The narrator describes the city of Chandrapore, India. Other than the Marabar Caves, which are twenty miles away, the city is “nothing extraordinary.” It is a small, dirty, ugly city next to the Ganges River. Everything, including the inhabitants, seems to be made of mud. Slightly inland, however, there is a settlement of British expatriates. These buildings are elevated above Chandrapore, and lie next to the railway station. There is a hospital, houses, and a civil station there.
Forster immediately introduces the idea of India as a “muddle”: a mess of confusion and chaos. This idea is present in his initial description of Chandrapore as dirty, formless, and seemingly made of mud. The British buildings are literally elevated above the Indian town, in a clear representation of the British colonialists as rulers separated from the people they rule.
From the viewpoint of these buildings, Chandrapore looks like a romantic, beautiful “city of gardens.” Its ugliness is covered by vegetation. British newcomers to Chandrapore think it looks romantic and charming, and they can only lose their illusions by being driven down into the city itself.
This visual description of Chandrapore shows another problem with the English perception of India: if they aren’t disgusted with the “inferior” natives, then they are romanticizing and exoticizing them.
The British buildings and the rest of Chandrapore share nothing in common except for the wide sky. The sky is the ruler of the whole landscape, deciding when the heat will come, and when the rain will come. There are no mountains in the distance to challenge the sky. The only interruptions in the horizon are the “fingers” of the Marabar Hills, which contain the “extraordinary caves.”
In this first chapter Forster doesn’t need to introduce any characters to already point to his themes. The English are divided and elevated above the Indians, everything is an oppressive muddle, and the Marabar Caves are constantly in the distance, foreshadowing mystery and future conflict.