Dr. Aziz, a young Muslim Indian, rides his bike and arrives late to his friend Hamidullah’s house. Hamidullah and another man, Mahmoud Ali, are discussing whether or not it’s possible for an Indian to be friends with an Englishman. Mahmoud Ali argues that it is impossible. Hamidullah, who once studied at Cambridge, says that it is possible, but only in England.
Forster focuses first on Indian characters, undercutting the typical British novel. Here he also introduces the important theme of friendship, particularly friendship between an Englishman and an Indian. The novel addresses the political tensions between England and India, but also personal relations like the ones portrayed here. Note that the friendship between an Indian and the English is seen as being impossible only in India, where the power dynamics of British colonialism come into play, where the British are the rulers and they see the Indians not as individuals but as a population to be ruled.
Mahmoud Ali points to the example of the “red-nosed boy” who was once kind to him but has now become racist and insulting. Hamidullah says that no matter how they friendly are when they arrive in India, all the English end up becoming intolerable. He says it takes six months for this to happen to the men, and six weeks for the women.
Hamidullah’s statement that an Indian/English friendship is impossible in India shows that the colonial system is partly to blame for corrupting English people, rather than the individuals themselves. The “red-nosed boy” will later be revealed as Ronny Heaslop.
Hamidullah describes his old English friends from his Cambridge days, the Bannisters, and says that he would like to go meet their son, who is in India now, but he fears that “the other Anglo-Indians will have got hold of him long ago” and corrupted him. Aziz says he prefers to ignore the English altogether. The other men then remember some small kindnesses from English women, but overall they have found the English women rude and cruel.
This gives a good overall summary of Forster’s portrayal of the English in India—even if they start out with good intentions, they eventually become prejudiced and condescending, and the women are even worse than the men. Aziz is still naïve and thinks he can avoid the English, but they will forcefully intrude upon his life later.
Aziz wanders about in the garden, thinking of Persian poetry, as the other men continue to argue. When he returns, Hamidullah takes Aziz behind the purdah (a screen that separates women from public interaction with men) to talk to his wife, Hamidullah Begum, who is Aziz’s distant relative. Hamidullah Begum asks Aziz why he hasn’t remarried after the death of his wife. Aziz brushes off her questions. He is happy having married only once, and he often visits his three children at his mother-in-law’s house.
Aziz is a skilled doctor, but his true love is poetry, which more accurately reflects his emotional and imaginative character. The issue of the purdah—a practice of some Muslim Indian women of living their lives hidden from men other than their husbands and family—will come up several times in the novel.
The men sit down to eat along with Mohammed Latif, a distant cousin of Hamidullah’s who has never worked and lives entirely by mooching off of Hamidullah. Aziz recites some poetry, mostly romantic verse about the “decay of Islam and the brevity of love.” The men listen gladly, for poetry is a public event in India, not a private one like it is in England. For a moment they feel like India is united.
Forster gives hints like this of the potential for a united India, usually through something intangible like poetry or the universal oneness of Hinduism, while at the same time showing the myriad ways that India and its people are so divided. Forster contrasts small details of Indian culture with English culture, and reveals that it is only in their anger at the English that the various Indian groups do share common ground.
A servant interrupts to tell Aziz that his superior, the civil surgeon Major Callendar, wants to see him at his bungalow. The major doesn’t give a reason for the summons. Aziz is annoyed and thinks that Callendar is doing this just to prove his power over him, but he knows he must go anyway. Aziz gets on his bike and rides furiously off.
Callendar will later prove to be a violently racist and hateful character, but we are first introduced to him (and the English in general) through this annoying display of power and condescension—making Aziz leave his friends’ dinner without saying why.
Aziz’s bike tire soon goes flat and then he hires a tonga (a small horse-drawn vehicle) to go the rest of the way. As he rides he is depressed by all the streets, which are named after British generals, and he feels that Great Britain has thrown a net over India. He finally arrives at Major Callendar’s house and finds that the civil surgeon has gone out without leaving a message.
Aziz tries to ignore the English or laugh at them, but he is unable to escape their presence everywhere as an oppressive force. Aziz’s troubles traveling through town are a small glimpse of Forster’s “muddle” of India. Callendar is rude again just because he can be, and likely because of his racist attitude toward Indians.
While Aziz argues with the servant at the door, Mrs. Callendar and her friend Mrs. Lesley come out and rudely take Aziz’s tonga for their own use without acknowledging him. Aziz irritatedly recognizes that this is “inevitable snub” the English always give to the Indians. He leaves a terse message for Callendar and decides to walk home.
This is the first actual appearance of English characters, and we see the rudeness and racism that is so notably common in Forster’s English women characters. Aziz is now truly irritated, contrary to his usual stance of happily ignoring the English.
Aziz walks a while but the ground itself seems “hostile,” and he is soon tired. He stops in at one of his favorite mosques to rest. He admires the elegance and beauty of the architecture, and the empty moonlit mosque makes him feel romantic about the truth of his religion. He listens to the sounds of the English and Hindus nearby, but feels at home in his haven of Islam. He imagines building his own mosque someday, with a poetic inscription on his tomb addressing “those who have secretly understood my heart.”
Forster often personifies the Indian landscape itself as somehow unfriendly to humans, which will later be important regarding the Marabar Caves. Contrary to the “muddle” Forster and the English find in India, Aziz takes comfort in the “mysteries” of Islam—what he feels is an elegant simplicity behind all life, and a divine plan for everything. We see more of Aziz’s romantic and imaginative nature as he daydreams.
Aziz then notices that there is an Englishwoman in the mosque. He is angered by her presence and yells at her for intruding in a holy place for Muslims. She tells him that she has already taken off her shoes, because she could tell that “God is here.” Aziz is surprised and impressed by her humility. She introduces herself as Mrs. Moore, and when she steps into the light he sees that she is old.
Mrs. Moore appears as both a sympathetic English character—one who respects Aziz’s religion and treats him as an equal—but also as a sort of mystical figure who is able to immediately sense that “God is here” in the mosque, even though she herself is a Christian.
Aziz offers Mrs. Moore his friendship and service to make up for scolding her. He can tell that she is newly arrived in India because she speaks to him with respect. Mrs. Moore says that she has just come from the English-only club, where they are putting on a performance of Cousin Kate. She says that she is in India visiting her son, Ronny Heaslop, who is the City Magistrate in Chandrapore.
It is this encounter that gives the book’s first section its title: “Mosque.” The meeting at the mosque represents the initial possibility of friendship between Indians and English. At this point true friendship still seems plausible if both parties will be kind, respectful, and openminded in the way Aziz and Mrs. Moore are.
Mrs. Moore reveals that her first husband died, and Aziz says that he is in a similar situation. They discover that they each have two sons and a daughter, and they feel an immediate bond. Aziz likes Mrs. Moore even more when she criticizes Mrs. Callendar. Aziz is excited by Mrs. Moore’s sympathy, and he tells her how Mrs. Callendar took his tonga and lists her many other unkindnesses to him and other Indians.
This is only a fleeting encounter, but both Aziz and Mrs. Moore have a deep sense of intuition, and after this meeting they will consider themselves to be close friends. Because of the power dynamics at play in an India controlled by the British, Aziz would never be able to criticize one Englishwoman to another normally, but he feels a strong instinctive trust for Mrs. Moore.
Mrs. Moore brushes aside Aziz’s compliments about her understanding, saying that she doesn’t understand people well – she only knows whether she likes them or not. Aziz says that this makes her an “Oriental.” Aziz then escorts her back to the club, which is for English people only.
Aziz’s comment that Mrs. Moore is an “Oriental” sets in motion the cycle that plays out throughout the novel. “Oriental” is today considered an offensive term, but in Forster’s time this is how Aziz identifies himself – and he sees being “Oriental” as involving different character traits than being “English,” an emphasis on feeling – and so he is essentially declaring that he and Mrs. Moore are equals and can be friends.