On one level, A Passage to India is an in-depth description of daily life in India under British rule. The British “Raj” (its colonial empire in India) lasted from 1858 to 1947. The prevailing attitude behind colonialism was that of the “white man’s burden” (in Rudyard Kipling’s phrase)—that it was the moral duty of Europeans to “civilize” other nations. Thus the British saw their colonial rule over India as being for the Indians’ own good. Forster himself was British, but in the novel he is very critical of colonialism. He never goes so far as to advocate outright Indian rebellion, but he does show how the colonial system is inherently flawed. Forster portrays most of the British men working in India as at least well-meaning, although condescending and unoriginal, but their positions in the colonial system almost always push them towards becoming racist and harmful figures. This is played out most explicitly in the development of Ronny’s character. The British women, apart from Mrs. Moore and Adela, often seem less sympathetic than the men, to the point that even Turton blames their presence for the tensions with the Indians. The women don’t have the daily labor and interactions with Indians that the men do, but they are generally more racially hateful and condescending (and perhaps this is because they are usually so isolated from actual Indian society).
Forster also shows how the colonial system makes the Indians hate and sometimes condescend to the British. The colonialists are by necessity in the role of “oppressor,” no matter how individually kind or open-minded they might be. This is best shown in the changes to Aziz’s character throughout the novel, as he goes from laughing at and befriending the English to actively hating them. Although Forster ultimately offers no concrete alternative to British colonialism, his overall message is that colonialism in India is a harmful system for both the British and the Indians. Friendships like that between Aziz and Fielding are a rare exception, not the rule, and even such friendships are all but destroyed or thwarted by the problems and tensions of colonialism.
Colonialism Quotes in A Passage to India
“You’re superior to them, anyway. Don’t forget that. You’re superior to every one in India except one or two of the Ranis, and they’re on an equality.”
I’m going to argue, and indeed dictate,” she said, clinking her rings. “The English are out here to be pleasant.”
“How do you make that out, mother?” he asked, speaking gently again, for he was ashamed of his irritability.
“Because India is part of the earth. And God has put us on earth in order to be pleasant to each other. God… is… love.” She hesitated, seeing how much he disliked the argument, but something made her go on. “God has put us on earth to love our neighbors and to show it, and he is omnipresent, even in India, to see how we are succeeding.”
Concentrated on the ball, they somehow became fond of one another, and smiled when they drew rein to rest. Aziz liked soldiers – they either accepted you or swore at you, which was preferable to the civilian’s hauteur – and the subaltern liked anyone who could ride…
They reined up again, the fire of good fellowship in their eyes. But it cooled with their bodies, for athletics can only raise a temporary glow. Nationality was returning, but before it could exert its poison they parted, saluting each other. “If only they were all like that,” each thought.
The world, he believed, is a globe of men who are trying to reach one another and can best do so by the help of goodwill plus culture and intelligence – a creed ill suited to Chandrapore, but he had come out too late to lose it. He had no racial feeling; not because he was superior to his brother civilians, but because he had matured in a different atmosphere, where the herd instinct does not flourish.
Hamidullah had called in on his way to a worrying committee of notables, nationalist in tendency, where Hindus, Moslems, two Sikhs, two Parsis, a Jain, and a Native Christian tried to like one another more than came natural to them. As long as someone abused the English all went well, but nothing constructive had been achieved, and if the English were to leave India the committee would vanish also.
How can the mind take hold of such a country? Generations of invaders have tried, but they remain in exile. The important towns they build are only retreats, their quarrels a malaise of men who cannot find their way home. India knows of their trouble. She knows of the whole world’s trouble, to its uttermost depth. She calls “Come” through her hundred mouths, through objects ridiculous and august. But come to what? She has never defined. She is not a promise, only an appeal.
He had not gone mad at the phrase “an English girl fresh from England,” he had not rallied to the banner of race. He was still after facts, though the herd had decided on emotion. Nothing enrages Anglo-India more than the lantern of reason if it is exhibited for one moment after its extinction is decreed. All over Chandrapore that day the Europeans were putting aside their normal personalities and sinking themselves in their community. Pity, wrath, heroism, filled them, but the power of putting two and two together was annihilated.
“This is no way to defend your case,” counselled the Magistrate.
“I am not defending a case, nor are you trying one. We are both of us slaves.”
“Mr. Mahmoud Ali, I have already warned you, and unless you sit down I shall exercise my authority.”
“Do so; this trial is a farce, I am going.” And he handed his papers to Amritrao and left, calling from the door histrionically yet with intense passion: “Aziz, Aziz – farewell for ever.” The tumult increased, the invocation of Mrs. Moore continued, and people who did not know what the syllables meant repeated them like a charm. They became Indianized into Esmiss Esmoor, they were taken up in the street outside.
“Our letter is a failure for a simple reason which we had better face: you have no real affection for Aziz, or Indians generally.” She assented. “The first time I saw you, you were wanting to see India, not Indians, and it occurred to me: Ah, that won’t take us far. Indians know whether they are liked or not – they cannot be fooled here. Justice never satisfies them, and that is why the British Empire rests on sand.”
The poem for Mr. Bhattacharya never got written, but it had an effect. It led him towards the vague and bulky figure of a motherland. He was without natural affection for the land of his birth, but the Marabar Hills drove him to it. Half closing his eyes he attempted to love India.
He had forgotten the beauty of form among idol temples and lumpy hills; indeed, without form, how can there be beauty? Form stammered here and there in a mosque, became rigid through nervousness even; but oh these Italian churches! …something more precious than mosaics and marbles was offered to him now: the harmony between the works of man and the earth that upholds them, the civilization that has escaped muddle, the spirit in a reasonable form, with flesh and blood subsisting.
“I do not want you, I do not want one of you in my private life, with my dying breath I say it. Yes, yes, I made a foolish blunder; despise me and feel cold. I thought you married my enemy. I never read your letter. Mahmoud Ali deceived me… I forgive Mahmoud Ali all things, because he loved me.” Then pausing, while the rain exploded like pistols, he said: “My heart is for my own people henceforward.”
“Can you always tell whether a stranger is your friend?”
“Then you are an Oriental.” He unclasped as he spoke, with a little shudder. Those words – he had said them to Mrs. Moore in the mosque in the beginning of the cycle, from which, after so much suffering, he had got free. Never to be friends with the English! Mosque, caves, mosque, caves.
“Clear out, all you Turtons and Burtons. We wanted to know you ten years back – now it’s too late. If we see you and sit on your committees it’s for political reasons, don’t you make any mistake.” His horse did rear. “Clear out, clear out, I say. Why are we put to so much suffering? We used to blame you, now we blame ourselves, we grow wiser. Until England is in difficulties we keep silent, but in the next European war – aha, aha! Then is our time.”
“…yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then” – he rode against him furiously – “and then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends.”
“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other, holding him affectionately. “It’s want I want. It’s what you want.”
But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House… they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices: “No, not yet,” and the sky said: “No, not there.”