The Classics Reclamation Project is my personal challenge to read and enjoy the classics. Each Wednesday, I post about the classic I’m reading at the moment.
Last week I’d only just started listening to A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, so I gave a little bit of background on the novel along with my initial reactions. Rather than recap that information here, I’ll refer you to my earlier post and move on to my thoughts on the novel overall.
The novel is set around a pivotal event involving an alleged encounter between an Indian gentleman and a British lady during a social excursion. The first part of the book deals with the circumstances leading up to this event and the last part deals with the repercussions, the middle dealing–of course–with the event itself. Yet the way Forster writes, the novel’s focus isn’t necessarily this troublesome event; the beginning, middle, and end are all interesting for their own reasons and are given, I felt, equal weight. A Passage to India is more about the characters and how they interact in and respond to these various situations than it is about the big event as an isolated occurrence.
Forster spends time exploring each nation’s conception of the other, examining stereotypes, attitudes, cultural and religious differences, and more through the lens of his characters. I found it quite interesting to observe relations between the British and Indian characters and societies at each stage of the book. Forster populates his novel with characters along a broad spectrum, from those who openly embrace the other culture’s way of life and seek to befriend its members to those who scorn and even fear the opposing race. As the central event and its consequences ripple through Chandrapore, the novel’s fictional setting, they elicit a wide range of reactions from Forster’s characters. Forster does a wonderful job expressing these varying viewpoints through dialogue, private thoughts, actions, and narration. The situation isn’t general, black and white, British versus Indian, but rather subtly varied and highly personal.
Not long ago I talked about The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark. The novel bounces back and forth between an American woman and her family in India in the 1940s and two young British ladies in the same Indian village nearly a century earlier. The Sandalwood Tree and A Passage to India echo one another, dealing with the similar themes of culture clash and the British Raj. Yet where Newmark’s novel is a colorful roller coaster ride always moving toward a resolution, Forster’s felt more even and realistic to me, if less sensually textured. Part of this difference may have been the authors’ choices of narration: The Sandalwood Tree is told by a first person narrator, while A Passage to India is told in the third, the result being that Newmark’s novel only tells one perspective while Forster’s tells many. I felt the authors focused their attentions differently as well, with Newmark evoking a rich sensory world while Forster delved into interpersonal and intercultural relationships. Still, the novels reminded me of one another overall.
I’m left musing about the title. I spent the whole book waiting for someone to travel to India instead of away from it, yet that never seemed to happen. I’ve since considered perhaps Forster’s title refers less to a trip to the physical country and more to a journey to its metaphorical heart. If anyone else has read A Passage to India, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
The audio version I listened to was read by Sam Dastor, who did a very nice job. His pacing was good, and his accents were diverse and believable. However, this is a novel I might read in print the next time I encounter it; there were times when I felt Forster’s observations were passing too quickly for me to grasp.
As I mentioned last week, Forster wrote a nonfiction account of his time in India entitled The Hill of Devi. I have it on order at the library now and hope to have it in time to make it my next classic. Having read his novel, I’m very curious to hear about Forster’s own experience with India!