The East-West relationship in “A Passage to India” by E.M. Forster

E.M. Forster was an essayist and a fiction writer, apart from A Passage to India which according to the then ruler of Dholpur state of Rajasthan, Nihal Singh, shows “how the British in India despise and ostracise Indians, while on their part the Indians mistrust and misjudge the British” (qtd. in Childs, 347). He had a couple more novels depicting and examining class differences and hypocrisy like A Room with a View and Howards End. There is a definite contraption of the Eastern and the Western paradigms, these manifest themselves with the conspicuous difficulty of the English-Indian friendship of Aziz and Fielding and the “muddle” of India as the novel claims. The pillar incident of A Passage to India is that a British woman Miss Adela Quested accuses a Muslim Indian Dr. Aziz of assaulting her during their visit to the Malabar caves. Although we later find that the charges on Aziz were false, his trail also in effect brings about a trail of communal, racial and religious domains that the characters of the novel represent. 

Postcolonial theories such as Edward Said’s Orientalism and Gayatri Spivak’s concept of Worlding have an immediate understanding of Forster’s work. The mentioned pillar incident of the novel itself has critiques according to these concepts “…in a trip to Marbar caves Mrs. Adela Quested charges on Aziz that he wanted to rape her even if he had done nothing like that. Actually, west assume that Indians are rapists, this is how things are ideologically brought up in many of the western texts. Again Mrs. Moore after coming to India speaks that Indians need civilization which the west can give them and is considered as superior than the east” (Parveen, 49). The idea of a relationship between the East and the West itself terms the two self-evidently different, and rightly so, the depiction of the same in the novel rallies from the description of the former’s architecture and natural landscape as primitive while the latter’s as aesthetically pleasing and comforting. The comparison between the Western and Eastern landscape gives a presence of power domination of the Occident against the Orient, being a parallel of the Anglo-Indian relationship of the colonial master and the colonized. It also shows the superiority of the Westerners as a race over the Orientals – being characteristic of Orientalism. We see further evidence when Forster remarks that the Indian city, Chandrapore, is confusing and “nothing extraordinary”, that it is dirty and “undistinguishable from the rubbish” and that the streets are “mean” and the temples are “ineffective” (Forster, 2). Along the river Ganges are the dusty bazaars and dark alleyways which only unveil the trace of backwardness and poverty of India. The relationship in his novel of the different cultures and backgrounds have dimensions far beyond their own personal attitudes and works, and which we see on the personal level with the effort of friendship between Aziz and Fielding resulting in nothing but a notion that the union, understanding and or friendship between the two is improbable as they are both highly distinctive making them far beyond the realm of acceptance. 

The human difference in the novel is shown by the attitudes of Feilding and Aziz, as Meenakshi Mukherjee remarks, “[r]elationship – communication between, and understanding of men who happen to belong to two races – is part of Forster’s theme” (Mukherjee, 86). Forster was also known for his critique of colonialism, he examines the East-West or Indo-British relationship in terms of separation and connection. As Lionel Trilling says about it, “separateness of fences and barriers is everywhere dominant. The separateness of race from race, sex from sex, culture from culture, even of man from himself, is what underlies every relationship” (qtd. in Fang 61).

We see this dynamic of separation and connection is ways such as the attitudes of the British officials’ attitude towards the Indians, for example McBryde in the novel believes that “all unfortunate natives are criminals at heart”, this Orientalist attitude is disguised by him as “they can’t help it. It’s the result of being born below 30° South. If we English settled here, we’d be just the same” (Forster, 108). The connection in the novel is done in terms of understanding (although perhaps an Occidental perspective) and synthesis as we see being done in the “Bride Party” which is thrown by Collector Mr. Turton at the Club house to welcome and fulfil the desire of new comers Mrs. Moore and Miss Adela Quested to meet Indians. The same is done in part by the personal tea party of Mr. Fielding, which develops the humanitarian relationships between him and Aziz, and Aziz and Mrs. Moore. The relationship of the races in the novel is mainly characterized by the clear racist attitudes of most of the Britishers in the novel, we see how Turton repeatedly breaks appointment with Indians, wasting their time. When one Indian is accused of a crime, Turton considers that all Indians have been revealed in their true nature. The relationship is essentially one of extreme disparity in power, given the colonized Indians and the authority of the Britishers. The treatment of the Indians by the wives of the Britishers is no less in degree than their male counterparts, for instance we see how when an Indian lady who is invited in a British party and they come to know that she knows English, they with an infantilizing attitude remark, “how wonderful!” right in her face. According to Clare Brandabur the racist assumptions of the superiority of the British is the cause of failure of personal relationships in the novel, “A Passage to India attempts to deal with colonialism with respect to the destructive impact on personal relationships caused by the racist assumptions and psycho-pathology inherent in colonial imperialism” (Brandabur, 25). 

The relationship between the British and the Indians is portrayed in three parts in the novel, the mosque, the caves and the temple. Forster describes the Marabar Caves in the pot of the Orientalist notion of the “exotic east”, since this notion, according to the theory of Orientalism, is the fascination of travelling to the East by the Westerners, be it poets, scholars, or men of authority, given its adventurous and exotic themes. This notion seeps into A Passage to India when the Britishers Miss Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore accompanied by Aziz visit the caves and the main incident of the novel occurs, the caves have a bizarre echo and this affects the women’s minds. Although Forster’s own view on Indians aren’t Orientalist, given how heterogenous he makes the characters, but clearly the Indian landscape had a sense of supernatural, exoticism and mystery for him. The caves are high in significance for another reason, they themselves are used as an archetype of the projection of the image of India and the Gokul Ashtami as an archetype of the “muddle” which is India. Furthermore, we see Fielding, a highly educated person, is still bewildered and confused by India as we see with his remark that the Mediterranean is the human norm and anything beyond it, towards India, is a mystery. The portrayal of India as a chaotic, exotic, complex entity, lacking in form and meaning – this morphed in the incident of the caves is what creates the manner of all the characters life in the novel. The crushing of Aziz’s emotions, Quested’s shattered dreams, Moore’s half-swooning, the failure of Godbole and the delays of Fielding, all are by the notion of connection with India (East). 

Forster tries to showcase the issues of the Indo-British relationships in A Passage to India, of the coloniser and the colonised, of the British administrators and native Indians, and of the inter-racial and human relations. With the novel he depicts the stereotyping of the Occidentals and the Orientals as projected in the Anglo-Indian and British Raj fiction. One of the main reasons that the relationships of the East and the West are deeply affected in the novel is because of the socio-psychological predicament of the British during the period of the British rule. Forster’s depiction of India as hostile and harsh country increases the British predicament, ultimately affecting the relationships. A Passage to India is a classic example of how different cultures, when rammed together for rule, misunderstand each other, and consequences birth from those misunderstandings. Forster’s novel deals with the failure of humans being able to communicate satisfactorily and their failure to eliminate prejudice, to then thus establish relationships. Forster himself reflects on this issue when he sends a letter to his Indian friend Masood: “When I began the book I thought of it as a little bridge of sympathy between East and West, but this conception has had to go, my sense of truth forbids anything so comfortable. I think that most Indians, like most English people, are shits, and I am not interested whether they sympathize with one another or not” (Forster to Syed Masood, 27 September 1922).

E. M. Forster with this novel tried to display how mere residence in a region isn’t enough to understand them, well enough that a relationship could be formed. After the physical divide shown in the first chapter of the novel, which is between the Civil Lines where the English stay and Chandrapore proper where the natives live, the second chapter opens with the central proposition “whether or not it is possible to be friends with an Englishman” (Forster, 4). The relationship is made more improbable by the racial superiority that most Britishers felt ruling and residing in India and the attitude of Indians towards the British because of it. For the novel, the last section is priceless in terms of the notion of a relationship between East and West, how as Fielding and Aziz get near to embrace each other their horses swerve apart showing the underlying boil of the two paradigms and their unfair dynamic in the region. 


Brandabur, Clare. “Images of women in five post-colonial novels.” Aegean Journal of
Language and Literature, proceedings of 13th All-Turkey English Literature
Conference (1992 special issue): 16-45. Print.

Childs, Peter. ed. Post-Colonial Theory and English Literature: A Reader. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 1999. Print.

Fang, Sun. Separateness and Connection: An Interpretation of A Passage to India.
Cross-Cultural Communication 9.6 (2013): 61-64. Web. 15 January 2014.

Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. Penguin Classics. 2005. 

Forster to Syed Masood, 27 September 1922. 
Quoted in P. N. Frubank, E. M. Forster; A Life, vol. 2 (1978), (London Cardinal Sphere, 1998), 106. 

Mukherjee, Meenakshi. The Twice Born Fiction – Indian Novels in English. New
Delhi: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1971. Print.

Praveen, Ambesange. Postcolonialism: Edward Said & Gayatri Spivak
Research Journal of Recent Sciences. Vol. 5(8), 47-50, August (2016).

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