A Passage to India
E. M. Forster
The plot-line of this 1924 novel is well known. Dr. Aziz, a medical doctor in Chandrapore, India, befriends two women fresh from England. It is the time of the raj. Dr. Aziz takes them to the Malabar Caves for a picnic.
After running away from the jaunt, the younger lady, Adela Quested, accuses Aziz of attempted rape in one of the caves. He is put on trial, she recants her testimony, but the lives of all the characters are poisoned by the conflict of the Anglo-Indians on the one side and the Muslims and Hindus on the other.
I did this one when I was in college. I can't recall being very impressed by the writing. Now, fifty years later, I see it (and, in this case, hear it) as a masterpiece. What the hell was going on in my head in those days besides lust and booze? And why in hell did I spend so much time trying to parse Joyce, James, Eliot, and the Existentialists when this one was on my shelf?
A Passage to India is a goldmine of astute writing and wonderful plotting. It is crammed with currents and cross-currents of characters and cultures --- the anguish of the Indians, the cloddishness of the English, the mystical brightness of the Hindus.
There is the roil of boring Christianity vs. the colorful "oriental" religions; overall, there is a subtle skien of mystical, ghostly symbols and images. A creature bangs into a car; is it a hyena, or a ghost? Strange things happen in the caves. After her "enlightenment," one of the characters, Mrs. Moore, a rather straightforward Englishwoman, becomes a Hindu goddess, "Esmiss Esmoor."
Outside of the alleged rape of her future daughter-in-law, (a "rape" that may have been a mere spiritual manifestation), Mrs. Moore is the one most changed by her visit to the caves. A crowd comes in behind her, and, in the dark, "some vile naked thing struck her face and settled on her mouth like a pad." Then there was "the echo:"
Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. "Boum" is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or "bou-oum," or "ou-boum," utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce "boum."
"The echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had murmured to her, 'Pathos, piety, courage --- they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.'"
§ § §
These bleak sentiments --- and they are bleak --- start Mrs. Moore on a downward path. Over the next weeks, she turns irritable and dull. She leaves India, dies on the P & O liner en route to Europe.
The wisdom of the cave --- that "everything exists, nothing has value" --- turns up again and again in the book. Time gets stretched out, disappears; the rites of the Hindus turn serious and comic at the same time. The English are clueless; Aziz turns bitter, learning that kindness will never be rewarded by the raj.
The novel ends in a festival in Mau, "some hundreds of miles westward of the Marabar Hills." "Although God had been born, His procession --- loosely supposed by many to be the birth --- had not taken place." Birth and death are intermixed, neither meaning much; the Rajah of Mau dies during the festivities; Aziz and the few other witnesses tell no one: they do not want death to intervene in such an happy occasion, the birth of the divine, the birth of all of us.
§ § §
The cave --- indeed all of India --- has a truth for those of us from elsewhere, says Forster. For Indians themselves, it is the fates, the indifference to the difference, the truth that all is valueless, that the gods may have been born, or maybe not (maybe they are all stillborn).
It is unimportant. More is less, Moore is dead --- or does she live still as a holy entity, bent on visiting and changing those who knew her? There is the hint that Adela changes her testimony in court because of the spirit of Moore.
The reality or non-reality of life and death are so obvious to the worshippers of Krishna that it needs no comment. Yet it is a truth so stark and frightening for those who come from the west that it turns them dull and stupid, or forces them into fantasies that hurt the innocent. Change will come, certainly --- but it is a change that may well drive those who are strangers to India into madness. The high point of A Passage to India, at least for this critic, unfolded as Mrs. Moore's holy polar opposite --- Prof. Godbole --- is asked about what happened in the cave. Did Aziz violate Adela?
He turns the question into a cosmic, comic truth. What happened, who did it, who is responsible? Godbole responds,
"My answer to that is this: that action was performed by Dr. Aziz." He stopped and sucked in his thin cheeks. "It was performed by the guide." He stopped again. "It was performed by you." Now he had an air of daring and of coyness. "It was performed by me." He looked shyly down the sleeve of his own coat. "And by my students. It was even performed by the lady herself. When evil occurs, it expresses the whole of the universe. Similarly when good occurs."
§ § §
A Passage to India is turned from a fine book into a memorable one by the exquisite reading in this Audio Partner's edition. Sam Dastor brings each of the characters to life. He pulls one in with the voice of the people ... their mannerisms, their accents. Any who have been to India will recognize the mixture of incomprehensible words, charming phrasing, and astounding disassociative thoughts conveyed to outsiders amidst much waggling of heads.
The tone of each of the English characters are drawn equally precisely: Mrs. Moore is old and, at the end, very weary; Dr. Godbole is merry and prankish; Adella foolish and far too eager; Aziz, too, is eager --- until he is accused, lands in (and out of) prison: then he (and his voice) turns to that of a bitter man.
§ § §
Years ago, I remember asking one of my English teachers about the mystical underpinnings of A Passage to India, especially the riddle of the ghosts and the secret of the Marabar Caves. My professor poo-poohed it for, after all, the teachings of Suzuki, Watts, much less Maharaji Mahesh Yogi had not yet invaded the West.
I now see that we were victims of a prevailing western shame of the mysterious. A Passage to India was heavy with overtones of the otherworldly, the Marabar caves overwhelmed our 1950s professors with a too-strange echo of the great gap between east and west.
However, now, in this more than superb recording, we can share the spell the mystery weaves with character, culture, and plot twists ... a literary mystery so intricate and yet so self-evident that we never want it to end, want the story to stretch on forever, like the Marabar Caves themselves; stretching into the past, into the future, without end, filled with nothing but the profoundest echoes of nothing.--- Gail Johanssen