By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Sam Dastor
E. M. Forster sees the trees in the forest of complicated life. Considered by some to be one of the best novels ever written, “A Passage to India” is a spectacular listen and terrific read. The story is beautifully narrated by Sam Dastor but the poetry of Forster’s writing shines best in its reading.
Published in 1924, “A Passage to India” is a primer on colonialism, ethnocentrism, and discrimination. Human nature is immutable and omnipresent, a force of good and evil.
Forster introduces Dr. Aziz, a Muslim Indian physician, Cyril Fielding, a British school master that teaches at a college for Indians, Mrs. Moore, the mother of a British magistrate governing India, and Adela Quested, a school teacher considering engagement to the British magistrate. There are many more characters but these four characters exemplify the best and worst of being human. They carry the principle thread of the story.
History is replete with stories of nations, governments, leaders, and corporations that believe they know best for those whom they dominate. Because self-interest (human nature’s Golem) pervades domination, it distorts decisions that are made to benefit the dominated. In the early 20th century, the British govern India’s people by imposing their own vision of what is best for India. British leadership is convinced that their culture is superior to India’s; not unlike America’s belief that Anglo/American culture is superior to American Indian culture in the 17th century.
Ethnocentrism is clearly pictured in Forster’s book. When Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore ask to meet local Indians, a British city collector arranges a party for them to meet local Indian leaders. The party is a crashing bore with British wives on one side of the dance floor demeaning Indian dress, habit, and intelligence, and Indian wives on the other side wishing they were somewhere else. The British City Collector mingles with Indian leaders as a duty of office and feels he is offering high recognition; first, by inviting Indian guests and then by crossing the floor to say hello.
Because Mrs. Moore and Ms. Quested feel they are still not seeing the real India at the party, they suggest a visit to an Indian household. Cyril Fielding, an admirer of Indian culture, is introduced and in the course of the story an outing is arranged for Mrs. Moore, Ms. Quested, and Dr. Aziz to visit some ancient caves outside of town. In exploring the caves, Ms. Quested and Dr. Aziz are separated from Mrs. Moore. Ms. Quested enters a cave by herself; she feints, and thinks she has been assaulted. Dr. Aziz is arrested.
In the course of the trial, discrimination is on display. Ms. Quested, in the face of great peer pressure to convict Dr. Aziz, recants the assault. Dr. Aziz is vindicated.
The ugliness of colonialism (cultural domination), ethnocentrism, and discrimination is exemplified in “A Passage to India”. Thankfully, the characters of Mrs. Moore and Ms. Quested give some sliver of hope for mankind’s redemption, a hope for cultural respect and truth.