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The rape that never was: Forster and ‘A Passage to India’

Longest journey: A still from David Lean’s 1984 movie adaptation of the novel.  

E.M. Forster died 50 years ago, at the age of 91 on June 7, 1970. But it feels that he has been gone for much longer, because the last novel he published in his lifetime was nearly 100 years ago — A Passage to India, in 1924. His long terminal silence was in stark contrast to the brisk fecundity with which he had begun, publishing four novels in the five years between 1905 and 1910.

These included The Longest Journey, an autobiographical novel about his student days of long walks and longer idealistic discussions at King’s College, Cambridge, and a state-of-England novel, Howard’s End, about the class question and the issue of materialist versus spiritual inheritance. In between came his two ‘Italian’ novels, Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View, in which young English ladies on reaching that fabled country promptly throw their primness to the winds and begin behaving in erotic Mediterranean ways.

Reversing stereotypes

It is A Passage to India, however, which remains Forster’s undoubted masterpiece, a modern classic that regularly ranks high in every poll of the 100 Best Novels on both sides of the Atlantic. It has a special appeal for us in India for it is probably the best novel ever written about the country by an Englishman. Together with half a dozen short stories by Rudyard Kipling and his poetic peripatetic saga Kim (1901) depicting an earlier era, Forster’s novel remains an enduring literary monument of the 200 years of British rule in India. It preserves for us human feelings and attitudes from that fraught period as only literature can.

The story of A Passage to India hinges on a rape that never was. A white young woman accuses a charming Indian Muslim doctor of having assaulted her in a dark cave during a picnic, but at the trial of the accused a few weeks later, she goes to the witness box and says she cannot be sure and is withdrawing all charges.

The pukka sahebs for whom she has become a rallying point of racial honour lose face and the impassioned Indians milling around the court are jubilant as Dr. Aziz walks free. The heroically honest young lady, Adela Quested, is obliged to slink quietly back to England and be left on the shelf, instead of marrying the City Magistrate which she had come out to India to do.

Forster here boldly reverses many Raj stereotypes. The race-and-rape narrative had been common in English novels about India ever since the “Mutiny” of 1857 when several such incidents were believed to have happened. The trope of an oppressed ill-treated native raping a woman of the master race in a token act of revenge for the greater crime of the coloniser having raped his country had been inaugurated in English literature by Shakespeare in The Tempest (1611).

In this play, the last that Shakespeare wrote, the dispossessed and enslaved native Caliban is accused of raping the usurper Prospero’s virginal daughter Miranda, to which he retorts that he wishes he had actually raped her and populated the island with many little Calibans! In a variation on the theme, white women living in tropical colonies sometimes half-wishfully fantasised that they had been raped by a native. Many strands of this potent colonial situation are brought to bear by Forster on the episode in his novel.

Resounding nullity

But then he raises the stakes even higher. He chooses as the venue for the non-rape the Marabar Caves, modelled on the Barabar Caves near Bodh Gaya, the oldest known rock-cut caves in India that have a religious significance encompassing Buddhist, Jain and Hindu beliefs. They are described by Forster as being primal, in being bereft of all carving or sculpture (though one of them, the Lomas Rishi Cave, has in fact a highly ornate entrance). In the novel, the caves generate a bewildering echo which does not return the original human sound but each time utters “Boum!” — which may sound close to “Om” but is deliberately a negation of that pious expectation.

It is within such an elemental womb of resounding nullity that Adela Quested believes an Indian man followed her and attempted to assault her.

As the manuscript reveals, Forster wrote and rewrote this episode many times, apparently because he had no clear idea of what he wanted to happen in the cave, except that he wished this key event to have some large philosophical import. He wanted it to be a “mystery” but it seemed to have turned into a “muddle,” two terms that Forster himself used interchangeably. In an instance of the mimetic fallacy, Forster seems to have thought that if India was a muddle, it had best be represented in a muddled way.

When the novel came out and an old Cambridge friend wrote to ask what exactly happened in the cave, Forster just muddied the waters more: “In the caves it is either a man, or the supernatural, or an illusion. And even if I know!” Perhaps his difficulty here was that he could not abruptly turn symbolic in the middle of a novel which he had written throughout in the comic-ironic mode. A brief abstinence from narratorial omniscience could not all of a sudden raise the comic to the cosmic.

Politically sanitised

Another inconsistency or fissure in the novel is caused by the fact that Forster had begun writing it in 1912 but finished it only in 1924. Meanwhile, a World War had been fought in Europe and the political situation in India had undergone a sea change. The draconian Rowlatt Act had been passed and unarmed protesters against it had been massacred in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. The following year, Gandhi had launched the nationwide Non-cooperation Movement which had mobilised the entire nation. None of this is reflected in the novel (except for a single allusion to the “crawling order” in Amritsar), so that when the novel was published in June 1924, it already seemed outdated and politically sanitised. Forster may not have known this but just a few months later, in January 1925, Premchand would publish his epic novel of Gandhian nationalism, Rangabhumi.

There are other things here, however, that Forster gets brilliantly right. As Adela walks up the hill with Aziz in a haze of mounting heat and makes desultory conversation with him about his marriage and wife, her subconscious mind is occupied with the vexing question of whether she herself loves the man she is planning to marry. It may not be quite the stream-of-consciousness method that Forster’s Bloomsbury friend Virginia Woolf practised but it is an eddy of Adela’s covert emotional turmoil that the hapless Aziz is sucked into.

Aziz himself is portrayed as a hugely charming but volatile and sentimental man. He obsesses about past Muslim glory when the Mughal emperors ruled the land. His hero among them is not Akbar, whom he calls “half a Hindu,” but Alamgir (i.e., Aurangzeb) who was firm of faith. Later, the Brahmin Godbole (“sweet of speech”) finds Aziz a job in a Hindu princely state safely away from British India, where Aziz, as his ally, is regarded as a Brahmin too and the two “often joke about it together”.

Forster gave up writing novels after A Passage to India because, as a homosexual, he said he had lost interest in love between man and woman which is the staple theme of the English novel. (Of his five man-woman novels, three feature broken engagements.) His one homosexual novel, Maurice, which he wrote in 1913 while A Passage to India hung fire, was published posthumously in 1971. Meanwhile, he had abandoned or burnt several other pieces of such furtive fiction.

Another vein of writing which he gave up no sooner than trying it out was science fiction. In his dystopian short story, ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909), each person lives deep below the surface of the earth in stark “isolation” in a cell, all communication is by “pneumatic mail” or by a Skype-like device, and there is a Book of the Machine which each person swears by and worships. Until, of course, the Machine stops and almost everyone perishes as they try to scramble up to the natural surface of the earth. (But there is no pandemic; just a Big Brother dehumanised into a Machine.)

The less Forster published in his last decades, the more his fame grew. He became in particular the patron saint of aspiring Indian writers in English including Mulk Raj Anand (whom he once called “Mulk of cow” in mild exasperation), Raja Rao and Ahmed Ali, all of whom he helped find publishers in England. In those pre-postcolonial times, Forster had mocked Indian nationalist aspirations even on the last page of A Passage to India (“India a nation!”), and he seemed to think of “politics” as a dirty word. But his own goodness and faith in personal relationships made him an icon of the Liberal humanism that he had grown up with, and privately he continued to swear by “the secret understanding of the heart”.

The writer’s Introduction to a new edition of A Passage to India will be published in September 2020.

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