Finding Passage in India

dave's picture

I just finished reading E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. This novel has helped me to understand many of my experiences in India; of why I see "poor India... where everything was placed wrong." And how "there seem[s] no reserve of tranquility to draw upon in India. Either none, or tranquility seem[s] to swallow up everything..."

But if I search deeper I find that perhaps the problem is not India, perhaps it is me: "This pose of 'seeing India' which had seduced him... was only a form of ruling India." The West expects the Rest to wait upon us, our slaves to rush to our every whim.

[What the book conveys] is Forster's growing skepticism in the wake of the First World War about modern civilization's ability to solve on its own the immense new problems it had created - to deal with for instance, the heavily armed nation states and empires that fought each other and pre-modern peoples for control of the world, enlisted scientists and historians as well as artists in their conflicts, and, whether totalitarian or democratic, demanded the subjugation of individual conscience to the allegedly higher needs of the body-politic.

A Passage to India is however not primarily about West/Non-West relations, rather about how things are not as they appear. It is so very easy for us to deceive ourselves. We devise ways to justify our wants and to manipulate others to achieve our ends. But the whole thing happens on a level that is almost sub-conscious. We must ever strive to unearth our malicious tendencies, to climb the superficial barriers that we create. Many of these barriers are between ourselves and those people different from us. It is "us" and "them". But if we only take the effort to question our assumptions, and put our wants on hold, we can bridge the divide.

Experiences, not character divided them; they were not dissimilar as humans go; indeed, when compared to the people who stood nearest to them in point of space they became practically identical.

I'm finding that really it takes very little to begin to break down this barrier. Simply asking a rickshaw walla his good name and asking about his family is enough to move mountains. "One kind action was with him always a channel for another, and soon the torrent of hospitality gushed forth."

I struggle with being in a position of colonial supremacy while needing to find ways to overthrow it. And in the 21st century it is not just the lingering British colonialism that I'm talking about; it's the West's cultural and economic colonialism over 2/3rds of the world. And some days I think my presence here only serves to reinforce it.

And then unrelated to the main themes of the book I noticed this quote that really speaks to one of my pet peeves:

[T]he conversation had become unreal since Christianity had entered it. Ronny approved of religion as long as it endorsed the national anthem, but objected when it attempted to influence his life.