Part One: Mosque
Forster begins A Passage to India with a short description of Chandrapore, a city along that Ganges that is not notable except for the nearby Marabar caves. Chandrapore is a city of gardens with few fine houses from the imperial period of Upper India; it is primarily a "forest sparsely scattered with huts."
The first chapter of A Passage to India describes the setting of the novel. Forster establishes Chandrapore as a prototypical Indian town, neither distinguished nor exceptionally troubled. This town can therefore be taken to be symbolic of the rest of India rather than an exceptional case. This allows the actions that occur in the following chapters to be representative of the Anglo-Indian colonial relations that will dominate the events of the novel. By beginning the novel with a mention of the Marabar Caves, Forster foreshadows later events that will occur concerning the Marabar Caves and that will provide the narrative turning point of A Passage to India. It is significant that Forster does not begin the novel with the description of any particular character. This places the story in context of the town of Chandrapore in particular and the nation of India in general.
Dr. Aziz arrives by bicycle at the house of Hamidullah, where Hamidullah and Mr. Mahmoud Ali are smoking hookah and arguing about whether it is possible to be friends with an Englishman. Hamidullah, educated at Cambridge, claims that it is possibly only in England, and the three gossip about English elites in India. Hamidullah Begum, a distant aunt of Aziz, asks him when he will be married, but he responds that once is enough. A servant arrives, bearing a note from the Civil Surgeon; Callendar wishes to see Aziz at his bungalow about a medical case. Aziz leaves, traveling down the various streets named after victorious English generals, to reach Major Callendar's compound. The servant at the compound snubs Aziz, telling him the major has no message. Two English ladies, Mrs. Callendar and Mrs. Lesley, take Aziz's tonga (carriage), thinking that his ride is their own. Aziz then leaves to go to the nearly mosque paved with broken slabs. The Islamic temple awakens Aziz's sense of beauty; for Aziz, Islam is more than a mere Faith, but an attitude towards life. Suddenly, an elderly Englishwoman arrives at the mosque. He reprimands her, telling her that she has no right to be there and that she should have taken off her shoes, but she tells him that she did remember to take them off. Aziz then apologizes for assuming that she would have forgotten. She introduces herself as Mrs. Moore, and tells Aziz that she is newly arrived in India and has come from the club. He warns her about walking alone at night, because of poisonous snakes and insects. Mrs. Moore is visiting her son, Mr. Heaslop, who is the City Magistrate. They find that they have much in common: both were married twice and have two sons and a daughter. He escorts Mrs. Moore back to the club, but tells her that Indians are not allowed into the Chandrapore Club, even as guests.
In this chapter, Forster establishes several of the major themes that will predominate A Passage to India. Most important among these is the vast difference between the English colonial elite and the native population of India. Forster makes it clear that the British elite treat the Indians with disrespect, as demonstrated by Major Callendar's summons to Aziz and his wife's oblivious attitude toward Aziz when she takes his tonga. However, Aziz is too polite to confront the women on their slight. He values behaving politely to these English elites over asserting his own sense of self-respect. This event therefore provides a contrast to later events of the novel in which Aziz becomes less accommodating and more focused on his rights and dignity.
Forster harbors a particular distrust for English women in India, finding that they are more likely to treat Indians with disrespect. The Indians, in turn, are preoccupied with the English treatment of them. The Indians are aware of the degrees of English treatment toward them, as shown when Hamidullah notes that the English in India are less kind than the English in England. This evokes broader themes of colonialism that permeate the novel; Forster will indicate that the position of the English as rulers changes the social dynamic between them and the Indians at the expense of normal, cordial behavior that would otherwise occur.
Dr. Aziz emerges in this chapter as an easily excitable man who is conscious of any slight against him by the English elite, having been trained by experience to notice these snubs. He automatically assumes the worst when dealing with the English, as shown with his premature reprimand of Mrs. Moore, who defies all of his expectations of English women. Yet if Aziz is extremely sensitive to others behavior and initially distrustful of Mrs. Moore, his reserve soon melts around Mrs. Moore after she shows respect for him and his culture. This relates to a major theme in the novel, the interaction between eastern and western culture. Mrs. Moore is to a large extent an idealized character in A Passage to India; this elderly woman is sensitive, intelligent and kind to Dr. Aziz. She is a symbol of all that is decent in western culture: she takes liberal views and adheres to Christian ideals of behavior. It is not at all surprising that he so quickly takes a liking to her.
Mrs. Moore returns to the Chandrapore Club, where she meets Adela Quested, her companion from England who may marry her son Ronny Heaslop; Adela wishes to see "the real India." She complains that they have seen nothing of India, but rather a replica of England. After the play at the Club ends, the orchestra plays the anthem of the Army of Occupation, a reminder of every club member that he or she is a British in exile. Fielding, the schoolmaster of Government College, suggests that if they want to see India they should actually see Indians. Mrs. Callendar says that the kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die. The Collector suggests that they have a Bridge Party (a party to bridge the gulf between east and west). When Mrs. Moore tells Ronny about her trip to the mosque, he scolds her for speaking to a Mohammedan and suspects the worst, but Mrs. Moore defends Dr. Aziz. Ronny worries that Aziz does not tolerate the English (the "brutal conqueror, the sun-dried bureaucrat" as he describes them). When she tells him that Aziz dislikes the Callendars, Ronny decides that he must pass that information on to them and tells her that Aziz abused them in order to impress her. When she tells Ronny that he never judged people in this way at home, Ronny rudely replies that India is not home. Finally Ronny agrees not to say anything to Major Callendar.
In this chapter, Forster introduces Adela Quested, Ronny Heaslop and Mr. Fielding, each of whom will play major roles throughout the novel. Adela Quested, as her name implies, is on a quest in India. She is motivated by a strong curiosity and a desire to seek what she perceives as the truth about India. Although she has a taste for learning about India and is certainly more receptive to interacting with Indians than her fellow Englishwomen in India, her passion seems somewhat academic; her curiosity about India is not primarily a curiosity about Indians themselves, but rather an intellectual concern with their culture. Forster allows the possibility that the now decent and accommodating Adela will assume the imperialist attitudes that mark the other Englishwomen, whose treatment of Indians is deplorable. Mrs. Callendar's statement about the kindness of letting natives die is perhaps the most egregious example, but even in their more subtle conduct there is a perpetual undercurrent of colonialist superiority that marks most of the English characters. With the exception of Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore, the other female British characters are flat characters. Their sole purpose in the novel is symbolic: they show the racism and cultural superiority felt by the British in India.
Ronny Heaslop exemplifies the colonial bureaucratic mindset that dominates the English elite. He suspects all Indians of wrongdoing and consistently scolds his mother for deeming Indians worthy of her company. However, Forster indicates that Ronny is not completely to blame for his own behavior. Mrs. Moore notes that he never behaved so rudely at home, implying that his position in India has made Ronny suspicious and mundanely malicious. This is a significant point: Forster condemns the colonial system in India for its effects on both the native population and the elite, rather than the individual English bureaucrat who soon adopts the prejudices that colonialism promotes.
Mr. Fielding, however, stands outside of the colonialist bureaucracy. He is primarily an educator whose interests are independent of the colonial political hierarchy. Fielding therefore can transgress social boundaries that the other characters must obey. He will serve as both the conduit between the English and the Indians in A Passage to India as well as the character who can offer the most realistic assessment of the colonial system within India, neither altogether condemning it as do the Indians nor wholeheartedly supporting it as the British bureaucracy do. The degree to which Fielding can move among the English and the Indians illustrates another one of Forster's themes in A Passage to India: the meaning and responsibilities of belonging to a race.' Fielding will demonstrate a fluid conception of race in which belonging to a particular culture does not necessitate supporting that race, yet the degree to which he can break from the English will be tested.
Mr. Turton, the Collector, issues invitations to numerous Indian gentlemen in the neighborhood for the Bridge Party. While he argues with Mr. Ram Chand and the elderly and distinguished Nawab Bahadur, Mahmoud Ali claims that the Bridge Party is due to actions from the Lieutenant Governor, for Turton would never do this unless compelled. The Nawab Bahadur is a large proprietor and philanthropist; his decision to attend the Bridge party carries great weight. Mr. Graysford and Mr. Sorley, the missionaries who live nearby, argue that no one should be turned away by God, but cannot decide whether divine hospitality should end at monkeys or jackals or wasps or even bacteria. They conclude that someone must be excluded or they shall be left with nothing.
The Bridge Party is a significant event for the Indians, who consider it with an appropriate skepticism. They believe that the motivation for the party is not a sincere attempt to stimulate a sense of reciprocity among the two societies, but rather the dictate of a higher-ranking colonial official. The decision of the Nawab Bahadur, however, dictates that those invited should accept the invitation. Forster specifically shows the Nawab Bahadur to be a distinguished member of Indian society whose decisions must be respected, a symbol of Indian authority; this foreshadows later events in which he does not receive the appropriate deference from others.
The discussion about religion by the missionaries is a reminder of the hierarchies that dominate A Passage to India. The purpose of these hierarchies is to degrade others to elevate the elite; when such an elite system of inclusion and exclusion occurs, the ability to set who can be can included is the only power that these elites truly have. Their conversation has an obvious analogy in British India. The British define their power by their ability to dominate the Indians and exclude them from certain privileges, whether political or social.
Neither Mrs. Moore nor Adela Quested consider the Bridge Party to be a success. The Indians for the most part adopt European costume, and the conversations are uncomfortable. Mrs. Moore speaks to Mrs. Bhattacharya and asks if she may call on her some day, but becomes distressed when she believes that Mrs. Bhattacharya will postpone a trip to Calcutta for her. During the party, Mr. Turton and Mr. Fielding are the only officials who behave well toward the Indian guests. Mr. Fielding comes to respect Mrs. Moore and Adela. Mr. Fielding suggests that Adela meet Dr. Aziz. Ronny and Mrs. Moore discuss his behavior in India, and he tells her that he is not there to be pleasant, for he has more important things to do there. Mrs. Moore believes that Ronny reminds her of his public school days when he talked like an intelligent and embittered boy. Mrs. Moore reminds him that God put us on earth to love our neighbors, even in India. She feels it is a mistake to mention God, but as she has aged she found him increasingly difficult to avoid.
The Bridge Party is an honorable failure for all those who attend, borne of mostly good intentions but extremely poor execution. It represents all of the problems of cross-cultural exchange between the English and the Indians. With a few notable exceptions, the British who attend the party do not behave well. Of the men, only Mr. Fielding and Mr. Turton behave well, while among the women only Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested are interested in speaking with the Indians. However, these two women, who wish to learn from the Indians, find that this particular setting is stifling.
Even when Mrs. Moore and Adela attempt to reach out to Indians, they find that their attempts go awry. F The interaction between Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Bhattacharya is indicative of this; while Mrs. Moore simply wants to visit with Mrs. Bhattacharya, this woman, unaccustomed to such polite behavior, misinterprets this as a significant event and plans to postpone her vacation for it. Forster indicates that the desire for each of these groups to be polite and sensitive to one another creates a stifling atmosphere between them; those who wish to interact socially have such a fear of offending one another that they create barriers to their own interaction. This also illustrates a prevalent motif in A Passage to India, the insufficiency of good intentions.
Mrs. Moore serves as the moral center in A Passage to India, a woman of exemplary behavior and intentions toward others. She behaves with a direct simplicity, reminding her son of Christian teachings. Mrs. Moore does bear a certain burden because of this uncomplicated goodness; her unwavering, righteous mindset will make her a victim of others' less stringent moral systems, while her belief in the tenets of Christian morality will be tested in the non-Christian landscape of India. Forster mentions that Mrs. Moore finds it more difficult to avoid mentioning God as she ages; this shows that Mrs. Moore has a great concern for her own morality and that she has a preoccupation with death.