A Passage to India


The landscape of critical work on A Passage to India is largely based upon time and the nature of the critiques. While many earlier critiques found that Forster's book showed an inappropriate friendship between colonizers and the colonized, new critiques on the work draw attention to the sexism, racism and imperialism that critics with poor critical methodologies impose upon the text.

Reviews of A Passage to India when it was first published challenged specific details and attitudes included in the book that Forster drew from his own time in India.[8] Early critics also expressed concern at the interracial camaraderie between Aziz and Fielding in the book.[9] Others saw the book as a vilification of humanist perspectives on the importance of interpersonal relationships, and the damage colonialism wrought on society.[10] More recent critiques by postcolonial theorists and literary critics have reinvestigated the text as a work of Orientalist fiction contributing to a discourse on colonial relationships by a European. Today it is one of the seminal texts in the postcolonial Orientalist discourse, among other books like Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and Kim by Rudyard Kipling.[8]

A Passage to India emerged at a time where portrayals of India as a savage, disorganized land in need of domination were more popular in mainstream European literature than romanticized depictions. Forster's novel departed from typical narratives about colonizer-colonized relationships and emphasized a more "unknowable" Orient, rather than characterizing it with exoticism, ancient wisdom and mystery. Postcolonial theorists like Maryam Wasif Khan have termed this novel a Modern Orientalist text, meaning that it portrays the Orient in an optimistic, positive light while simultaneously challenging and critiquing European culture and society.[11] However, Benita Parry also suggests that it also mystifies India by creating an "obfuscated realm where the secular is scanted, and in which India’s long traditions of mathematics, science and technology, history, linguistics and jurisprudence have no place."[10]

One of the most notable critiques comes from literary professor Edward Said, who referenced A Passage to India in both Culture and Imperialism and Orientalism. In his discussion about allusions to the British empire in early 20th century novels, Said suggests that though the work did subvert typical views of colonization and colonial rule in India, it also fell short of outright condemning either nationalist movements in India or imperialism. Of Forster's attitude toward colonizer-colonized relationships, Said says Forster:

. . . found a way to use the mechanism of the novel to elaborate on the already existing structure of attitude and reference without changing it. This structure permitted one to feel affection for and even intimacy with some Indians and India generally, but made one see Indian politics as the charge of the British, and culturally refused a privilege to India nationalism.[12]

Blatant stereotyping and Orientalist thought is also explored in postcolonial critiques. Said suggests that Forster deals with the question of British-India relationships by separating Muslims and Hindus in the narrative. He says Forster connects Islam to Western values and attitudes while suggesting that Hinduism is chaotic and orderless, and subsequently uses Hindu characters as the background to the main narrative.[12] He also identifies the failed attempt at friendship between Aziz and Fielding as a reinforcement of the perceived cultural distance between the Orient and the West. The inability of the two men to begin a meaningful friendship is indicative of what Said suggests is the irreconcilable otherness of the Orient, something that has originated from the West and also limits Western readers in how they understand the Orient.[13]

Other postcolonial scholars have examined the book with a critical postcolonial and feminist lens. Maryam Wasif Khan's reading of the book suggests A Passage to India is also a commentary on gender, and a British woman's place within the colonial project. She argues that the female characters coming to "the Orient" to break free of their social roles in Britain represent the discord between Englishwomen and their social roles at home, and tells the narrative of "pioneering Englishwomen whose emergent feminism found form and voice in the colony".[14]

Sara Suleri has also critiqued the book's Orientalist tendencies and its use of radicalized bodies, especially in the case of Aziz, as sexual objects rather than individuals.[15]

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