Ambivalence in a “Passage to India” by E. M. Forster

July 30, 2020 by Essay Writer

Ambivalence is the state in which two parties have contradictory ideas, feelings or attitude regarding each other or something. In the novel, A Passage to India by Forster ambivalence illustrates the ambiguous way in which colonizer and the colonized regarded one another.

We start the various instances where the state of ambivalence is first experienced when Aziz was arrested on suspicion of the raping Adela which in turn sets up the climax of the film in the magistrate’s courtroom. At first inside the courtroom, there is an apparent physical manifestation of Bhabha’s (p88) notion of ambivalence in the way that the Indian characters are able to interact in the trial. This idea of physical ambivalence can be summarized as follows: the need of the colonizer to ‘educate and civilize'(Blaut, p96) the colonized party requires the active participation, to a certain limited extent of course, of the colonized in the colonizer’s affairs. Therefore, in this particular situation, it means that the Indians are permitted to become official actors in the trial itself as a result of the ‘civilizing’process and the attempt to bring India ‘up to the level’of the ?civilized’British. Thus both judges and the defense along with the general observers are Indian. These actors are therefore able to observe the farcical nature and desperate attempts of the ‘civilized’colonizers to swing the trial in their favor which exposes the ambivalent hegemony that the British hold over them.

The collapse of the trial leads to the uprising and the temporary loss of British control in Chandrapore. The rape incident ultimately exposes how the ambivalence of colonialism becomes its own downfall; the fact that the exposure of the fragility of colonial rule within the magistrates, which is in itself a physical manifestation of the British colonist’s power in India, is significant. Spatially, the whole scene restricts the Indian characters to the periphery of the room and places the British characters in the center of events. Indian onlookers observe from the gantry and the judge appears to be a tool of British control after Ronny comments to Mrs. Turton: ‘Don’t worry, he’s a good man’and of whom London (Blaut, p102) describes as a ‘Western educated native, who is a cultivated, self-conscious and conscientious Indian civil servant’. The rationally of the colonizer vis a vis McBryde as the prosecutor versus the irrationality of the colonized represented as the Indian defense a.k.a. the character of Ali, who is unable to control his emotions and storms out of the trial on the basis it is a farce, is interesting. It can be argued that Ali’s behavior is indeed that of the Other: emotionally volatile and passionate, in contrast with calm demeanor of McBryde, an enterprising colonizer, who despite appearing nervous when he sees the trial tilting in Aziz’s favor certainly manages to keep his emotions under control.

Finally, it can also be put forward that the fan, which is swinging slowly above the court as the trial progresses, in addition with Lean’s decision to repeatedly dedicate long screen shots to it, reminds the viewer and the characters of the film that, despite British attempts to rule India and ‘civilize’it, colonialisms fragile nature guarantees that the British can only temporarily occupy Indian space. True India not that of colonized space (which exists only because of the construction of colonizer space) but something much more incomprehensible to the minds of the British – perhaps encapsulated by the Marabar caves, and is something that can never be understood or brought under the control of British hegemony. With this in mind, the un-british-like behavior of the British at the trial (desperately trying to preserve the colonizer/colonized construct) can be dismissed as an incident that the nature of the situation in India has brought upon them. The model of British hegemonic power is therefore preserved and the appropriation of the ‘Western Self’is secure.

Further from the very beginning of the book, the visual differences between what Said terms ‘metropolitan space’and ‘colonial space’are evident. Metropolitan space is occupied by the colonizers and is denoted by what Said describes as ‘socially desirable, empowered space (Blaut, p61). Colonial space, of course, belongs to the subaltern. Said goes on to say that members of the subaltern essentiallywant to move into these space because there are viewed as desirable (but still subordinate). The manifestations of the two different kinds of space can be both physical and mental. Physical; in relation to the ‘civilized order’of metropolitan space in contrast with the ‘disorder and decay’of colonial space (Horton, p134) and mental; in the spaces that exist in the temporal constructs and attitudes of the people involved in colonialism. A Passage to India ensures a strict reproduction of these spatial binaries.

On Mrs. Moore and Adela’s arrival to India, the colonial dichotomies become immediately explicit. As the ship carrying the traveling British arrives, the viewer is presented with the ordered structure of British-controlled Bombay harbor. Hybridity (Bhabha, p86) is also evident in the ceremonial welcome by the Indian army who, dressed in British Empire military attire, express the malevolent hegemonic power that British rule in India has over the population. The hybridized nature of the welcome acts as a comforting presence to the arriving Britons and the assimilationist agenda of British rule is also explicitly established. The assimilationist agenda introduced here is portrayed through dress, Darby discusses ‘the role of disguise in cross-cultural dressing’and how it is ‘essentially a technique of surveillance which represents yet another attempt at control of the subaltern peoples'(Bhabha, P34) and is without doubt evident in this scene. Certainly, examples of ‘cross-cultural dressing’are evident throughout the movie: on Mrs. Moore and Adela’s arrival in Chandra pore, at the bridge party and in the courtroom during Professor Aziz’s trial. It appears that, in consideration of the length of screen time allocated to showing cross-culturally dressed Indian characters, Lean has used ‘cross-cultural dressing’to repeatedly remind the audience of the previously mentioned malevolent hegemonic control that colonial Britain holds over India.

After disembarkation from the ship, Adela and Mrs. Moore temporarily enter colonial a.k.a. colonized space, depicted in marked contrast to the order of the British-controlled port. These spatial contrasts are fundamental aspects of colonial film and are evident in other European works of the same period; the European district and the Algerian Kasbah in The Battle of Algiers, British-controlled Maya pore versus Indian Territory in A Jewel in the Crown and also in Ghandi. In A Passage to India, the Otherness of ‘colonial space’is exposed in its disorder and apparent chaos of the crowds of ‘unusually dressed’people; snake charmers also accentuate the exotic polarity of the scene with familiar ‘British spaces’. Mrs. Turton’s explicit rejection of ‘colonial space’is here too disseminated by an expression of disgust regarding the smell of the bazaar area.

Upon arrival to Chandra pore, Lean once again expresses the portrayal of hegemonic control to the viewer through the representation of the Union Jack flag placed upon the bonnet of the car that Mr. and Mrs. Turton are traveling in en route to the British civil station. Lean continues to depict more ‘exercises of control’by the British throughout the movie; specifically, the British national anthem which continuously interrupts various gatherings and functions within colonizer space to demand the attention of Britons and Indians alike in order to remind them of the colonizer’s control. During the Turton’s drive through Chandra pore, India is again shown in its fundamental Orientalist construction: that of disordered, primitive space with a suggestion of the mysterious unknown. As the car enters the main bazaar, this can be seen as the mosque slowly enters into full screen view in synchronization with an ‘Orientalist-style’musical fill. Immediately after this, the reckless impatience of the Indian driver of the car nearly results in an accident involving the characters of Professor Aziz and Ali who, after gathering themselves after falling off their bikes, implicitly discuss the adoption of the colonizer discourse by the British:McBryde (passing by in the following car). When he first came out [to India], Hamidullah said he was quite a good fellow. (Aziz:) But they all become exactly the same. I give any Englishman two years. The women are worse. I give them six months (Lean, P34).

From the perspective of this essay, the physical and mental spatial boundaries that it aims to identify are clearly evident from the beginning to the end of the film. The discursive limits of these boundaries affect the decisions, actions and ideas of all the characters in the film. Foucauldian notions of power play an important part in maintaining these limits, a good example being the moment when Mrs. Moore leaves Aziz at the entrance to the club after he says that Indians are not allowed to enter (as analysed earlier) and the trees which surround the civil station to ‘screen’Chandrapore from British eyes. It can also be concluded that the spatial boundaries identified are presented through Orientalist discourse as defined by Said.

Work Cited

Betty, Jay Colmer, E.M. Forster: A Passage to India, Trumpington: Icon.2010

Horton, Bhabha Ian, Colonialist Stereotypes in Innovative European Comic Books, In: Leinen, F and Rings, G (eds), Worlds of Images, Worlds of Texts, Worlds of Comics, Munich: Meidenbauer, p125-141.Bhabha, Homi, The Location of Culture, London and New York: Routledge. (2016)

Blaut J.M., The Coloniser’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History, New York: Guilford 2011.

Canby, Vincent, A Passage to India: Review [online]. Available at: 2012.

Lean, David , A Passage to India, UK/USA: Columbia Pictures:2014

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