The city of Chandrapore, apart from the nearby Marabar Caves, is unextraordinary. The small, dirty city sits next to the River Ganges. Slightly inland from the city, near the railway station, lie the plain, sensible buildings of the British colonials. From the vantage point of these buildings, Chandrapore appears lovely because its unattractive parts are obscured by tropical vegetation. Newcomers, in order to lose their romantic image of the city, must be driven down to the city itself. The British buildings and the rest of Chandrapore are connected only by the Indian sky. The sky dominates the whole landscape, except for the Marabar Hills, which contain the only extraordinary part of Chandrapore—the Marabar Caves.
Dr. Aziz, an Indian Muslim, arrives late to his friend Hamidullah’s house, where Hamidullah and Mahmoud Ali are engaged in a debate over whether it is possible for an Indian and an Englishman to be friends. Hamidullah, who studied at Cambridge when he was young, contends that such a cross-cultural friendship is possible in England. The men agree that Englishmen in India all become insufferable within two years and all Englishwomen within six months. Aziz prefers to happily ignore the English.
Hamidullah takes Aziz behind the purdah (the screen that separates women from public interaction) to chat with his wife. Hamidullah’s wife scolds Aziz for not having remarried after the death of his wife. Aziz, however, is happy with his life, and sees his three children at his mother-in-law’s house often.
The men sit down to dinner along with Mohammed Latif, a poor, lazy relative of Hamidullah. Aziz recites poetry for the men, and they listen happily, feeling momentarily that India is one. Poetry in India is a public event.
During dinner, Aziz receives a summons from his superior, Major Callendar, the civil surgeon. Annoyed, Aziz bicycles away to Callendar’s bungalow. When Aziz’s bicycle tire deflates, he hires a tonga (a small pony-drawn vehicle) and finally arrives at Callendar’s house to find that the major has gone and left no message. Furthermore, as Aziz is speaking with a servant on the porch, Mrs. Callendar and her friend Mrs. Lesley rudely take Aziz’s hired tonga for their own use.
Aziz decides to walk home. On the way, he stops at his favorite mosque. To Aziz, the mosque, with its beautiful architecture, is a symbol of the truth of Islam and love. Aziz imagines building his own mosque with an inscription for his tomb addressing “those who have secretly understood my heart.”
Aziz suddenly notices an Englishwoman in the mosque and yells at her angrily, for she is trespassing in a holy place for Muslims. The woman is humble, however, and explains that she removed her shoes upon entering and that she realizes that God is present in the mosque. Aziz is impressed. The woman introduces herself as Mrs. Moore. She is visiting her son, Ronny Heaslop, the city magistrate.
Aziz and Mrs. Moore discover that they each have two sons and a daughter. Aziz senses Mrs. Moore’s friendly sympathy toward him—a sense confirmed when Mrs. Moore speaks candidly of her distaste for Mrs. Callendar, the major’s wife. Because Mrs. Moore is intuitively able to sense whom she likes and does not like, Aziz pronounces her an Oriental. Aziz escorts her to the door of the whites-only club.
Inside the club, Mrs. Moore joins her traveling companion, a young Englishwoman named Adela Quested. They sit in the billiard room in order to avoid the performance of the play Cousin Kate that is taking place in the next room. Mrs. Moore has escorted Adela from England at Ronny’s request; Adela and Ronny are presumably to become engaged. Mr. Turton, the collector of Chandrapore, enters and speaks highly of Ronny as the type of young man he likes.
The play lets out, and the billiard room begins to fill. Adela expresses her desire to see the “real India”—she wants something more than the stereotypical elephant ride most visitors get. Cyril Fielding, the principal of the local government college, passes through the room and suggests that Adela go see some Indians if she wants to see the “real India.” The club ladies, however, are aghast at such a suggestion, and they inform Adela that Indians are creepy and untrustworthy. Nonetheless, Mr. Turton, eager to please Adela, promises to round up some Indians for a “Bridge Party” so Adela can meet some of them.
On the way home, Mrs. Moore points out the mosque to Ronny and Adela and speaks of the nice young man she met there. Ronny assumes from Mrs. Moore’s tone that she is referring to an Englishman, and he becomes angry when he realizes she is speaking of an Indian. Back at the bungalow, after Adela goes to bed, Ronny quizzes his mother about her encounter. Using phrases he has picked up from his superiors, Ronny interprets each detail of Mrs. Moore’s encounter as scheming on Aziz’s part.
Ronny declares his intention to report Aziz to Major Callendar, but Mrs. Moore dissuades him. In turn, Ronny convinces his mother not to tell Adela about Dr. Aziz. Ronny worries that Adela will become too preoccupied with whether or not the English treat the Indians fairly. They finish talking, and Mrs. Moore goes to her bedroom. She notices a small wasp asleep on her coat hook, and croons to it kindly.
Forster divides A Passage to India into three parts: “Mosque,” “Cave,” and “Temple.” Each part opens with a prefatory chapter that describes meaningful or symbolic parts of the landscape. Chapter I of “Mosque” describes the city of Chandrapore and the surrounding area. The chapter begins and ends by mentioning the extraordinary Marabar Caves, yet the narrative reveals no detailed information about the caves. Instead, Forster portrays the caves as a symbol, the meaning of which is a deep mystery. The caves and their indefinable presence hover around the narrative from the start.
The description of the Indian city of Chandrapore and the English colonial buildings nearby suggests the wary and condescending attitude the British hold toward the Indians—an attitude the subsequent chapters examine in detail. The description of the English buildings, which lie some distance from the city and sit on higher ground, implies that the English intend to remain disconnected from the Indians and that they feel the need to monitor Indian activity. The narrator explains that Chandrapore appears misleadingly tropical and beautiful from the vantage point of the English buildings, and that newcomers must be taken down into the city to overcome their illusions about its beauty. Forster’s description and commentary imply that the only two attitudes the English can have about India are romantic illusion or jaded disgust. On a broader level, his descriptions suggest the importance of all perspectives in the novel, the essential idea that what one sees depends on where—in both a physical and cultural sense—one stands.
The action of the novel opens in Chapter II with an argument between Indian friends about a topic that the novel explores in depth—the difficulty of friendship between an Englishman and an Indian. Though A Passage to India addresses the general political relationship between England and India, it approaches this issue on a personal, individual level. Mahmoud Ali and Hamidullah, rather than discuss the general issue of the subjection of India to British rule, focus on personal slights they themselves have suffered at the hands of individual English men and women. The conclusion the men reach after their argument reinforces this idea of connection and relation between personal and political matters: they conclude that an Indian can be friends with an Englishman only in England—implying that it is the structure of the colonial system that turns Englishmen disrespectful one at a time.
These tensions between the Indians and the English provide the main drama of the first few chapters. Forster generally portrays these interactions from the Indian point of view first—a perspective that invariably causes the incidents to reflect poorly on the English. At this point in the novel, the only offenses we see the English commit against the Indians are petty annoyances: Major Callendar interrupts Aziz’s dinner with a summons and then disappears without leaving a note for the doctor, and then Mrs. Callendar and Mrs. Lesley completely ignore Aziz and steal his tonga. The dialogues at the club in Chapter III, however, hint at the darker, more damaging elements of the condescension of the English, as we see that English women, especially, can be snobbish and even cruelly racist.
Whereas the English appear rigid in their insensitivity toward Indians, the Indians seem to fluctuate in their feelings toward the English. Mahmoud Ali feels cynical and resentful at first, but he is also nostalgic and accommodating. Aziz, depending on his mood, reacts to the English with either bitterness or amusement. Hamidullah, too, remembers certain English people with real love, but he also sees many of them as tragically comic. Though the three Indian men sometimes stereotype to the same degree as the English, all three generally take a more thoughtful, complex view of their relations with the English than the English do.
In addition to the broader sense of conflict between the Indians and the English, the opening chapters also focus on a tension surrounding the arrival of Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore in the city. Because the two women do not share their countrymen’s sentiments about the Indians, they naturally conflict with the others at the club, and particularly with Ronny. Adela’s remarks about her desire to see the “real India” prompt the club ladies to gather around her as though she were an amusing specimen or curiosity. Mrs. Moore, on the other hand, is quiet and introspective about her approach to Indian culture, arguing with Ronny about his viewpoints only when he draws her out. Even by this early point in the novel it appears that these tensions among Ronny’s, Adela’s, and Mrs. Moore’s respective approaches to India and Indians may affect the question of Ronny and Adela’s engagement, as well as Mrs. Moore’s role in the engagement.
The encounter between Aziz and Mrs. Moore in the mosque stands out as the only successful interaction between an Indian and an English person in these opening chapters. The meeting is notable because Aziz and Mrs. Moore ultimately treat each other as equals and speak frankly as friends. Aziz recognizes in Mrs. Moore an ability to intuit rather than categorize, complimenting as “Oriental” her ability to sense whom she likes and dislikes without the help of labels. From this interaction comes the title of the first part of the novel, “Mosque.” The correlation between the episode and the title suggests that Part I will focus on similar fleeting moments of friendship and attunement between the two cultures.
Beyond the verbal interaction that occurs between Aziz and Mrs. Moore, the encounter seems to include a religious or mystical undertone. The meeting takes place in a mosque, a place that is clearly holy to the Muslim Aziz, but also a place in which Mrs. Moore recognizes a clear divine presence. Before Mrs. Moore arrives, Aziz ponders the confluence of Islam and love in the structure of the mosque itself. Later, we see that Mrs. Moore recognizes that spirituality is based upon love for all other beings—hence her respect for even the tiny wasp sleeping in her room at the end of Chapter III. Mrs. Moore and Aziz appear drawn together not merely through good will, but through an inexplicable mystical affinity as well.
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