I picked up A Passage to India for two reasons. 1) Zadie Smith is a big fan of E. M. Forster and 2) it was $3 at Borders. I am a fan of contemporary Indian literature (Bharati Mukherjee and Arundhati Roy being favorites) and so I am drawn to other works that focus on the area. I was curious to see what kind of perspective this Englishman – writing in the early 1900s – would have regarding the British Empire and its presence on the sub-continent.
It was interesting how the author portrays some of the social dynamics in the British Raj. Anyone who is new to the country is expected to still care about things like fairness to all people and treating the ‘natives’ as human beings. But the veterans are quick to tell those newcomers how inappropriate that behavior is. Anyone who’s been there awhile is unable to resist the social pressures applied to ‘stay true to one’s own people’ and never give the locals a favor they could exploit. And of course, women cannot socialize with Indian men without an English escort. It ends up sounding like peer pressure in high school. The new kid has to conform to the clique or else be ostracized. Boys only want one thing, and a girl could ruin her reputation just by being seen with the wrong guy. And in the end, everyone who stays – even the man who stood up for Dr. Aziz against every Englishman in the area – behaves like the rest of their English compatriots.
I enjoyed the book, though I wouldn’t put it on any top-ten list. I liked how the author spent time on the two most popular religions practiced in India at the time – Islam and Hindu. We experience some of the action through the Muslim doctor, Aziz, and Professor Godbole, a Hindu friend of Dr. Aziz. But the bulk of the book is described through English eyes – mostly those who were extremely uncomfortable with the negative interaction between Brits and Indians. It is clear that Forster did not believe that the British Empire was treating India fairly. If I was giving out stars, I’d give it three out of five.