled romance between Ronny and Adele limp on as they try to decided whether they really need love in order to get married when they are so well suited otherwise. We see the relationship between Mrs Moore and Dr Aziz, like a meeting of kindred spirits, morph and transform over the course of the book. And the book touches on the role of women within each of the communities, and the ambiguities inherent in marital relationships. Then there is the affection between Fielding and Aziz as they try to maintain a friendship in spite of the social and racial gulf between them.
This is a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it.
A Passage to India, E.M. Forster, Harcourt Brace & Co, Florida, 1984