A Passage to India | Study Guide

E. M. Forster

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A Passage to India | Part 1, Chapter 2 ((Mosque)) | Summary

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Summary

The chapter begins with one of the novel's main characters, the young Dr. Aziz, dropping his bicycle into the hands of an unseen servant as the doctor joins two older lawyer friends, Mahmoud Ali and Hamidullah, for dinner at the latter's house. The three educated Muslim Indians discuss whether "it is possible to be friends with an Englishman." Mahmoud Ali says it is impossible, but Hamidullah, who attended Cambridge in his youth, recalls being treated kindly by English friends. The Indians discuss how when the English first come to India, they act decently, but then eventually, influenced by the other English, they become rude. The two lawyers give examples of Englishmen who once were kind and are now rude to Indians. Hamidullah gives "any Englishman two years" before the rudeness sets in and gives Englishwomen only six months. Although Aziz objects to this line of discussion, the two older men try to recall moments when Englishwomen treated them kindly. Hamidullah then takes Aziz to see his wife and Aziz's aunt, Hamidullah Begum. She makes a long speech to Aziz—a widower with three small children—about the importance of marriage to women and why someone such as Aziz should remarry.

Hamidullah and Aziz sit down to dinner with the former's subservient, freeloading relative, Mohammed Latif. Aziz begins quoting poetry—in Persian, Urdu, and Arabic—largely on the sad themes of the decay of Islam and the brevity of love. The poetry affects them deeply, reminding them of the era when Muslims ruled India. They are then interrupted by a note from Aziz's superior, Major Callendar, the Civil Surgeon, who wants Aziz to report immediately to the major's bungalow. As Aziz prepares to leave, Hamidullah tells him to clean his teeth because he has been chewing pan; usually spelled paan, this is a preparation made with betel leaf, areca nut, and sometimes tobacco, chewed as a stimulant. Aziz bristles and refuses; as an Indian, he says, he has a right to chew pan. Shouting at Mohammed Latif for his bicycle, he pedals off after rolling over a tack. His tire goes flat, he stops to hire a tonga after cleaning his teeth, and then he heads toward the "civil lines" where the British live, an area of "arid tidiness" and streets "named after victorious generals and intersecting at right angles," unlike the winding streets of the bazaar.

Upon arriving at the bungalow, Aziz stops the driver before getting to the door and approaches on foot, only to find Callendar is out. He then sees two British ladies—Mrs. Lesley and Mrs. Callendar—emerge from the bungalow, ignore his bow, and take his tonga. Feeling snubbed, Aziz is comforted by the thought of how fat the ladies are. To soothe his raw feelings, he now orders the servant around imperiously. Mollified, Aziz walks to a nearby mosque and rests. Pleased by the familiarity of the Islamic architecture lit by moonlight, Aziz feels at home. He imagines someday building his own mosque with a sad inscription on his tomb, which brings tears to his eyes. In his tear-blurred vision, he sees an Englishwoman emerge from behind a pillar and yells at her for not taking off her shoes. But the lady had taken off her shoes because, she says, "God is here." Aziz, touched by her sincerity, learns her name is Mrs. Moore, and she had left the club to escape a dull play. She tells Aziz she is here visiting Ronny Heaslop, the City Magistrate, her son from her first marriage. She and Aziz learn they both are widowed and have three children. When he hears Mrs. Moore doesn't like Mrs. Callendar, Aziz embarks on a tirade against Mrs. Callendar. Mrs. Moore says, "I don't think I understand people very well. I only know whether I like or dislike them." Aziz replies, "Then you are an Oriental." After escorting her back to the club, he walks on, feeling once again like a Muslim ruler of India.

Analysis

This chapter introduces several important themes and conflicts revisited throughout the novel. One is the question of whether it is possible for English people and Indians to be friends. The Indians note the English seem to undergo a transformation when they come to India: at first they are kind and considerate to Indians, but ultimately they—especially the women—become rude and callous. Clearly something about their position as English people in India changes their attitudes. Mahmoud Ali mentions "the red-nosed boy"—whose nose is presumably sunburnt because he's a relatively recent arrival—who is at first kind but then becomes rude. And Aziz attributes Mrs. Moore's kindness to her being newly arrived in India.

Although Aziz emerges as a hero with whom the reader identifies, Forster—in typical modernist fashion—makes him a flawed hero with disagreeable qualities. Aziz ignores and abuses servants, takes his anger out on others, becomes almost humorously maudlin, and is often inaccurate in his assertions, such as when he exaggerates and makes false statements as he abuses Mrs. Callendar in justified rage. He also consistently judges women by their appearance; for example, when he finally sees Mrs. Moore's aged face after first hearing her voice, he is disappointed.

The chapter also makes it clear this is a novel of manners, and much of the focus will be on the characters' feelings and the relationship between what they feel and what they do. It begins with a discussion of Hamidullah and Mahmoud Ali's hurt feelings at the hands of the British, although Aziz is at first more focused on sensual enjoyment of the hookah, of the smell of the trees, and of dinner. But when his feelings are hurt—by what he perceives as an imperious interruption by Major Callendar—he feels he must express his right to engage in the Indian custom of pan—even though he later cleans his teeth when out of sight of Hamidullah—and he must soothe his feelings by ordering around Mohammed Latif. After being snubbed by the two ladies at the bungalow, he similarly soothes his feelings by ordering around the major's servant. Later Mrs. Moore connects with Aziz by expressing her feelings, in the form of her irritation with Mrs. Callendar, allowing Aziz to express his own hurt feelings.

The expression of feelings is related to a notion another character later calls "truth of mood," which is valuing authentic feeling over objective fact. This seems to be something Indians do and the British—who believe they act on fact and not emotion—do not do. For example, early in the chapter Hamidullah shouts at his servants for dinner, who shout back that it is ready. It is not ready, but the servants don't contradict their master, who has asserted his will. Nor does Hamidullah pursue the matter; he has expressed his desire that dinner be ready immediately, and the servants have affirmed his feeling, despite objective facts to the contrary. Forster takes care to convey even transient impressions. For example, when Hamidullah Begum lectures Aziz about why he must remarry, both he and Hamidullah are temporarily convinced. But upon realizing Aziz is now worried, Hamidullah offers him soothing words, thereby undoing the impression his wife had left on Aziz. Similarly Aziz, inspired by Mrs. Moore's distaste for Mrs. Callendar, goes on to "repeat, exaggerate, contradict" in his tirade against the latter, because Mrs. Moore's attitude supports his feelings. Although she is British, Mrs. Moore, by emphasizing her belief in her feelings over her understanding, is "an Oriental" in the eyes of Aziz.

This modernist favoring of individual subjectivity over supposed objectivity informs the author's approach to narrative. Forster intentionally immerses the reader in an individual's subjective experience, withholding what might be called a "more balanced" view of things. For example, Forster several times in this chapter illustrates the Indians' clearly subjective and transient feeling of "owning" India, although the British are in charge. When Aziz quotes poetry to Hamidullah and Mohammed Latif, the narrator reveals their subjective reactions to it; when the men are having their discussion, Aziz retreats into his own random, stream-of-consciousness thoughts.

Finally, something significant but easy to overlook is the relationship of servants to their masters. The upper-class Indians among whom the story begins depend on and ignore their servants, who seem almost invisible to them. These Indians are as clueless about the lives of their servants as the English are about the subservient Indians. But the servants both make things happen and drag their feet at significant moments, as will be seen later in the novel. Hamidullah has only weak authority over his servants, even though he puts on a show of mastery and they put on a show of servility. Tipping and bribery seem essential to accomplishing anything, as seen when Aziz cannot get the whole truth out of Major Callendar's servant.

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