General thoughts on EN4880B Lecture 3

Presentation (Hinduism in A Passage to India) 

–          Hinduism as complex, amorphous, representing relativity, very much in the same way India itself as a culture is complex and difficult to understand. Tolerance is then very important and valorised in the novel since not only is one objective truth impossible to obtain, but while each person / idea may be different, it is still part of a whole culture and therefore should not be othered.

–          Echoes in the cave: the echo always being only a semblance of reality and therefore considered evil. They are also a force beyond the control of man and have the capacity to work either for or against us, as indicated in the “dual-potential” of echoes in the novel.

–          See the pursuit of truth as the chasing after echoes in an attempt to get to the “real” truth – so is this actually possible or will we always find ourselves going in circles to discover something that cannot be found since the echoes in their persistence will always distract us from finding that one truth?

–          But then we ask ourselves, is the discovery of the truth as important as the process by which we attempt to discover the truth? Believe that to be closer to discovering the truth, to engage with the echoes and still not reach a conclusion is still valuable and worthwhile. 

Lecture (A Crisis of Political Economy)

–          discussing the relationship between Modernism and Modernity: important to bear in mind the context of changing political relations and freedom as parallel to the expansion of human thought and pursuit of the truth

–          just as man is entering modernity (through industrialisation and political liberalism), his pursuit of truth and understanding happens alongside this progress. Intellectual progress (modernism) then is part of a much bigger social (economic and political) change.

–          Yet the logical flaws in modernism as being confused with Westernisation (only the people of the West as “advanced peoples” are privileged to be Modernists) show up when we recognise the bias against foreigners and slaves

–          Modernity & modernism also gendered: only accessible to the men in society? Women considered inferior in intellect and social standing, much less economically and politically and therefore excluded from thoughts of modernity and modernism.

–          Thus at the end of the day we have the white male who stands a head above everyone else on all counts: social, political and economic progress (modernity) and intellectual pursuit (embodied in the concept of Modernism)

p.s: I apologise this is so late, I forgot to click on the publish button in my rush ):

Note-taken: Discussion for Presentation on Passage to India

Some questions and main points that were brought up during the discussion for the presentation:

According to the presenters, Hinduism is foregrounded in the text as a religion that is complex and elusive, and it possesses an origin that is difficult to identify. This nature of Hinduism as encompassing, but vague, provides a very different backdrop and ties in very well with modernism. It is interesting to note as well, that none of the main characters are Hindus. Therefore, we frequently encounter the views of ‘others’ regarding Hinduism and what the religion can offer.
It seems that Hinduism for Forster, is a religion that encapsulates other more organized religions such as Christianity and Islam. It is attractive because it is so dfferent and goes against Western logic and understanding.

Hinduism also assumes main focus for another reason. The history of India, especially in the colonial versions, is tainted with conflicts between Hindus and Muslims and these made up many of the dominant tropes important during that time. This perhaps explains why while the main character is Muslim (Dr. Aziz), the book may be interpreted in a very Hinduism ‘manner’.

Nonetheless, reading Hinduism as a framework to the text is convenient but not agreeable to all. Praseeda mentioned that she felt uncomfortable to do so as the novel frequently highlights India as a country that could not be identified as a single entity. India had existed as an organic state even prior to Colonial establishments. Therefore, while aspects of Hinduism are dominant in the text, the fact that the text constantly emphasizes India as a state that is disunified and divided by many religions and beliefs seems to undermine Hinduism as being an adequate framework to understanding the text and its presentation of India.

P.S. to all: Apologies that this post for the notes comes in late. I missed Dr. Koh’s email and didn’t realize that it should have been up by 12am, Saturday. Sorry for any inconvenience caused!

lecture summary part 2

1. Before the Industrial Revolution (IR), the feudal system ranked people hierarchically in the following order: monarch, aristocracy, clergy and lastly, peasants.
2. With the advent of the IR, this system evolved into a capitalist economy, introducing the burgeoning middle class.
3. The middle class demanded political power and asked for rights as a citizen subject i.e. the right to vote, free speech etc.
4. The ‘Social Contract’ was signed, allowing basic freedoms to the people while giving the middle/upper class most of the vote.
5. This resulted in a new emphasis on free trade and capitalist commerce as well as created a new consciousness of self over the collective i.e. individualism.
6. French Revolution: consisted of 3 estates namely the clergy, the nobility and the third estate that was predominantly middle class white men.
7. This third estate did not encompass women, people of other ethnicities and people of minority religions.
8. This resulted in much debate and contestation over who qualified as a citizen and whether those excluded from the definition of “men” were even considered humans with rights. The idea of a conditional equality.
9. Rousseau suggested that women and men exist in different spheres. Women should keep to the domestic, private sphere and fulfill their role as wife and mother. They were denied their place in the public sphere, being seen only as an extension of their husbands. As such, they had no right to vote, write political pamphlets or stand for office.
10. The Code Noir 1685 also deemed Negro slaves as a piece of furniture; property owned by landowners. The question thus arises about whether these ‘properties’ have rights.
11. The Haitian revolution showed slaves slaying their masters and claiming their rights as citizens.
12. The rise of the Black Consciousness also challenged the biological claim that Blacks displayed a lack of reason and thus did not qualify for the status of man and citizen. Negritude developed in the 1930s to foster a common black identity to counter French colonial racism.

Writing as an act of Colonization

Written from within a liberal ethos, in the style of ironic discourse, A Passage to India seems to acknowledge that what is defined as India by Colonial rule is an amorphous mass of land, people, culture, lumped together on the basis of its foreignness–it’s exoticity, a word in itself that suggests a relationship akin to that of spectator and spectacle, while pointedly demarcating perceived civilization from barbarity.

This creation (India) is acknowledged as “India — a hundred Indias– “, an original network of cultures and identities that reflect a legitimate system of knowledge that allows for an alternative world view. The structure of the novel, triadic in form, reflects the diversity of the assumed homogenous India and effectively undermines the politically constructed concept of India as understood under the British Raj. It is a straight refusal to see India as a “frieze” of glamour and spectacle.


Fig:  The Madras Club– highly popular with the Anglo-Indian population at the time, and also one of the many clubs in Colonial India with the “No Indians, No Dogs” signs outside.

Criminal Tentacles

Colonial power is stereotypically portrayed in the example of the East India Company (EIC) in Philippa Levine’s The British Empire. This seems to me as much fabrication as it is at the same time revelation. Perhaps “fabrication” has harsh connotations, but attention needs to be called to the one-sided and convenient depiction of colonial power as “greedy, unscrupulous and self-seeking” (66). In describing its monstrous methods towards power and profit, the text associates the EIC with intrigue, corruption, insensibly expensive conquests, the reinforcement of Hindu oppression, and with phrases such as “the relentless expansion of territory” and “the tentacles of westernization” (76). Two aspects are left out: other motivations, factors, contexts regarding its actions, as well as how few the number of persons who direct the will of the EIC and imperial Britain, or how large the number of those who though complicit could not be fairly charged “greedy, unscrupulous and self-seeking”.

In the opium saga, colonialism is plainly criminal in producing and exporting the “dulling and addictive” substance. “In effect, the company endorsed a huge and sophisticated smuggling ring.” (73) This would be an exaggerated and inappropriate statement if applied to the modern cigarette industry. Strangely, the opium trade is closely contrasted with morals (75–76).

However, the British have their virtuous moments. These are few, and amount to little more than good will, as when the 1829 ban on suttee “did little to extirpate the practice” (72).

Of Cocoons and Brown Stockings

While at first appearing to adopt a more traditional role of the novelist in representing and commenting upon the social and empirical world, Forster subsequently introduces an essentially modernist narrative style in the use of polyphony, indeterminate attribution of perceptions, as well as the consistent blurring of narrational and character-based points of view. Although possibly not the level of “high modernism” as Woolf’s “stream of consciousness narrative”, Forster’s narrative style is very much similar to Woolf’s.

Leaving Mrs Moore to retire, Aziz and Adela continue their exploration with little to say to each other – “If his mind was with the breakfast, hers was mainly with her marriage” (162). Here Aziz and Adela are knitting their own brown stockings in being careful not to neglect their social duties as host and guest respectively despite being absorbed in their own deeper thoughts. Fragmentation within the self is presented in the divorce of external occurrences divorced from internal events. On the journey to the Marabar caves, “(Adela) could not get excited over Aziz and his arrangements. She was not the least unhappy or depressed, and the various odd objects that surrounded her… they were all new and amusing, and led her to comment appropriately, but they wouldn’t bite into her mind” (146). Instead, Adela occupies herself with plans of the marriage (“She loved plans”), and here Forster suggests that occupation of the internal mind serves to distract from the mundanity of life described in the opening passage of part XIV of The Caves so as to keep from being insincere. There is little linearity or organization in her thought process as she jumps from planning in detail her marriage and the Anglo-Indian life she is to endure to questioning her feelings for Ronny and then the idea of love itself but not for long before her attention was focused on a rock nicked by a double row of footholds which made her recall the patter traced in the dust by the wheels of the Nawab Bahadur’s car and led her to conclude that “She and Ronny – no, they did not love each other” (162). Similarly, Aziz experiences “symptoms of disorganization” (162) as he struggles to keep up with his own inner thoughts. This dislocation of time-space consciousness and the inability to orientate correspond to a crisis of identity/conscious or schizophrenia, a possible consequence of the lost of older structures or going beyond “nation”. Employing the metaphor of the “cocoon of work and social obligation” (145) as a general comment of life and the pressures of society to conform, Forster aptly presents this crisis of identity/ consciousness which often denies the individual “the right to live for oneself” (147).

Historical Intrigues

The thing that I got most out of this week’s reading was a general rundown of the British empire in India. It was very intriguing, for instance, to find out that the East India Company was one of the first transnational corporations the world has seen. After reading an article by Myoshi about how transnational corporations are the new imperialism I found this history of the EIC quite fascinating.

Also, there was another quote that I really enjoyed. “The close ties-political, military, geographical, economic-exemplify the interconnection of imperial interest and ixpansion, each colony influencing and shaping other British possessions. I feel that this is very true. The effects can even be seen today. Just taking Singapore as an example, there is still a hefty amount of interaction between Singapore, India, and Malaysia, all three of which were British colonies. There are similarities between these three countries and Hong Kong, parts of Africa, and parts of the Carribbean, too. Another example I have seen, and which the article mentioned, is how in later years of British India, native police officers were sent to other British colonies to keep the peace. This brought India’s culture to Hong Kong (which was where I first saw a picture of it in a museum. It was something I hadn’t realized). The direct interaction between colonies has resulted in many cultural barriers being crossed.

Revisiting Chandrapore: Second Impressions and Sympathy

Since the first lecture, I’ve been churning that introductory excerpt from A Passage to India over in my mind. I thought it curious that the reader is introduced in such an apathetic, even disinterested manner, to a place that should be (given the period) and usually is made extremely exotic.

I’m starting to think that perhaps it is a technique Forster uses to gain the reader’s sympathy for the land, the physical space and its contents (terrain and local people). In predisposing the reader to sympathizing with the people–Aziz–even in the introduction to Aziz as a character, one reacts as he does to the foreign British.

Perhaps it is romantic of me, but the way in which Forster sets up Chandrapore and characterizes Aziz seems to use a sort of reverse psychology, endearing the entirely un-interesting Chandrapore to the reader as if from the eyes of a local who sees flaws and treasures in the same glance, equally and indifferently. Aziz on the other hand, pulls a similar trick by presenting himself as a well-natured, good-hearted man when he visits his friend; highlights the previous impression of Chandrapore by admiring the beauty of his favorite mosque; but gives a strange second impression when he flares up at Mrs. Moore. His redemption occurs when the reader realizes that he does it out of love for his faith and place of worship  and he is readily willing to admit error and make peace with Mrs. Moore.

The interactions with the British in Chandrapore are made more real and the tensions between Aziz and Adela are emphasized by the sympathy and empathy the reader has for Aziz and Chandrapore over the foreigners.

Some thoughts on Passage

Some thoughts on ‘A Passage to India’:

1. The nature of racism in the book is interesting. In the opening chapters, the English characters often emphasized the difference between an Englishman who has just arrived in India and one who has been in India for some time. It is accepted that after one lives in India for some time, one stops being friendly or polite to Indian and all initial idealism dies. Soon, they would realize that the Indians deserve to be treated in the way they are, as they are indeed untrustworthy etc etc. Characters like Ronny realize their hypocritical attitudes but blame it on situation (and the natives). In fact, he explicitly says that he did not come to India to be unpleasant but somehow all the experiences he had thus far has forced him into his particular attitude. I think this is a very interesting, yet highly subtle and potentially more powerful form of racism. Racism is being explained away, and rationalized. Most importantly, the Englishman need not be held responsible – after all it is the Indians’ own fault that they are being treated meanly.

2. The English characters often use the native tongue to express their own ideas. In some sense, colonialism goes beyond conquering of lands. It actually colonizes language and culture as well. The English takes the native words and pulls them out of their native contexts, to use them in the English context. In using the Indian tongue, the English is not assimilating Indian culture – instead he tyrannically ‘takes over’ the language for he has no real understanding of the language and culture but simply uses the foreign words in the way he thinks them to mean.

The India that escapes imagination

The romanticized India that Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested set forth in good will to “see” escapes capture because of its very refusal to be confined by the narrow boundaries of western knowledge, understanding or perception. It is clear from the outset that Foster employs the politics of negation to challenge and counter traditional perceptions of what India appears to be, against what it actually is not. India, as Foster suggests, ‘has never defined. She is not a promise, only an appeal’.

The appearance of things becomes the general “unwritten” code of conduct governing the city of Chandrapore (as is the novel); and while Dr. Aziz seems to be represented as the agent through which the true spirit of India may be accessed in Adela’s view, we are instead presented with a man who is caught in a nostalgic romanticization of the old Mughal Empire and one who is disillusioned by the inferiority of his position vis-a-vis British India at present.

The pivotal turning point of the novel arguably resides in the symbolic echo in the Marabar cave, where all noises are reduced to “boum”, at once exposing the limits of language in its reductiveness. Like India, Marabar refused to be contained or romanticized, since “it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind”. That this reductive nothingness could expose the artificiality of language, codifiers, classification and categorization separating human society from one another from his novel is finally Foster’s trick on readers who attempt to find a unifying meaning to the complex tensions that at once seem to surface but also elude us.

Crisis of Knowledge in A Passage to India

Personally, I was struck by the enigmatic quality of A Passage to India, which seems to resonate with the crisis of knowledge characteristic of modernist works. Throughout the novel, we are presented with events that we struggle to comprehend, as well as occurrences that underscore characters’ inability to grasp knowledge. For instance, we read of the failure of naming the “green bird”—calling it “bee-eater” and “parrot” though it is neither of the two (78)—and of identifying the animal that crashed into the car—with characters speculating that it was either a goat, buffalo or hyena (81-82). In fact, it is suggested that “nothing in India is identifiable”, perhaps highlighting a crisis of knowledge that plagues both the characters and the readers of the novel.

This failure to identify emerges again through attempts at describing sound. Firstly, Mrs. Moore describes the sound of the train moving as “pomper, pomper, pomper” (126), yet this train was “half asleep, going nowhere in particular” (127). Secondly, Mrs. Moore describes the echo in the Marabar Caves as “entirely devoid of distinction […] ‘boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘bou-oum’, or ‘ou-boum’ – utterly dull” (137). Again, we notice the preoccupation with naming, with expressing with certainty and through language. The novel however critiques this, insisting that it is impossible for “the mind [to] take hold of such a country” (127).

Where does this crisis of knowledge leave us then? If we were to look at the relationship between Modernism and Empire, perhaps we could say that the desire to name and to know relates to power relations; it is those who can name and know that have the power. Modernism’s crisis of knowledge thus serves as a critique of Empire, suggesting that we need to re-examine our understanding of Empire, and calling for a re-awakening of what we know or think we know about Empire.

What is India?

The complexities of India are made apparent in the novel and there is a sense of uncertainty about what India means/ is composed of. A Passage to India is characterised by divisions within the landscape and there is a crisis of representing India. In the final part of the novel, this crisis becomes more emphatic; Aziz questions the meaning of India and favours the inclusion of multiple meanings to the notion of a ‘general’ India.

Forster alludes to the belief that the ‘real’ is unattainable; India cannot be clearly defined. Adela’s shallow desire to see the ‘real’ India leads her to the Marabar Caves however, the trip does little to further her understanding of India. She does not arrive at a satisfactory concept of India and what happens in the caves is shrouded in mystery. The unusual circumstances that Adela undergoes while in the caves are never fully explained to us and this uncertainty hints at the inability to arrive at the ‘truth’.

In addition, the multiple religions portrayed in the text destabilises the notion of a unifying order since there is no singular god or belief. Religious beliefs are not adhered to and the different religions seem to morph into each other (‘God si love’ but the British do not embody Christian beliefs and persecute Aziz without evidences. Mrs Moore’s name is transposed onto that of a Hindu goddess, Esmiss Esmoor). The Hindu procession seems frivolous and irrational however, it redefines the tradition meaning of god and religion. Furthermore, the chanting of ‘come, come, come’ alludes to the difficulty in accessing a higher being and the attainment of a world without difference.

Thoughts on Race and Superiority

While reading Passage to India, one aspect that caught my eye was Forster’s treatment of race and the practice of racialization. It becomes obvious that the idea of race comes to taint the view and attitude of what each group of people have towards others. Racialization is, in the text, characterized to be a misconception and as a result, a cause of much tension between the different ‘races’. But I think race becomes a conviction of which these people hedge to in order to find some certainty to cope with the flux and changes around them. For instance, even when Aziz was dressed in European costumes and speaks English, Ronny, who was probably intimidated by him previously, refuses to see him as an equal. Immediately jumping on Aziz’s skin colour which categorizes him to be an Indian – categorized to be fundamentally slack (75), and this is when Ronny does not even know Aziz or work with him.

Naturally, this act of categorizing people along racial lines is not limited to the English as it is clear that everyone is complicit. The elusiveness of race is extensively discussed in the text. This is especially highlighted in Forster’s mockery of a ‘White’ man through Fieldings, who called his own race, “pinko-gray” (57). The colour of skin is in reality just a colour, but has become connotated with superiority, however, as we would have come to realize after many events in the text – it is something that is baseless and illusionary.

Modernism and Anti-colonialism


What struck me in the novel is how modernism in theory (multiple perspectives and lack of an objective “Truth) seems quite compatible with anti-colonial sentiments. For example, even at the end of the novel, it is still unclear exactly what happened to Adela in the caves. As the episode was seen from Aziz’s point of view, the reader only knows that Aziz did not do it which only illustrates the “truth” as what it is “not” as opposed to what it “is”.


The lack of clarity on exactly what happened makes every opinion invalid, because they are simply speculation. In fact, I think what becomes important through this episode is not what really happened to Adela but how the multiple perspectives illustrate the underlying distrust the Indians and British have for each other. However, in order to continue to present a voice for the “Other”, there must be an “Other” to begin with. Through claims like “Suspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumour… in a way the Westerner cannot comprehend” (263), Forster clearly defines Indians as inherently different to the British. Moreover, he seems to focus on the “primitive” nature of India, like in his description of the “incredible antiquity of these hills” (115), how “India is really far older” (115), which defines it as “Other” to relatively modern Britian. Even though this is not necessarily a negative portrayal, nonetheless, his text still positions India as primitive and exotic, incomprehensible even to sympathetic British characters like Fielding.

The Marabar Caves

Or more specifically, the Marabar Caves and the television series “Lost”. The two share many similarities: an exotic location(the novel’s opening is like a panoramic scene from a movie), people who don’t really want to be where they are (Adela’s mind is on marriage, Aziz’s on breakfast, and everyone on the island wants to get off it), and a terrifying presence noone except the victim has seen or heard(an echo best symbolises the Caves, rustling trees the creature in “Lost”).

If a visit to the Marabar Caves is an attempt by the British members of the picnic party to access the “real” India, to glean some semblance of what an authentic India is, then the Caves’ ability to confuse and mislead even a native of the land highlights the impossibility of that task. Immediately, Modernist concerns of knowledge and representation echo in my head, as sure as the echo that plagues Adela. Truth with a “T” is substituted in the novel with the experience of a “real” India. That experience is at times awkward, at times terrifying and at times simply unrecognizable by the British, but it is present  in the strange nooks and crannies of the Marabar Caves.

As Adela is described running out frantically from the caves with cactus thorns pricking her and she melodramatically flings herself around, I cannot help but be reminded of those little trailers for “Lost” where some poor soul is running away through the bushes from the thing that ominously stirs the trees before killing them. Much like Truth for the Modernists, you know it’s there, you just don’t know what it looks like. It shakes the trees, lets out a growl or leaves an echo in your head. Many different forms, but you’ll never see the Thing itself.

Well, not until the next episode maybe.

The British’s India

A Passage to India overwhelms me with a sense of 

organic subjectivity — inanimate things (river Ganges, 

temples, houses) seem to have a life of their own, albeit 

one marked with deterioration. And despite the absence 

of any authorial marker in the first chapter of the text, the 

narrator is able to blend his point-of-view immaculately 

into what seems like objective descriptions of 

Chandrapore. For instance, while there may really be “no 

bathing steps on the river front”, it does not necessarily 

mean that “the Ganges happens not to be holy here”, or 

for that matter, be caused by it. What intrigues me is this 

method of showing-and-telling: it validates the traditional 

imagery of India as primitive and imbued with superstitious 

cultures while performing perfectly as the juxtaposed 

Other to the civilised west. Indeed, it really is not difficult to 

“Imagine [the narrator]  as addressing you from another 

and a happier world.”


This hierarchical intent, as I see it, is exemplified by the 

no-Indians Chandrapore Club. This exclusion illustrates a deep-

rooted uneasiness between the English and the locals. 

Acquaintances already seem unnecessary, as Mrs Moore 

has shown Aziz in the second chapter, let alone genuine 



Till now, my take on the novel is best summarised by 

Ronny’s unconcerned remark: “[Even] The educated 

Indians will be no good to us if there’s a row, it’s simply not 

worth while conciliating them, that’s why they don’t 



The essay ‘Ruling An Empire’ by Levine brings to attention a point in colonial history which interests me tremendously: how “British administrators NEEDED to stop and take stock, to consider with all possible seriousness what empire was and what it was not” (p.103; my emphasis). To me, this one insighful statement reflects the truer picture behind that disguised self-centredness as well as ‘imperial supremacy’. The civilising mission as a white man’s burden (because of its potential fatality) is less than convincing, although missionaries have indeed ‘improved’ the lives of colonised people (as Levine tells us).

Nonetheless, although missionaries were advocates of anti-slavery and education, “It was not imperialism as a philosophy that [they] criticised; their disapproval was reserved for imperial policies that to them did nothing to consolidate and extend Christianity into non-Christian environments.” (p.121) Put differently, missionaries did see the local people as inferior, at least “in need of saving from their own ignorance and moral poverty”. This, in my opinion, is highly contestable per se.

The “real India”

In Philippa Levine’s “Britain in India”, India is shown to be significant to the British identity not only for economic reasons but more importantly how they see themselves as a Western power. Although it is often thought that the heart of empire exists where the colonizer’s homeland is, in this case the heart of the empire truly exists on the fringes and that is where the colonizers encounter the colonized.

The India which the British see when they are in Britain is not the “real India” as a character in Passage to India desires to see, but rather a projection of whom they would like to think themselves to be. India is more than a physical space but is more importantly an imagined space for the fiction of British superiority to be mapped upon. The notion of Western civilisation is itself a vulnerable and fragile construct, which may be shattered by a head on confrontation with reality. Perhaps this is why when characters from Britain come to India, they find themselves transformed from socially polite and reasonable beings into ‘brutish’ tyrants.

When the British come face to face with the Indian, the illusion of India and its subsequent ties to the British identity is broken and the British is left unable to cope with it except by reinforcing the broken illusion of colonizers’ superiority by creating a whole new artificial construct of social segregation. It is at the fringes of the empire, where the heart of the colonial enterprise may be exposed– an artificially enforced view of British superiority that often exists to exploit in the name of civilising the savage native.

Modernism- looking at racism with rose- tinted glasses

As I was reading the first part of the novel, I could not help wonder if modernism was not just an extension of colonialism given that many of the issues addressed in the former resembled those highly debated in the latter. Racism, gender and class- divides, just to name a few, have been of  our utmost concern for many years now with the only difference being that they are constantly portrayed as new points of contention under a different time period. This can perhaps be related to last week’s class when we were making comparisions of “the mask” painted by three different artists and as such, how it affected our views. To put it simply, “modernism” is, looking at racism for example, with rose- tinted glasses. In addition, while the sypnosis stated, “when Adela and her elderly companion Mrs Moore arrive in the indian town of Chandrapore, they quickly feel trapped by its insular and prejudiced British community,” they served to perpetuate this biasness at times with how they seemed to regard the activities and cultures of the natives as sport.

Philippa Levine’s article “Britain in India”  talked about how the British East India Company underwent many changes, reinventing itself each time as part of the British government’s efforts to consolidate their strong- hold in India. It can then be suggested that modernism is really a term coined to keep the balance of control tilted in the favour of the super- powers. When one learns that an educated Indian is supposedly the product of modernism, one reads in Levine’s article, this same educated Indian actually existed in Colonialism and he was an important source of manpower for the British to sustain their economical gains while exploiting and derogating them in return.

Marabar caves

There seems to be a striking parallel between the experience of india and the experience of the Marabar caves. When beheld from a distance, the caves exude extraordinary beauty and vastness, the entire landscape is rendered exciting and fascinating. However, as discovered by the main characters (both british and indian), a journey to explore the caves only prove to be a gruelling and unpleasant affair. Every cave looks like the other, yet they are never the same. It is difficult to pinpoint or fathom one’s position within, or the relation that one truly bears to the surroundings. This overwhelming sense of ‘muddle’ that one experiences in an attempt to explore or grasp the Marabar caves can be applied to the various characters’ understanding and experiences of India.
For instance, the newly arrived Adela and Mrs Moore express romantic illusions and fascination with the country and are ever eager to ‘see the true India’. This initial attitude stands in stark contrast with the ‘anglo-indians’ or more seasoned white inhabitants of the place. To the latter, years of experience within the country have instilled the idea that India is a place without ‘order’ or ‘reason’, and represents a ‘muddle’ that they do not even bother to solve, just as the Marabar caves. While India is vast and magnificient, it is also divided and rooted in diverse traditions and customs. Like the caves that appear to be same but are never the same, the indians do not always identify with each other despite bearing the same nationality. Aziz himself proves to be critical of his fellow indians who are hindus. Therefore, even the natives themselves struggle to identify their position within society, a situation that is further complicated by the presence of the British.

Power relations in A Passage to India

What struck me most when I started reading A Passage to India were the complex power relations that underpinned most of the text. Everyone in the text is in relatively more or less power than everyone else, whether it is between the two broad camps of ‘natives’ and ‘English’, or within the two groups. The relationship between Major Callendar and Aziz, and Aziz and Dr. Panna Lal is just one example of this: Callendar resents Aziz’s superior skills, and expects Aziz to come immediately when “summoned” (p.48), not even considering that he may be otherwise occupied in his free time. In the same way, Aziz thinks about his quarrel with Panna Lal in terms of whether or not Panna Lal is a person of importance, and whether it was “wise to have quarrelled even with him” (p.54). There seems to be at all times an unspoken but constantly-referenced hierarchy that governs all relationships that is present but only in a rather unobtrusive way—it is a default lens through which all interactions are viewed.

All this later changes with Adela’s accusation of Aziz—the underlying power relations burst to the forefront, with the clear—and symbolic—split between the British and the Indians, in which power rests clearly with the British. The fact that Aziz is arrested simply based on Adela’s accusation and later set free based on her admission of her mistake illustrates this quite clearly, as do the closing lines of the novel.

For me, this was all complicated by the issue of which side I as a reader stand on: Forster is clearly sympathetic to the Indians, which for me added a whole new complicated dimension to the issue of power relations in the novel. If the author is so clearly on one side of the issue, is it the British or the Indians who are really disempowered in the novel?

Is the concept of Racism a new thing?

As we talked about racism/racist opinions of the colonials masters in the Gikandi reading, I found myself becoming increasingly aware of the fact that I recognised the racism immediately the way the colonial masters did not.  When I was reading Passage to India, I found several similar moments again in the text when I felt that the British racism is beyond acute; and yet disturbingly enough, the British (once again) manages to naturalize the racism – as if it’s only natural that the Indians are lesser beings because they weren’t white. Such moments include, “ Most of the inhabitants of India do not mind how India is governed. Nor are the lower animals of England concerned about England” (Forster, 104) and “when an Indian goes bad, he goes not only very bad, but very queer” (158) when Fielding is trying to argue for Aziz’s innocence and McBryde suggests Indians have no sensibilities to hide evidence even when they’re guilty of the crime.


All these things made me wonder subsequently, if our concept of ‘racism’ and the values we attach to ‘racism’ – i.e. that it is not a desirable thing, is really a result of post-colonialism; in that, I’m wondering if indeed it’s because we have come a long way from treating the subaltern as sub-human to a point where we see the need to see them as equals that we have become so aware of the racism inherent in such texts. It certainly cannot be that the British recognized their own racism in the colonial times but chose to ignore it. Rather, I believe that the concept of racism, and by extension – the ability to recognize racism, is possibly therefore still a rather new thing – one that is borne out of a changed consciousness in modernity.

The Quest for the real India; A Quest for Truth

Both Adela and Mrs Moore seek to experience the “true India” (42), something more exciting and mysterious, but instead, are “disappointed at the dullness of their new life” (21). It is highly apt that Adela’s last name is Quested, as her quest is to see “the real India” (21), something other than elephant rides. For Mrs Moore, her first thought is that India is “a beautiful goal and an easy one. To be one with the universe, so dignified and simple” (71). However, both ladies later realize they cannot grasp the true India ultimately. There are no easy answers, “nothing in India is identifiable” (78), and to seek for Truth is in vain, just as everything said in the caves only amounts to a “boum” sound. I think it is this futility of getting to the Truth or depth that Nietzsche speaks of.

Another example that strikes me vividly is the instance of Adela and Mrs Moore seeing the moon’s reflection in the stream. “The water had drawn it out, so that it had seemed larger than the real moon, and brighter” (21). Adela then asks if Mrs Moore managed to see the (real) moon when she was in the Ganges. Once again, the desire to see something ‘real’ is articulated. However, the reflection of the moon that is larger and brighter than usual is just a diversion from Truth, and even when one is able to view the moon in the sky, it is never the “real” thing, ultimately pointing at the futility of the quest for Truth.

No one truth: a matter of perception in _A Passage to India_

I found, in my reading of A Passage to India, that (either to my benefit or detriment), my reading of the Introduction by Pankaj Mishra opened, if not created, a lens by which I viewed the novel not merely as a work of fiction but as a more personal musing over the complexities of India and the absence of “outlines and horizons” (Introduction: xviii) On a personal level, this perspective was both useful and indeed, important to have, given that as a result of realising Forster’s attempt “to indicate the human predicament in a universe which is not, so far, comprehensible to our minds” (Intro: xix), I was made all the more aware that things presented in the novel are, simply put, not what they seem.

Perception and the play on one’s subjective view then become vital to our appreciation of the text, especially in witnessing the interactions between the Indians and English. One could not, to my mind, read this text without recognising undercurrents of judgment throughout every encounter they have with one another. Each judgment, in turn, is never allowed to be accepted as “truth”, for one can only judge as far as one is personally capable, and to find one truth is then to oversimplify matters altogether. Forster’s skill at presenting multiple perspectives, while to some, confusing, was, to me, perfectly in line with the complex, overlapping relationships and issues present throughout the text.

General thoughts on A Passage to India

Here are some of my initial thoughts on the novel. Unlike many of the literary work I’ve read concerning Imperialism, A Passage to India pays attention to the interior life of both the whites and the natives, which I found to be very refreshing. I don’t know if the Indians are misrepresented here, but they are definitely not under- represented. While Forster is obviously critical of the British, he does create, in readers, rather mixed reactions towards all the characters. Characters comment/ reflect on other characters and the different perspectives we get of the various characters at different moments serve only as a rough gauge, and not a complete synthesis, of who they really are.

At times, Forster’s writing style reminds me of Woolf’s. For example, on page 70 (penguin classics edition), Ronny’s thoughts on ‘the spoilt westernized’ blends seamlessly into Aziz’s thoughts on his own conduct and then we get an almost disorienting perspective from Fielding who, as we read on and then realize, is seeing them from across the garden like ‘a scene from a play’. Even reading the chapter on the Bridge Party, I got a sense of things being multifarious yet ‘shapeless’. I was overwhelmed by how quick the narrative moved from one person to the next, and how abruptly these thoughts and sensations ended.

Perhaps this murky, dream-like quality of the novel ties in well with the motif of the mysterious Marabar caves. Many of the characters’ desires and anxieties are half-articulated. Forster uses the notion of ‘namelessness’ or ‘formlessness’ throughout the novel: we have the nameless bird, the unidentified hyena/ghost, Fielding’s religious song which had the illusion of a Western melody and which ceased casually halfway through a bar.

Mrs Moore and the Marabar Caves

I think what really strikes me about Passage to India is how mysterious the Marabar Caves are and how they have exerted a sinister yet invisible force over Mrs Moore. Its shocking to me that a jovial character who bore good will to the natives can drastically transform into a detached and disagreeable person after having a sort of negative epiphany. I think that a great deal of this is attributed to the fact that all words including God’s Word is reduced to just an ‘ou-boum’ sound (139). Mrs Moore realizes that words that she valued such as ‘Let there be light’ and ‘it is finished’ (139) meant so little. She suddenly has no concrete universal truth to comfort herself and she is disenchanted; left in a state of uncertainty and flux. We think that she might search for new meaning in life by actively making meaning or deconstructing it, but instead, she seems to react in hopelessness to the situation, as if it dawned upon her that her efforts in extending kindness to the natives count for nothing and as a result, she stops trying. Perhaps this might resonate with absurdism and how Mrs Moore finds no meaning in life and stops striving and instead, she surrenders to the inevitability of things. Thus she becomes hollowed out, an empty shell of a person; one that is apathetic, detached and incapable of affection. Perhaps this suggests that Mrs Moore has been unknowingly poisoned by the Indian landscape i.e. the Marabar Caves and that her disagreeable behavior is a symptom of the Indian disease- she has become one of them. This is further supported with the fact that on her journey back home along the Suez, where “Asia weaken and those of Europe begin to be felt… Mrs. Moore was shaken off” (241). Her body is thus laid at rest in the Indian Ocean so she becomes part of India. She is also fondly remembered by Aziz and is worshipped like the goddess by the natives. This suggests that Mrs Moore has ‘gone native’ and is possibly punished for it.

Treatment of the Marabar Caves in Forster

Forster provides us with amazing descriptions of landscape in his novel. India is seen through various representations- the Himalayas, the Ganges, Chandrapore, holy spaces, and the Marabar caves. Yet, there is undeniable ambivalence when it comes to his depiction of the Marabar caves. For example, Forster calls ‘the visitor’ of the caves ‘uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull one or any experience at all’ (116), and while this might echo his own ambivalence towards India (or more specifically, British imperialist attitudes in India), it suggests that the caves are so overwhelming that it numbs and confuses the senses. Visitors simply will not be able to decide how they feel about the caves (perhaps as a holy space). The Marabar caves as a suggestion of elusiveness and mystery is an important motif in the novel- we are unclear about whether Adela’s experience is an ‘illusion’, reality, or simple misunderstanding. The caves are also a place of uncertainty, as even Aziz admits that he will never find the same place within the caves again; despite the fact that he is their official “guide”, he is also not spared by the ability of the caves to confuse and trick.


Forster links the cave to a ‘holy place’, as does Aziz, thereby accepting the mystery that surrounds it, but Adela and Ronny both express a need to put ideas and events into neat categories. Adela laments that ‘good, happy, small people. They do not exist, they were a dream’ (193), and Ronny expresses his frustration with the fact that the caves are ‘notoriously like one another’. Also, his suggestion that ‘in the future they were to be numbered in sequence with white paint’ (188) suggests that he possesses a strong desire to simplify what he cannot understand/identify, resulting in a loss of meaning.


The source and existence of the echo that Adela hears in the cave is also never resolved for us. Moran suggests that it is a reminder of the evil she has done (both towards violating the cave, and for falsely accusing Aziz). I think that the ambivalent space of the caves, along with the suggestion of violence (and perhaps crime?) wrecked against India by the British, is very effective as a motif in the novel.



The Truth for Modernists

In reading Erich Auerbach’s analysis of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the Modernist attitude towards truth arises. This for me can be more simply described through a series of binaries.

Auerbach quickly notes that “inner processes” (529) dominate Woolf’s prose. This perhaps suggests that truth is not apparent, found in superficial observations, but resides in unseen, interior cogitations.

Woolf presents a mishmash of perspectives, seemingly from Mrs Ramsay, Mr Bankes, even Woolf herself. This recalls the painting which was shown in class, Woman with a Guitar by Georges Braque. As represented by Cubism, Woolf seems also to subscribe to the idea that truth is never a single perspective.

Statements made are indefinite, suggesting that truth is not clear-cut, nor fixed. Rather than finding answers, Woolf poses questions; questions themselves may be considered truth, without the need or the finality of answers. Also, feelings are prized over facts. Woolf suggests the reliability of feelings and personal thought, and throws suspicion upon hard, objective facts.

Modernism and its influences

Gikandi’s article was a good example of the main question where it concerns modernism and its influences. I think, historically, Western art has been systematically flooded then drained of it’s influences in an attempt to preserve what is considered high culture. It became more and more prevalent with the addition of modernism to the repertoire. If modernism is about perspective, illumination, and the importance of representation, then it makes sense that artists like Picasso and even E.M. Forster would want to explore what they were seeing in Britain’s colonial strongholds. However, all this has led to questions similar to what Gikandi presents–what he talks about as the ‘difference that haunts and maintains [modernism].’ The difference between Western art and so-called colonial art and the consequential denial of influence. It is really an interesting aspect of modernism. When we look at history, the facts are that Britain claimed India and many other places in the world. It was a source of pride, economic flourishing, and political importance. Looking at London’s metropolitan culture today, it would be extremely difficult to deny the influence colonialism had on the empire itself. Yet simultaneously modernism keeps its hold on culture without admitting that the relationship is more mutual, rather like two children in a three-legged race.

Of embracing fear and the crisis of representation

Embracing Fear

What strikes me about Levine’s “Ruling the Empire” and Gikandi’s “Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference” is the fear of natives and their possible influence on the West. Fear of the alleged savagery and lack of civilization of these “lesser peoples” (Levine 105) form part of the basis for the West’s civilizing missions. Even then, fears still exist: that of “contamination” (Levine 107) when colonizers marry colonized women.  This fear is similar to the “anxiety of African influence” (Gikandi 458); the need to play down any direct association between Picasso’s works and tribal objects.  The African is seen as the Other, everything the civilized West is not. To suggest an African influence on the West would then mean a threat to the civilized West and what it stands for. However, where fear becomes a reason to reject the African, Picasso then embraces it, producing his own version of the unmodern, presenting, representing, and re-presenting the African/ African culture’s influence on his art.

Crisis of Representation

The link between modernism and empire, of fear and actions to quell that fear, is exemplified in Levine’s article. When we speak of modernism and form, Picasso’s works playing on the idea of perspective and complicating the meaning of things compels me to recall Auerbach’s discussion of how different peoples’ consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse gives different perceptions of the “real” Mrs Ramsay.

We are thus confronted with a crisis of representation, of having to deal with fear and re-presenting it in a different form.

KYBau / Picasso_Africa_Difference

Simon Gikandi in this essay argues that Picasso, a canonical master of modernist art, has ‘insensitively’ refused – and perhaps even doing so with deliberate contempt – to acknowledge what the former claims as a pivotal constituent of modernity: Africanism. The paradox lies in how Africa’s alleged primitivism has to be the anti-thesis to the cultured white men’s civility (thesis) but can not take credit for its synthesis of modernity. The blacks, in short, are always the ‘uncanny’ Other – a ‘threat’, ‘contaminant’, a disembodied image.

This essay questions my assumed knowledge of ‘modernism’. How much more realistic is a modernist work of art? How convincing would it be to argue that this term might merely be a taken-for-granted ‘re-appropriat[ion]’ of the Other ‘in its own image’?