Fanon and violence

While I disagree on Fanon’s insistence on categorizing the colonial world as Manichaestic, I agree with his claim that decolonization is a programme of complete disorder. Any process that seeks to remove a previous system in its entirety and to start anew with another system, especially in the case of decolonization in Southeast Asia where the system that was introduced is one that is not only new but has not been proven to work, would definitely cause disorder. His claim that decolonization is a programme of complete disorder brought me back to the last section (Temples) of A Passage to India where Forster documents a festival where there is complete disorder, and noticably there are not any Anglo-Indian characters in this section. Perhaps Forster was also already aware of the violence that was to come with decolonization.

Also, I feel that while violence is never a good way towards striving for a resolution, I feel that decolonization was a necessary violent process. After the violence that had been inflicted upon the natives during the process of colonization, I feel the only way to start completely anew is through violence as a ‘cleansing’ process. As such, even though the violence that decolonization brought about was viewed as only another example of native barbarism and as such seemed to only proved that they weren’t ready to be free from the colonialists, I feel that it was a way that the natives could come out of the period of history which was marked with violence.

Fanon and the process of decolonization

Fanon argues that the colonists’ basis for colonizing foreign lands is the belief in the native’s ‘ “negation of values “. Because of the native’s lack of values, the colonist deems his own action reasonable and altruistic. It also gives him the right to continue to lord over the ‘immoral’ colonized. Such a line of reasoning also implies the colonist’s ‘divine right’ to rule over the colonized.  As the colonists becomes increasingly absorbed and bought over by this line of thinking, the barbaric nature of colonization is lost upon them.

But the natives are not spared from adopting this line of thinking themselves. The ultimate solution to achieving peace in the colony is to convince the natives that they are unable to run their countries themselves, and they would return to the Middle Ages once the colonists leave. Thus, Fanon insists that violence is at the core of de-colonization. Violence is perhaps the only way to break the belief that the colonized is inherently inferior to the colonist.

Unlike Fanon, I do not think that violence must take the form of colonized against colonist. Britain’s de-colonization in South East Asia can be a case in point. For Singapore’s case, violence against the colonist was not the key that brought about de-colonization. Instead, it was the violence of WWII inflicted upon Britain that convinced them to leave. The war torn Britain could no longer sustain their colonist position economically. Furthermore, her defeat to Japan in SEA demystified its superior colonist image.

Thus, while Fanon’s argument on the process of de-colonization is useful but it cannot be applied generically to all colonies.

Friendship between Fielding and Aziz

The ending in Passage to India which depicts the emotional yet resolute parting between Fielding and Aziz testifies to the unbridgable gap between the colonist and the colonized. The power structure that dictates their friendship proves to be the fundamental obstacle from the beginning to the end. As pondered over by Fielding, ‘All their stupid misunderstandings had been cleared up, but socially they had no meeting-place. He had thrown in his lot with Anglo-India by marrying a country woman…and already felt surprised by his past heroism. Would he today defy all his own people for the sake of a strange Indian? Aziz was a memento, a trophy, they were proud of each other, yet they must inevitably part’ (p. 303).
I think Forster makes it pretty clear that throughout the process of their friendship, in spite of genuine affections, both Fielding and Aziz struggle to get past the ‘otherness’ of each other in his own eyes. They are also constantly conscious of the unbalanced positions which they inherit within the colonist-colonized power structure. Aziz’s responses to Fielding appear to be at times, emotional and unreasonable, though he refuses to admit his own biasness and thrusting of personal frustration regarding the ‘colonial enemy’ in their conversations. Fielding’s reflections towards the end of the novel also implies that he finally finds himself succumbing to the prevailing notion that the East-West divide is ultimately impossible to cross and he assumes an even more complict position with his marriage, which further consolidates his Anglo-Indian identity.

On Violence in Passage to India

I’d admit that it was more than a little frustrating to read Fanon because of his rather extreme, over-generalized statements on the colonialists and the colonized. Was the colonized world really divided in two? Wouldn’t Fielding/ Mrs. Moore be an exception to that case? Is the ending really unambiguous, suggesting that reconciliation and equality between the colonialists and the colonized is (at least temporarily) impossible?

What intrigued me, however, was his idea of decolonization- a term I hardly come across. Fanon mentions repeatedly that the colonized have imbibed the violent disposition of the colonized and will continue to perpetuate their ways. The colonized is much more concerned about taking the place of the colonized than competing with them. My take is that decolonization, for Fanon, is not entirely possible. And here I am reminded of a moment in the book when Aziz and Huzoor talk about the flies on the ceiling (pg. 262):

‘Look at those flies on the ceiling. Why have you not drowned them?’

‘Huzoor, they return’

‘Like all evil things.’

Hassan then related how the kitchen-boy killed one snake by cutting it into two and creating two snakes in its place instead. Imagine if you tried cutting the two snakes up again. A never-ending infernal cycle! In my own opinion, however, the ending of the novel isn’t as straightforward as it seems even though the ‘hundred voices’ oppose the friendship between Fielding and Aziz. It’s interesting to note that the last mention of Fielding names him as ‘the other’ and that his question of ‘Why can’t we be friends now?’ is (I argue) really left open-ended because we don’t get to read about Aziz’s response. Before that, Aziz’s interaction with Fielding is both intimate and hostile with him riding against Fielding furiously and then ‘half kissing him’.

On Passage, Fielding and modernism

The tendency to read Forster’s novel in political lens, in the legacy of the colonial history that determines our ‘post’ existence today, is an inherent and unavoidable complicity on our part. Yet to read Passage outwardly from the start in the binaristic terms of “East versus West” or “Black versus White” is to miss the subtle nuances, complexities and intricacies of the novel, for while modernism at one level does not outwardly criticize colonialism, Forster’s novel nonetheless put forth a means to understanding the multiple relationships between the colonizer and the colonized, and in turn provides the platform for the questioning of attitudes towards the self-righteous hegemony of Empire.

Fielding’s problematic relationship with his colonized other Dr. Aziz in a sense emblematizes the Forster’s troubling attitude towards Empire, as in throwing his lot with the Indians and in turn becoming an outcast from the white members of the Club, he is able to empathize with his Other. Yet empathy is about as far as Fielding could push his relationship with the Other, since the colonial mentality is so deeply embedded within each party that both Fielding and Dr. Aziz needed to see one another as enemies at the very end in spite of their personal friendship. The role of Fielding in the densely psychological novel may thus be seen as a mirror of Forster’s unconscious – his superior position as the empowered colonist, which does not dismiss the feelings of complicity, guilt and empathy towards the colonized.

The nationalistic outcries by the end serve to show how modernism acts as the gateway to further postcolonial sentiments by providing that necessary rupturing of consciousness and highlighting the now shaky foundations on which Empire is build (“upon sand”), with hints of further violence to come.

Abandoning binaries, embracing perspectives

While I was thinking about the divisions between colonists/colonized or West/East, it struck me how humans have this need for easy categorizations. Fanon says “It is the colonist who fabricated… the colonized subject” (2). The image of the colonized is created in opposition to the colonist. “The ruling species is first and foremost the outsider from elsewhere, different from the indigenous population, ‘the others’” (Fanon 5), establishing the difference in race, status, and other attributes between the colonist and the colonized. We are all too familiar with classifying Indians/East as rural, primitive, uncivilized, and superstitious, in comparison to the English/West as cultured, educated and rational. It is precisely such binary modes of thinking that creates a static, stereotyped image, which I think Forster tries not to fall into in A Passage To India.

Godbole is a fine example of a character that doesn’t fall into neat categories. “His whole appearance suggested harmony, as if he had reconciled the products of East and West” (65). If we look at the significant Marabar Caves, it is viewed by the English as a “muddle”, dangerous and disorienting. What the English see as a chaotic muddle, however, the Indians view as a beautiful, spiritual mystery. Just as “good and evil are different, as their names imply… they are both of them aspects of [the] Lord” (167), once again suggesting it is a matter of perspective. I think Forster propounds adopting an unconventional approach to reading the novel and reading people: learning to embrace different perspectives, realizing there is no one truth, just as India can be “a hundred Indias” (13). Only when we are open to other perspectives, will we be able to get a more all-encompassing view of the Truth, or the ‘real’ India.

The English-Educated Indian and the Cycle of Imperialism

Being colonized by a language has larger implications for one’s consciousness as assuming a language is equated to the assumption of a culture.  Speaking English means that one accepts, or is coerced into accepting, the collective consciousness of the English, which comes with ideology that profiles and disengages the darker ethnicities, such as the Indian “psychology of crime” (Passage 187), or that “darker races are physically attracted to the fairer but not vice versa” (243).

With this in mind, the place of the educated Indian in the novel and within in the sociohistorical context of British India becomes one of interest.  Language has the potential of being an equalizing force or a subversive tool for the educated Indian.  It is what separates the “useful” Indians from the ones that could cause problems for the British Raj, as is noted during the Bridge Party.  However, as seen in the case of Aziz, it appears that the mastery of the colonizer’s language is something that elevates the subaltern in his own eyes to the level of the colonizer.  He makes the figure of the non-English educated Indian the new subaltern figure, relegated to the role of the comic gull who can be mocked (Mahmoud Ali) .

The derision towards the new subaltern supplies the power for the educated Indian, who fails to utilize the subversive potential of language to break the cycle of Imperialism.  Instead, as he fuels the colonial machine further by using the language of the colonizer as a marker for the colonial subject; by allowing the colonial power/colonial subject  divide to exist, albeit (from their point of view) with fewer on the latter side.

Shooting oneself in the foot

Upon reading Shooting the elephant, it struck me that although a system or order may privilege some participants over others, in the end, everyone is nonetheless a subject. The police officer is able to enjoy a higher social status than the natives but is nonetheless trapped by the obligations associated by participating in the colonial enterprise by his role as a public servant. Imperialism is not merely guilty of taking unfair advantage of the natives but also guilty of causing the usually humane British subjects to descend into the same barbarity which they accuse the natives of.

In trying to justify colonial rule by saying that the natives are in need of a civilising influence, the empire has trapped the colonizers in the role not unlike that of the police officer in Orwell’s story, forcing them to act in certain ways. There is an unexpected power inversion here, where the European is expected to act like a Sahib even though he has decided to abandon his part in the colonial enterprise. It is his fear of them laughing at him which motivates his decision to kill  the elephant,  placing him in a subordinate position where he is forced to do violence to the elephant, which may be seen as symbolic of the natives.

The price of artificially trying to validate a regime of power or social order is that ultimately, it results in an uncanny backlash where the powerful look upon their constructed image of the powerless and see themselves reflected back- effectively shooting themselves in the foot.

The random trivial things

In Passage to India, there was one particular chapter that left me with a strong impression – Chapter X. It focuses on seemingly trivial details (where the plot does not develop). We are told of small animals going on their living and the scorching unforgiving sun’s cruel presence and its effects on both humans and animals alike. The chapter’s inclusion and position in the novel seems rather incongruous but the tension present in the preceding chapter contextualizes the juxtaposition, between man and animal and their relation with nature as personified by the sun.

I think the question becomes, are we any more different from the animals in determining how ‘India’ is governed? What gives us rights to make such decisions, when we are, as Forster puts it, “the minority”. I think Forster is pointing towards a larger force in nature as personified by the sun – a force more powerful than imaginable, one that does not discriminate but forces men to realize their vulnerability. This highlights the implausibility of fully controlling the India that both the English and Indians believe in and are contesting. The juxtaposition of human with animals in the chapter serves to remind readers that we are of little difference from the other animals as we (animals and humans) are all, mere inhabitants of an indiscriminating but harsh world (in other words, it does not matter whether you have white or coloured skin), where life is simply governed by a larger force.

In Opposite Corners: Colonist vs Colonized in Fanon and Forster

In the beginning of Fanon’s chapter “On Violence,” he states that:

…[t]he colonist is right when he says he “knows” them. It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject. The colonist derives his validity, i.e., his wealth, from the colonial system.

The entire idea of “fabricating” the colonized subject made me think of Said’s Orientalism, and the tendency of the colonist to make the colonized appear simultaneously exotic and uncivilized. Said argues that the colonist projects their “dark” side onto the colonized–attributing cruelty, stupidity, laziness, lack of hygeine etc to the “hysterical masses”–while exemplifying themselves as the polar opposite of the colonized. As Fanon puts it, “to illustrate the totalitarian nature of colonial exploitation, the colonist turns the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil.”

Nonetheless, Fanon appears to be writing from this Eurocentric standpoint, positing the colonial world as a “compartmentalized” and ordered world and the decolonization process as a process of violence caused by years of envy and anger on part of the colonized people. His description of the “native” sector as disreputable, famished, and prostate suggests that his sympathies lie with the colonists.

In addition to using Said’s binaristic language to describe the colonist and colonized, Fanon makes an interesting decision in acknowledging the colonist as the foreigner, but still labeling the colonized, “the others,” emphasizing that the indigenous population is marginalized, and therefore inferior to to the colonists.

With regards to Forster’s Passage, Fanon’s illustration of the relationship between the colonist and the colonized, specifically the “colonized intellectual,” and his definitions of the “foreign” and “native” sectors facilitate insight into the interactions between and the opinions held by the “foreign” and “native” characters in the text.

Versions of Truth in Passage to India

If we can suggest a thing such as “the Truth”, then in the eyes of the reader, the “Truth” is that Mrs. Moore did nothing to bail Aziz out of his plight; instead it was Adela who woke up from her stupor and rescued Aziz from a lifetime of reprehension. Yet the fact Aziz never forgives Adela and instead looks to the deceased Mrs. Moore as a figure of recuperation, fondness and “love” only complicates our understanding of what “Truth” really is. While we may be (reductively) inclined to say that Aziz is deluded, I think it is actually more complex than that because his version of the “truth” is not any less valid than our sympathetic reading of it either. After all, his is also the result of how he has chosen to comprehend the turn of events. 

 Using Adela’s words “we must all die; all these personal relations we try to live by are temporary. I used to feel death selected people, it is a notion one gets from novels, […] Now ‘death spares no one’ begins to be real” (249), I would like to posit that Aziz is therefore “writing” his own life story by immortalizing Mrs. Moore – because that is the only way he can construct his version of reality and come to terms with the illogical horrors that happened to him. 

Death had selected Mrs. Moore rather randomly, yet Aziz makes a martyr out of Mrs. Moore exactly because she died. To me, I think this is because putting Mrs Moore on the pedestle is a much easier task than forgiving the living Adela for Aziz. Upon death, Mrs. Moore can no longer speak, so Aziz is free to do whatever he wants to her memory. Without contradictions, Aziz is then able to construct a coherent narrative (like that of a “novel” in Adela’s words) that helps him cope with the unexpected and bizarre accusation that he was faced with out of nowhere. In a way, I could not help but wonder if Mrs. Moore had lived and continued to display her apathy towards all that happened (including Aziz), would he still have elevated her to such a status?

 And I think the implication of this is therefore the impulse that is inherent within Modernism itself too– that, in the end it’s not about what reality is (if we can even access it in the first place) but the stories and versions of truth that we tell that is more important to giving our existence meaning and coherence. This is however not to say that our versions of truths are blatant lies in any way; rather it is the way we have chosen to look at life; and it is need not always exist in line with what really happened from a neutral third party’s point of view (a la the reader in this story). 

Geopolitics in “A Passage to India

“The Wretched of the Earth” reading gave me several insights. One of which is that violence is inflicted on the colonial subject through the use of space. “In colonial regions, the proximity and frequent, direct intervention by the police and the military ensure the colonized are kept under close scrutiny” (4). Thus not only is Foucault’s idea of surveillance utilized in that the colonizers constantly invade the native space but that the spaces in which the native and the colonizer inhabit are placed in stark contrast. The colonist forms enclaves “where the streets are clean and smooth”, a “belly permanently full of good things” (4) while the native quarters is a “disreputable place inhabited by disreputable people” (4).

We see this use of space playing out in “A Passage to India” as the club symbolizes a place for the British elites to play tennis, have bridge parties and foster an identity of English-ness. The Indians are prohibited from entering this space as Aziz demonstrates by watching only from the gate. Meanwhile, Aziz’s home is one where the heat permeates and where flies are aplenty so much so that Hassan is called to drive them away.

Fanon suggests that this binaristic opposition of spaces breeds envy in the native and they want to overthrow the colonizers and take their place. The bridge party for example, is draped under the pretense that the British invited the ‘real’ Indians so as to bridge the gap but in between sips of their iced lemon tea, the British are sneering them, and this event only seeks to enforce the superiority of their race. This is also seen in the courthouse where commoners sit on the dust outside the court while Adela and her supporters were given seats on the platform signaling a position of authority (208). Thus the tensions between the races are not only evident through their physical interactions with one another but this is also manifested through the geographical landscape and the Forster’s use of space.

Truth sets the native free, or does it?

I will look at a quote from Fanon’s article: “Truth is what protects the “natives” and undoes the foreigners” (14). This problematizes modernism as a form of decolonialization because it rejects naming absolute Truth, perhaps not so much because there isn’t any but because they feel humans lack the means of communicating it. For example, the caves always echo back “boun”, no matter what you say, which I think, illustrates the inadequacies of language.   


So, if “Truth” is what sets the native free, by refusing to bring the “Truth” to light, does Forster continue to keep the colonized “penned in”? For example, by refusing to reveal the truth about Adela’s attack, Forster makes Adela’s naming of Aziz as her attacker an ambivalent gesture. If she named Aziz as her attacker because she was assaulted by an Indian, and in the darkness had mistaken the Indian for Aziz, it reinforces the colonial mentality of the “absolute evil” of the colonized. If Adela had not been attacked, her naming of an Indian as an attacker could then be read as the colonial impulse to label the natives as “absolute evil”, as she had projected a shapeless, terrifying situation into the form of an Indian. However, I think that it is arguable that instead of penning in the native, the refusal to reveal the Truth might give readers the room to form their opinions on what happened, and thus force them to review their reasons for choosing to take a particular perspective.

Political Liberalism in A Passage to India

At the end of last week’s seminar, one of the questions posed was about the ways in which the discourse of political liberalism is played out in A Passage to India.

Amongst other events, the arrest and eventual trial of Aziz is one instance where we encounter the discourse of political liberalism. After the arrest of Aziz, we notice Mr. Turton, the Collector, bemoaning the fact that ‘there seemed nothing for it but the old weary business of compromise and moderation’ and longing for ‘the good old days when an Englishman could satisfy his own honour and no questions asked afterwards’ (172). Contextually, this points to the increase in demand for rights of the citizen-subject and suggests that political liberalism serves as a fundamental challenge to political power being concentrated in the hands of the nobility. This also explains why Mr. Turton felt that Ronny’s decision to refuse Aziz bail was ‘[un]wise of poor young Heaslop’ for ‘the Government of India itself [was watching] – and behind it [was] that caucus of cranks and cravens, the British Parliament’ (172).

Ultimately however, the discourse of political liberalism remains a muted one. The repeated naming of Mr. Turton as ‘The Collector’ reinforces his role as a servant of the British Parliament, pinning his identity in relation to his national duty, and acknowledging his powerful status. In contrast, Aziz, as a citizen-subject, is acutely aware of his disempowered status, knowing from the moment of his arrest ‘that an English-woman’s word would always outweigh his own’ (221). This indeed proves to be the case – it is only when Adela admits that Aziz did not follow her into the cave is Aziz declared to be innocent and set free.

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 ):

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.

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 “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.

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.

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.