Through the Occidental Lens: Representation of the Indian Society in the English Classic, A Passage to India

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

Rudyard Kipling in his poem The White Man’s Burden (1899) says,

“Take up the White Man’s burden —

Send forth the best ye breed —

“Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild —

Your new-caught, sullen people,

Half-devil and half-child” (1-6).

Kipling, here hails imperialism by proposing the idea of a moral burden that have been destined upon the Whites to refine and civilize the uncouth and brutish oriental world. The poem has ingrained the prominent belief about the British being superior to the colonised “Other”. This misconception was communicated chiefly through the literature of the time. While there is quite a large number of works, which explicitly promote this belief, an equal number of works exist where this idea isn’t explicit. Though not coined by Edward Said, he employs the word orientalism to define this popular belief in his work Orientalism. Edward Morgan Forster’s A Passage to India, popular as an anti-imperialist text exhibits orientalist ideologies in a subdued manner. This paper aims to scrutinize the novel A Passage to India to prove this. The clever concealment of orientalist ideologies in the novel A Passage to India problematizes the dominant notion of the novel being an anti-imperialistic one. The method used in this research is meta-analysis and meta-synthesis. A thorough analysis of the text A Passage of India is made to pick out instances to prove the subdued presence of orientalist ideologies. Several papers, which support and oppose the primary aim of this research were read and evaluated. The postcolonial theory of Orientalism and the work Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said is used as the source texts to base the analysis on.

Orientalism, according to Said can be defined at three levels. The first designation for Orientalism is an academic one. Said says “Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient — and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist — either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism” (Orientalism 2). Another designation is “as a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the orient and the occident” (Orientalism 2). The third one is a practical action upon the Orient by “dominating, restructuring, and having authority” (Orientalism 3). While Said speaks of the orientalising of the people of the Middle Easts or the Arabs, recent studies like that Jukka Jhouki’s Orientalism and India paves for the analysis of colonized India through Said’s lens. In order to meet the objectives of the paper, here the concept of orientalism is taken as the sum total of its definitions at three levels. Hence, orientalism is the theory employed in this paper to trace the existence of orientalist thoughts and ideologies in the Forster’s work A Passage to India, analyze orientalism as a practical action justified by the colonizers and to find its manifestation in the novel.

Said’s work Culture and Imperialism, published after Orientalism is about the relationship between imperialism and culture in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century. Here, Said traces the formation of the British Empire and also analyses the effect of the mainstream literature on colonization and the effect of the resistance to colonialism on mainstream literature.

Edward Said rightfully notes in the chapter “Jane Austen and Empires” in his work Culture and Imperialism that the colonial domination of almost all the nations sprout from the major “assumption of native backwardness and general inadequacy to be independent, ‘equal,’ and fit” (80). A postcolonial analysis of E M Forster’s A Passage to India summarises the novel to be an apt manifestation of Rudyard Kipling’s lines “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”, in the poem The Ballad of the East and West (1889). While truly conforming to the above said conclusion by tracing orientalist ideologies, this paper also aims to extend the study by tracing references from to novel to depict its vindication of the imperialist objectives.

Forster through his novel A Passage to India stresses on the Orientalist notions further. Written with an aim to eradicate the darkness attributed to India by the Englishmen, the novel in turn exoticises India to a large extent. He evaluates the ‘Other’in a myriad of ways and quite unknowingly reiterates the Orientalist ideology of the ‘Other’ (here India) being primitive, irrational, violent and being inferior to the colonizer.

The idea of the mystery associated with India first gets discussed during the tea party at Fielding’s house:

“I do so hate mysteries,” Adele announced.

“We English do.”

“I dislike them not because I’m English, but from my own personal point of view,” she corrected.

“I like mysteries but I rather dislike muddles,” said Mrs. Moore

“A mystery is a muddle”

“Oh, do you think so Mr. Fielding?”

“A mystery is only a high-sounding term for a muddle.” (Forster 28)

V.G. Kiernan’s comment about the association of mystery and muddle with East as “Europe’s collective day dream of the Orient” has been restated by Edward Said, in his work Orientalism (52).This idea can be incorportated into an Indian context to explain the fixation of the British with the exoticisation of India. Orientalist writings on India perpetuate the image of India being a land of mystery, muddle and strange people. The above statements from A Passage to India illustrates this.

Forster employs Mr. Fielding to put forward his opinion about treating India and Indians fairly throughout the novel. But Forster’s love for India is cynical to a certain extent. Here, Mr. Fielding, the spokesperson for Forster in the novel conveys his hatred for anything that is mysterious This in turn reveals his superficial love for India and the Indians. Unlike other British officials, Mr. Fielding tries hard to love India despite its queerness, a characteristic attribution to India from the part of the West. Yet, another instance where the veil of superficiality associated with his love for India gets ripped off is his visit to Venice.

“The buildings of Venice, like the mountains of Crete and the fields of Egypt, stood in the right place, whereas in poor India everything was placed wrong. He had forgotten the beauty of form among idol temples and lumpy hills; indeed, without form, how can there be beauty?” (Forster 124).

Here, Mr. Fielding who claimed to love India admires the buildings of Venice and at the same time shows his disgust at the haphazard placing of buildings in India. The air of superiority surrounding the British officials who walked through the lanes of India, seem to be sumptuously breathed in by Mr. Fielding too.

Forster’s A Passage to India known for its anti-imperialist strain contains instances, which prove otherwise. Said, in his work Orientalism says, “the orient has helped to define Europe (or the west) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (Orientalism 1). The orientalist idea of India being a muddle, mystery and full of chaos finds its expression in Forster’s description of the Indian landscape and its people. The descriptions about how Dr. Azis lets his bicycle fall to ground, goes to a dinner past the time and how his bicycle gets a puncture depicts the chaotic and unruly life of an Indian through the eye of a baffled colonizer who finds all this mess incomprehensible.

Forster says, “He raised his voice suddenly, and shouted for dinner. Servants shouted back that it was ready. They meant that they wished it was ready, and were so understood, for nobody moved” (Forster 2)

The description of the above-mentioned situation comes from a narrator who tries to contrast the ‘unruly and orderless’ nature of Indians from the ‘neat and ordered’ nature of the Britishers. The degree of ironic strain in the above-mentioned statement is high and hence never fails to create an impression of a’ non-chaotic and decipherable’ life as the opposite side of Indianess. These descriptions automatically attach the adjectives lazy, irrational, crude and unruly to Indians and adjectives like productive, civilized and organized to the British, creating a clear dichotomy between the two. This is proof of the deep-rooted orientalist ideology that has been instilled in the minds of the colonizers through various records, which documented life in India.

In the first chapter of the novel, Forster describes the civil station as “sensibly planned, with a red-brick club on its brow” (10). He says “it has nothing hideous in it, and only the view is beautiful; it shares nothing with the city except the overarching sky” (1). The use of the expression ‘nothing hideous’ gives an impression that the ‘civil station’ is the only place in the district of Chandrapore that is free of ‘mystery and muddle’.

To Forster,the “Marabar Caves” is the epitomes of the Indian “muddledom”. The air of mystery that surrounds the cave from the moment its name is uttered gives a chill down the spines of the readers. The description of the Marabar Caves creates a sense of terror in the minds of the newly arrived Britishers and readers alike. Forster fails bitterly to create a sense of awe in them. His evasive description of Adele’s experience in the novel creates further confusion. Said’s idea of “Latent Orientalism” finds its expression here. Ronald.L.Iverson in his article Latent Orientalism opines that latent orientalism is a collection of “underlying attitudes and assumptions about the Orient which have remained essentially constant and unchanging through the years”. Here, the caves becomes a medium exploited by Forster to further exoticise India and recapitulate the idea of binary. Galsworthy Lowes Dickinson wrote to Forster in 1924 explaining the need for him to be more explicit about the cave incident. To this Forster wrote, “It’s a particular trick I felt justified in trying because my theme was India. It sprang from my subject matter. I wouldn’t have attempted it in other countries, which though they contain mysteries or muddles, manage to draw rings round them” (Furbank 2:125). This statement, from the part of a writer who wrote against the prevalent ‘orientalist strain ‘employed by writers of the time, is indeed paradoxical. Thus, this proves the plight of a writer who finds it impossible to unlearn certain ideologies imbibed in his early years despite his determination to change the dichotomized discourses about India.

Peter Burra, in his work “The Novels of E M Forster” regards A Passage to India as ‘a book which no student of the Indian question can disregard”.This dominant notion about Forster’s A Passage to India being a novel which treated the subject of “Anglo-India” with a sympathetic eye is indeed problematic. Forster himself admits this when he says “the sense of racial tension, of incompatibility, never left me” (Ganguly, 45).

Mr. Cyril Fielding appears to be the only man in the novel who treats Indians with the respect that they ought to get. Mr. Fielding acts as a spokesperson for Forster throughout the novel. As a result, he also becomes the bearer of Forster’s orientalist ideologies. There are many instances in the novel where one gets to see his sugar-coated love for India getting bitter.

During the ride Fielding and Azis took before they parted, they talk about the British rule of India. Mr. Fielding says: “Away from us, Indians go to seed at once. Look at the King-Emperor High School! Look at your poems… Free our women and India will be free. Try it, my lad” ( Forster 141).

Here, Mr. Fielding sheds all forms of politeness that has been carried off by him for too long and shows his true colours. The above statement divulges his ‘quasi-love’ for India and Indians. Like any other colonizer, Mr. Fielding too firmly believes that India will perish without the aid of England. He becomes a patronizing father who informs Aziz of his and his countrymen’s’ inferiority and incapability for proper administration. His statement about the present condition of King-Emperor High School and the possible return of Azis to charms makes him no less of a cruel colonizer. Anil Seal, in his work “The Emergence of Indian Nationalism: Competition and Collaboration in the Later Nineteenth Century” mentions how the British dealt with “activities inconvenient” to them by pronouncing them to be “self-interested mechanisations rather than genuine nationalisms” (191). The above statemen testifies this. These statements by Fielding also recapitulates Jukka Jhouki’s opinion that the colonizers considered “Occidents as problems, not as citizens” (4). Hence, for the colonizers, orients were those burden carried by them for the welfare of the ‘inefficient colonized’.

Fielding claims India to be a country belonging to nobody. Like any other British official, he believes that a country like India with myriad of religions will disintegrate and crumble without the administration of a powerful and capable force like Britain. According to Said, for the colonizers, “the oriental was a member of a subject race” and hence “he had to be subjected” (92). This elucidates colonizers’ idea about the inability of the natives to rule themselves and maintain peace. Forster’s want to continue ruling over India gets conveyed through Fielding’s statement. Such kinds of statements force the Indians to accept subjugation and fuels the act of orientalising. Forster wanted British to rule over India and worked ardently to extinguish the fire of nationalism in the minds of Indians.

On one side Forster shows the hollowness associated with the British idea of knowing India through the statements made by Rony Healesop. Rony claims about him knowing naturally about the distance to Marabar Caves, even if he had not been to it. On scrutinizing this statement, the underlying orientalist idea of attributing stereotypical features to a particular land and its people becomes evident.Forster also expresses his concern over the over-dependence of British officials on the records of Indian life, kept by the preceding officials in ruling India. He mentions this through the conversation between McBrydes and Mr.Fielding. McBrydes says “Read any of the Mutiny records; which, rather than the Bhagavad Gita, should be your Bible in this country” (Foster 73). Despite all this, Forster’s aim of analyzing the “Anglo-Indian” problem through the lens of an unprejudiced observer of India, fails in certain ways. Even though he tries to rebuke the dominant Orientalist ideologies like the dichotomy of the colonizer and colonized, that have been in circulation, he fails to see his own assimilation of these ideologies and his exploitation of these in the novel A Passage to India. Forster through the novel presents certain newcomers who want to see the ‘real India’. The course of narrative in which the newcomers visit a cave called Marabar in hope of seeing and understanding ‘real India’ is indeed problematic. Forster’s use of the caves of Marabar to extend his idea of mystery and muddledom to whole of India needs to be problematized. He depicts a certain set of characters eager to know and understand the real India but becomes baffled and disillusioned once a minute portion of the so called India is introduced to them. Hence, knowingly or unknowingly, Forster creates an impression of mystery, chaos and muddledom as having close association with India when his real aim was to remove the haziness associated with the life of Indians in the life of Britishers and hence bridge the gap between them.

Forster’s flaw or rather his objective is accurately identified by Edward Said, in his work, “Culture and Imperialism”, but in a more positive light. Said says, “Of course Forster was a novelist, not a political officer or theorist or prophet. Yet he found a way to use the mechanism of the novel to elaborate on the already existing structure of attitude and reference without changing it” (205). This implies how Forster’s A Passage to India becomes a text that perpetuates orientalist ideologies despite its attempt to view India through an indological perspective. A fact that becomes explicit on analyzing this novel is Forster’s belief about the inefficiency of the Indians to rule themselves. This kind of portrayal of India and its citizens through a translucent lens that depicts Indians as someone who ought to be respected but not be set free contains the very essence of orientalist ideology. This justifies Said’s comment in “Culture and Imperialism”, about the prevalent notion about “Indian politics as the charge of the British”, and about how it “culturally refused a privilege to Indian nationalism” (205).

Works Cited

  1. Al, Huri, Ibrahim. A Summary of Orientalism by Edward Said 1978. Researchgate.researchgate.2016.Web.27 Feb.2019.
  2. Burra, Peter. The Novels of E.M.Forster. Nineteenth Century and After.CXVI.Nov.1934.pg583.
  3. Dhara, Chandra Shekhar. British Representation of Indians as Oriental ‘other’ in Forster’s Passage to India. http;// Journal of Englisj Language and Literature.2018.Web. 23 Feb 2019.
  4. Forster, Edward Morgan. A Passage to India.Edward Arnold.1924.http;// Feb 2019.
  5. Furbank, P. N.E. M. Foster: A Life. Houghton Mifflin. 1994. Print.
  6. Joukhi, Jukka. Orientalism and India. [email protected] [email protected] Feb 2019.
  7. Hunt, John Dixon. Muddle and Mystery in A Passage to India. hhtp;// The John Hopkins University Press.Dec 1996.Web.24 Feb 2019.
  8. Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York. Vintage Books. 1994. Print
  9. Said, Edward W. Orientalism.London.Penguin Books. 2003. Print.
  10. Seal, Anil. The Emergence of Indian Nationalism. London. Cambridge University Press.2009.Print.
  11. White, Gertrude M. A Passage to India: Analysis and Revaluation. Modern Language Association, Sept.1953.Web.23 Feb 2019.


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