Wednesday, 1 April 2009

24 - 'A Passage To India' by E.M. Forster

Here's a quick question to start us off today: what do indie greats 'The Stone Roses', writer E.M. Forster and Australia's national football team, the Socceroos, have in common? Answer at the end of the review!

Moving from trivia to the not-so-trivial, 'A Passage To India' is generally regarded as Forster's masterpiece, and it is easy to see why when reading this novel. The reader is transported into a lost world of British (English) colonialists attempting to subdue the natives in far-away lands, where men in three-piece suits drink gin and tonics while the servants wait patiently in the scorching sun, and elephants wander around playing football... wait, no, that was the kangaroos. In any case, Forster, who worked and travelled in India, something which shines through in his treatment of the culture in his writing, is able to conjure up a magical, enticing image of a place many westerners have never seen (and which those with a sensitive stomach probably never will).

The book describes Adela Quested's journey to India, where she is to decide whether to marry Ronny Heaslop, one of the Anglo-Indian ruling class. In the course of her visit, wishing to see 'the real India' and the native people, she is befriended by an Indian surgeon, Dr. Aziz. In a desire to win the favour of Adela and his new-found English friend, Cyril Fielding, Aziz organises a trip to the famous Marabar caves, a day-trip which goes drastically wrong and has dire consequences for all concerned...

The main idea of the novel was the impossible relationship between the colonisers and the colonised and how alien cultures could co-exist under such circumstances. The English attempted to seal themselves off from the locals in order to prevent any loss of power, and the Indians, resentful of this unfriendly attitude, discard the desire for peaceful, friendly servitude and start to dream of ousting the white invaders from their land (something they only had to wait another twenty-five years for). Despite the obvious connection to actual events in the sub-contintent, the difficulties experienced on both sides parallel those in many other parts of the world. Living in Australia, I am only too aware of the potential for disaster when two cultures collide; the plight of the Aboriginal population, even today, shows the difficulties of mutual respect for cultures. This is also true in more advanced stages of civilisation; the trial of Doctor Aziz reminded me strongly of the plot of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' with the difficulty in separating prejudice and fact in a racially-charged atmosphere.

Aside from the larger issue of politics and colonisation, Forster examines the thorny question of intercultural friendships and asks the question of whether true friendship is possible under conditions such as those in British India. Fielding, regarded disapprovingly by his fellow Englishmen for his relations with the natives, and Aziz, the educated surgeon in the pay of the Crown, would appear to be as likely as anyone to be able to get past the veneer of civilised politeness; in the end, however, psychology, geography and fate doom the friendship to failure. Their ways of thinking, their views of life, their morals, their ways of looking at the universe, everything about them puts obstacles in the path towards a true understanding of each other's character.

Over the past decade, I have spent the majority of my time either in Asian countries or working with Asian students, and I have experienced both of the situations outlined above. During my three-year stay in Japan, despite my efforts to learn the language and find out as much as posible about the culture, I never really got past superficial niceties with any Japanese people and certainly never got close to any locals (although many of the other western teachers got very close with the help of alcohol and love hotels). Admittedly, I spent a lot of my time working or with my Australian (then-) girlfriend, but even in conversations with coworkers in bars after work, I never really felt that we had much in common. One of the problems was that, just like the Anglo-Indians, the foreign workers in Japan often stayed together (although not to the extent that the English in Chandrapore did), living in the same apartments and drinking together on free evenings.

Now that I'm here in Australia and educating young (mostly) Asian students, I can see them falling into the same traps. There is a tendency to share houses with compatriots and a reluctance to socialise, or even work together, with students of a different nationality. Of course, this is a generalisation, and some students do strike up friendships outside their own ethnic group; however, from my own experiences (supported by Forster?!), I'm not sure how deep these friendships go, especially when they involve two such disparate philosophies as the Asian and Western cultures.

Only about 260 pages, but as you can tell from the disjointed musings above, there is a lot packed in. Despite the fairly straightforward plot, the psychological byplay and the beautifully drawn conflict of minds makes this a great book to read and justifies the opinions of the critics; which makes it a shame that this was only Forster's fifth and last novel. Oh, and the quiz question? The common theme was tardiness: The Stone Roses took about five years to follow up their eponymous debut album with a slightly disappointing second effort; the footballing Marsupials first qualified for the World Cup in 1972 but didn't appear for a second time until 2006 (cheating Italians - that's all I'll say...); and Forster also made his fans suffer by finishing 'A Passage To India' a full fourteen years after his fourth novel, 'Howard's End', was published. Like John Aloisi's penalty against Uruguay (and unlike 'Second Coming'), it was definitely worth the wait.