Take a deep breath and repeat after us:
A girl walks into a cave...and an empire trembles.
It might seem scandalous to reduce E.M. Forster 's A Passage to India, a complex and multi-faceted work considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, to such a concise formula. But we humbly offer up this mantra as our homage to Forster's novel, as a passage into his Passage to India. Published in 1924 when the cracks in the British Empire were just emerging, the novel centers on the trial of an Indian doctor accused of raping an Englishwoman. The work was the last of Forster's novels, and a thematic departure for him as well. Previous novels such as A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910) stayed in Europe, focusing on the familiar Edwardian theme of the individual's struggle against the stifling conventions of society. Informed by Forster's own travels to India in 1912-13 and 1921, A Passage to India has been lauded not only for its critique of the British Empire, but also for its stylistic innovation and philosophical density.
So, a girl walks into a cave...and an empire trembles. One of the reasons that Forster's novel is so amazing is that it takes an individual case – a rape trial – and shows how it sets off network of social, political, and cultural forces that reverberates across the British Empire. Set in India in the early 20th century when it was still a British colony, the novel challenges the claim that British had a right to colonize India. Variously called Britain's "civilizing mission" or, in Rudyard Kipling 's famous line, the "white man's burden," British imperialism was motivated by the idea that the British were a superior, enlightened, and more advanced race than non-European peoples, and thus had a duty to "civilize" these people, by force if necessary (source).
British imperialism in India entailed a fundamentally racist set of beliefs about "Orientals," a term which denoted anyone living east of western Europe, from North Africa to China. Orientals were considered passive, weak, illogical, and morally corrupt with a tendency toward despotism. A Passage to India turns this imperial ideology on its head through its scathing depiction of British colonial bureaucrats, its detailed and nuanced portrayal of Indian characters, and its invocation of India's rich history and culture. But it also shows how difficult the path to Indian independence would be through exploration of the tensions between the Hindu and Muslim characters in the novel.
Despite its critique of the British Empire, Forster's novel continues to draw controversy, particularly in the field of postcolonial studies, a field devoted to the study of literary, social, and political issues relating to former European colonies. (Read more about postcolonial studies here.) Some critics argue that A Passage to India is still bogged down by the Orientalist stereotypes that the novel condemns. Others take issue with Forster's exclusion of women from the idealized, though fraught, friendships between men in the novel – this exclusion is seen as revealing how the British Empire was not only a racist system, but a patriarchal one as well.
The novel certainly resists easy answers to these daunting questions. As Forster himself said of his novel, "When I began the book I thought of it as a little bridge of sympathy between the East and West, but this conception has had to go, my sense of truth forbids anything so comfortable" (Childs 22). In its refusal of "comfortable" solutions to pressing political issues, Forster's novel doesn't give us a blueprint to a better, happier, world. Instead, A Passage to India offers a way of thinking critically about our relationship to the world, and our relationship to ourselves. So we invite you to bid farewell to our mantra, and let yourself get lost in the extraordinary passages of Forster's A Passage to India.
In December, 2001, just a couple of months after 9/11, Assem Bayaa, a man of Middle Eastern descent, was kicked off a plane in Los Angeles because he made the other passengers "uncomfortable" (source). What's interesting about Bayaa's case is that here we have an instance where it isn't a state or government agency like the police doing the racial profiling – it's ordinary individuals, the passengers on the plane.
As this relatively recent instance of racial profiling shows, the world of Forster's A Passage to India is not a historically remote fantasy. In the novel, the superintendent of police, Mr. McBryde, "profiles" Aziz, a Indian Muslim character, based on a set of racial stereotypes about the "Oriental" that he believes to be scientific fact. In addition, the British community condemns Aziz, assuming he's a criminal because of his race.
Forster's novel appeals to each and every one of us to re-examine the implicit assumptions about race and religion that affect our interactions with other people, and to use, in the words of one character, "good will plus culture and intelligence" to free ourselves of our prejudices. We might like to think of our society as far more enlightened than British India, but the uncomfortable truth is that novel's message of tolerance continues to resonate to this day.