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A Passage to India | Study Guide

E. M. Forster

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A Passage to India | Context


Connections to India

Throughout his works, E.M. Forster puzzles over the question of how people can connect to one another. In A Passage to India this deep hunger for connection is put to the test by the realities of the outside world, particularly by the brutality of Great Britain's colonial grip on India. But Forster never would have written the novel had he not found his own personal connection to India. This connection came in the form of a young Indian man named Syed Ross Masood.

Forster met Masood when he was 26 and Masood was a teenager. Forster got a part-time position tutoring Masood in Latin, to prepare him for Oxford University. The two became very close. In fact Forster fell in love with Masood, though his feelings were not returned. Forster and Masood remained friends throughout Masood's time in England. Through their friendship Forster gained many valuable insights about India from a Muslim Indian point of view. After Masood returned to India, Forster decided he would visit the country he had heard so much about. In 1912 he traveled to India and remained for six months. He took copious notes on everything he saw. While there he visited Masood, about to be married, in the city of Bankipore. Nearby were the Barabar Caves. In A Passage to India the city of Bankipore became Chandrapore and the Barabar Caves became the Marabar Caves.

Forster returned to India in 1921 and worked as a private secretary for another Indian friend, the Maharajah of Dewas. He stayed in this position for six months and then traveled around India to gather research. Afterward he returned to England, where he finally finished the novel. He dedicated it to Syed Ross Masood, who may be the inspiration for the novel's character of Aziz, "and to the 17 years of our friendship." Later he wrote, "But for him, I might never have gone to his country, or written about it."

Religion in India

Many civilizations, both Hindu and Muslim, have risen and fallen over India's venerable history. Hinduism began approximately 4,000 years ago in India. It is a complex and ancient polytheistic religion. In classic Hinduism people are born into different castes with different duties, statuses, and goals. In A Passage to India Dr. Godbole, for instance, is a Brahmin, or member of the priestly class. Other castes include Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and farmers), and Shudras (workers). Some of the commonly held beliefs of Hinduism include samsara, the idea that beings can be reincarnated; karma, the idea that actions, good or bad, can have consequences across lifetimes; and dharma, the idea of right action—doing the right thing for one's status in life. The overall goal in Hinduism is to attain moksha over the course of many reincarnations—namely, enlightenment, or liberation from the struggle caused by the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Islam is a monotheistic religion started in the year 610 CE. Its followers are called Muslims. According to Islamic beliefs, the Prophet Muhammad (570–632) received revelations from God at about age 40. These revelations were collected in the Koran and form the basis for Islam. The main tenet of Islam is: "There is no god but God (Allah) and Muhammad is His Prophet (messenger)." Islam has two main divisions; Sunni Muslims make up the largest group of Muslims. They believe that anyone who has learned the ways of Islam can become a leader in the faith. Shia Islam is the second major division. Shia believe that only the descendants of Muhammad can be religious leaders. Both groups believe Allah is omniscient, and they have complex views on destiny and God's involvement in human affairs. After its founding in what is now Saudi Arabia, Islam spread to other regions, and a number of Muslim kingdoms took root in India from the 7th century onward. The greatest of these was the Mogul Empire.

Mogul India Meets the British East India Company

During the time of the British Raj, or the height of British rule in India, Muslims were generally favored over Hindus in status. This was a legacy of the British East India Company's relationship with the Mogul Empire. When the British East India Company came east to trade for spices in 1608, much of India was part of the Muslim Mogul Empire (1526–1757), which began when Babur, the dynasty's first emperor, pushed into India from Afghanistan. During the height of the empire, the Mughal Empire, which covered almost all of what is now India and Pakistan today, was noted for its tolerance toward its Hindu subjects, who still made up the majority of India's population.

For a time the British traded peacefully under the Moguls, but gradually the British amassed armies of British and Indian troops and started taking control of large areas of land. They built trading posts and warehouses. As time went on, the Mogul Empire began to be undermined by a series of border wars and infighting. The British East India Company used the political structure of the Mogul Empire to divert the flow of money into British hands. Many Englishmen became rich through bribes and business deals. British influence continued to grow; by the 1850s Great Britain controlled all of India.

First Indian War of Independence

In 1857 a rumor spread, suggesting that the rifle cartridges for a new kind of army gun were greased with beef and pork fat. This offended the beliefs of both Hindu and Muslim soldiers serving in the British East India Armies. Hindus do not support the killing of cows because they believe the animals are sacred. Muslims believe pork meat is profane and eating pork is forbidden in the Koran.

Both refused to use the cartridges and ultimately mutinied against their British officers. Many Indians joined them, angry at being treated with contempt by the British and at unfair British practices such as exploiting India for its resources and using it as a captive market for its goods. Now called the First Indian War of Independence, this conflict ended badly for the Indians. The last Mogul emperor was exiled, putting an end to the Mogul Empire.

British Raj (1858–1947)

The period following the end of the Mogul Empire encompasses the height of the British Raj, or rule. British government officials and their families moved to India, living in separate compounds and socializing separately from Indians. They assumed an attitude of superiority over the local people who British writer Rudyard Kipling famously called "the White Man's Burden." Many English considered their role to be civilizing and controlling savages, not governing humans they considered equals. The British boasted about bringing railroads to India, but they did not take responsibility for famines caused by mismanagement, the destruction of India's handicrafts industry, the stunted opportunities for its young people, political repression, and—above all—mass resource extraction of India's goods and labor.

In 1885 the Indian National Congress, an Indian independence movement, met for the first time. It was the beginning of a long but ultimately successful struggle for independence from Britain.

After World War I

When Forster first visited India in 1912, life was frustrating for Indians. The divisions between Indians and their English rulers were large. But tensions were even worse by his second visit in 1921. The people of India had expected to be rewarded for their valiant service in World War I with greater freedom, but they were dissatisfied with what they considered meager efforts by the British to grant them greater independence.

In 1919 at least 369 peaceful Indian protesters were slaughtered and more than 1,000 injured by British troops in Amritsar, India. It was a turning point for many Indians. Afterward, Indian political activist Mohandas Gandhi launched his first major mass civil disobedience campaign, called the Non-Cooperation Movement, from 1920 to 1922; he was imprisoned in 1922 by the British for sedition. Many other Indians, both Hindu and Muslim, would also be disillusioned by the British. Other mass disobedience campaigns would follow. Still, Forster's Dr. Aziz would not have his dream of an India free of the British until 1947.


Forster is keenly aware of the way language is often used to dismiss and dehumanize the oppressed. Throughout the novel, white characters reveal contempt for the Indians through the use of such words as nigger and native (although native is also used in practical, non-derogatory ways as well, such as in references to native states). Many of these racially charged terms come directly from conversations Forster overheard while he was in India visiting Anglo-Indians (as British people who lived and worked in England were called). Generally, Forster records these racial terms inside quotation marks to call attention to the narrow-mindedness of the white speakers, such as Major Callendar, who calls the Nawab Bahadur's handsome, effeminate grandson Nureddin a "buck Nigger" in Chapter 24. The author also uses the term native to reflect the thinking of prejudiced Anglo-Indians, as he does in Chapter 20: "People drove into the club with studious calm ... for the natives must not suspect that they were agitated."

Another word used in the text to separate and describe the difference between the people of India and the Anglo-Indians is the word Oriental. In A Passage to India the word is used only by Indians as a reference or compliment. Early in the book, Dr. Aziz compliments Mrs. Moore for her sensitivity and later, Mr. Fielding for being civilized, by calling them "true Oriental"(s).

In A Passage to India Forster uses the word in three different ways. It is used to signal prejudice—in Chapter 24, Mr. McBryde holds forth on "Oriental pathology," or his theory regarding the inferiority of "the darker races" of India. It is also used as a form of wholesale characterization for cultural attitudes and beliefs attributed to Muslim Indians by Forster, rightly or wrongly. For example, Dr. Aziz exhibits an attitude favoring emotion and human relationships over English logic. In Chapter 26 Dr. Aziz does not accept Adela's remorse because the "Oriental mind" does not care whether she has done the right thing; she has not done it with the correct feeling. In a third but related use, it is a compliment used by Muslim characters in the book, in particular by Dr. Aziz. He notably calls two English characters, Mrs. Moore in Chapter 1 and later, her son Ralph in Chapter 37, "Orientals" for their ability to connect to others.

A Modernist Novel

Modernism, a literary movement that began in the early 20th century, produced novels that departed from Victorian literature, which favored sympathetic heroes; satisfying resolutions to conflicts; single, clear, objective narrative perspectives; correspondences between outward appearance and inner character; and a world in which empiricism and rationality prevailed.

Conversely, in the modernist novel, the world is presented as a mysterious, inscrutable place often beyond rational understanding. Instead of a single, constant narrative perspective, the narrative voice shifts among different perspectives, often privileging interior monologue over exterior action. Through its emphasis on a variety of subjective perspectives, the novel seems to question the very existence of a single, objective reality. Narration is often impressionistic or presented as a stream of consciousness, a string of seemingly unrelated thoughts and impressions reflecting a character's thought process.

Working in the modernist tradition, in A Passage to India Forster creates a world in which those who think of themselves as rational and objective fail to understand the world around them. The world does not contain one, absolute truth, but rather a number of individual subjective perspectives. Mysteries appear but are never solved, and questions arise but are never answered. The world of human affairs is at times seemingly insignificant. This last idea coincides with the Hindu notion that the material world is an illusion keeping people from understanding the ultimate reality.

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