the 2nd Modern Library dust jacket of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India

A Passage to India

  • Author:  E.M. Forster  (1879  –  1970)
  • Rank:  #72
  • Publisher:  Harcourt, Brace & World Inc.
  • Published:  1924
  • Pages:  322  (Harcourt Brace paperback)
  • First Line:  “Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.”
  • Last Line:  “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, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”
  • ML Edition:  #218  (two dust jackets – 1945, 1946)
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century  –  #25;  All-TIME Top 100 Novels;  James Tait Black Memorial Prize
  • Film:  1984  (****  –  #2 film of the year, dir. David Lean)
  • Read:  Spring, 1999

The Novel: “Only connect” is the epigraph to E.M Forster’s greatest novel (Howard’s End).  In this, his second best, that idea is nearly split apart.  It’s impossible to connect, it would seem to say.  It is the great novel of the divide between the British and the Indians, of the conquerors and the conquered, of the civilized and the colonized.  It is the proof that while Kipling might have been a great writer and poet, it was Forster who had a far better understanding and appreciation for what was going on in India, not to mention the fact that he was the better writer, a magnificent novelist, short story writer and essayist whose understanding of writing in Aspects of the Novel is still relevant today.

Just like at how he is able to identify the people so early on: “He too generalized from his disappointments – it is difficult for members of a subject race to do otherwise.”  Forster has said more in this line about Anglo-Indian relations than in all of Kipling’s Nobel Prize winning career.  This is Dr. Aziz who is being discussed and it is his misfortune that becomes the subject of the novel.  Through a litany of circumstances, some of which are forced, some of which are because he is an Indian who is forced not to feel at home in his country, he ends up leading an expedition that he cannot afford out to the Marabar Caves.  Included in this expedition are Ms. Quested, her potential mother-in-law Mrs. Moore and, eventually, but too late to prevent tragedy, his friend, Cyril Fielding, a British professor.

Part of the misfortune is that it is Aziz who is caught up in this tragedy.  Aziz is a man on the brink of two civilizations.  He has had personal tragedy (his wife has died and his children live with relatives, so he rarely sees them) and is a much more competent doctor than his English superior in the hospital.  But he finds himself bowing to the traditional wishes of the English, wearing their clothes, playing out their social ideals.  “When his spirits were up he felt that the English are a comic institution, and he enjoyed being misunderstood by them.  But it was an amusement of the emotions and nerves, which an accident or the passage of time might destroy; it was apart from the fundamental gaiety that he reached when he was with those whom he trusted.”  He trusts Fielding, but Fielding, ironically is kept away from the caves by a religious difference (he has stopped to pick up the one Hindu member of the expedition).  So, when the opportunity comes to explore the caves and Aziz and Ms. Quested venture forth, something happens.  What it is, we are never made certain.  She accuses him of a sexual assault.  He is horrified, not the least because he doesn’t find her attractive in the slightest.  But most of all he feels betrayed by these people who, as Gandhi would put it, are guests in his country and have been there quite long enough.  Fielding jokes about mangoes being shipped to England in ice-cold rooms: “You can make India in England apparently, just as you can make England in India.”  (How wrong he is about making India in England will be spectacularly pointed out in The Satanic Verses.)

In the end, things move towards what could be deemed a sort of happy ending, as Aziz is aquitted, but not before he finds his reputation in shambles.  It destroys his friendship with Fielding and sows distrust between two races who are still attempting to share a continent.  A moment late in the novel, when the death of a main character is touched upon seems to sum up so much of what Forster has to say: “They both regretted the death, but they were middle-aged men, who had invested their emotions elsewhere and outbursts of grief could not be expected from them over a slight acquaintance.  It’s only one’s own dead who matter.”  This seems to say it all, even down to the end, when Aziz and Fielding part yet again, debating among themselves the future of India.  Aziz, the prophet, cries “India shall be a nation!  No foreigners of any sort!”  He is correct of course, over twenty years before that dream would come true.  But the animals know better in that final paragraph, the temples, the voices, even the sky knows better.  They can not connect.

Judy Davis in a magnificent performance as Adela Quested in David Lean's 1984 film version of A Passage to India

The Film: There are few adaptations as great as this film.  Of the remaining 71 novels on the list, how many have a film version as great as this?  Only four: The Maltese Falcon, The Grapes of Wrath, Heart of Darkness (Apocalypse Now) and The Lord of the Rings.  The truly great novels are hard to move into the medium of film.  Their narrative scope, their voice, their form, is hard to dupilicate on the screen.  And this film faced many difficulties from the start, not the least of them being, what the hell happened in the caves and how do you put it on film?

The first answer to getting the film done properly was to hire David Lean.  By getting the director with the largest vision, we get a true picture of India.  We can see the beauty of the country, the magnificent epic scope of this empire that the British built on the backs of a larger race who had religion and civilization for hundreds of years before the English even crossed the Channel from Normandy.  Lean brought the proper size and scale to the film, with magnificent cinematography, fantastic editing (the first film he edited himself since his directorial debut) and a beautiful score from Maurice Jarre.  And of course, the sumptuous direction.

But the key to this was to get the casting correct, most importantly Miss Quested.  While the other roles were also vitally important and Lean filled them perfectly (Victor Banerjee as Aziz, James Fox as Fielding, Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore), it was so important to get Adela cast right so that they could figure out the scene in the caves.  It was an Australian, Judy Davis, who gave the Lean the answer he was looking for when he asked about what happened in the caves: “She just can’t cope with her own sexuality.  She just freaks out.”  It is that interpretation that holds the film together.  There seems no question in the book or the film that Aziz actually did anything.  The question is why she would think he did.

This is the heart of a great adaptation.  The film looks anew at a great novel and makes an interpretive choice.  So many films fall flat because they want to be too faithful or fail because they stick to the details without grasping the ideas.  But this is is a great film made from a great book, that all-so-difficult feat because it makes a choice and follows through with it.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it has an amazing amount of talent involved at every level.  After all, this is David Lean we’re talking about.