Let’s Get Literal – A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 54/100Title: A Passage to India
Author: E.M. Forster
Year: 1924
Country: UK

As far as I am aware, A Passage to India is the final book whose cinematic adaptation is both on the 1001 movies list and is a film that I have yet to see. Given how I am entering the final quarter of the films list, it only makes sense that I try and polish this book (and any others I have yet to notice) off as soon as possible.

A Passage to India is an interesting book to read precisely because of when it was written. The setting is India, at the time ruled over as part of the British Empire with the main story heavily featuring the racial tensions between the colonizers and the colonized. Forster depicts the prejudices of both sides towards each other and the fractious relationships that have had to form in order to ‘keep the peace’.

Even though Forster would appear to support the status quo rather than questioning whether or not it was right for Britain to exercise this unjust power over a distant nation, he does do something unusual for the time. Unlike other works of the period, he actually tries to depict India and Indians in a moreorless positive light. He goes into some of the diversity of India’s ethnic groups and worshipped religions (with Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all being name-checked). Not all Indians are depicted positively, but that’s just real life. After all, only two or three of the Brits are given a majority of positive traits and, boy, they are made to suffer for them.

This is all the background for the central plot of the book – what happens when an Indian man is wrongfully accused of attempted rape of a British woman in a remote cave. It’s just awful to read how the Brits in the book react to this, both before and after the woman retracts her accusation. Similarly, the way Forster depicts the riots and the resulting cult worship of an absent British woman (it’s a long story) doesn’t exactly sit well.

A Passage to India really is a problematic book to read if you are looking for something with racial sensitivity. However, it is still a compelling story with multi-faceted characters that really works to make a good novel. It is also interesting to read something that, for 1923, was seen a pretty progressive when it comes to opinions of Indians – even if it feels a bit backwards for 2019.

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