A Passage to India follows native Indian Dr. Aziz as he meets, befriends, and then dangerously clashes with English officials and tourists during the early 20th century, when Britain still maintained colonial rule over India. The novel criticizes colonialism while pondering the more personal difficulties of forming relationships with individuals of different beliefs and cultures. While the plot and characters focus mainly on the English-Indian conflict, the themes of the novel go beyond it – the situation in India often becomes a microcosmic metaphor for division and tribalism around the world, and for the existential challenge of becoming intimate with anyone, regardless of their race or religion. Forster calls for unity and understanding between all people, but is also plainly unconvinced that the world in its current state is capable of such an achievement.

The novel begins with Aziz and his friends discussing the possibility of true friendship between English and Indian people. In the novel’s inciting incident, Aziz soon gets his chance to personally test the waters when he meets a new arrival, Mrs. Moore, the mother of Chandrapore’s magistrate, Ronny Heaslop. Aziz immediately takes a liking to Mrs. Moore, who shows a respect for Indian and Muslim customs, and their budding friendship leads to him being introduced to both Cyril Fielding, the principal of the government college, and Adela Quested, Mrs. Moore’s soon-to-be daughter-in-law. Aziz is excited and optimistic about his new friendship with Fielding, while Adela wavers on her upcoming engagement to Ronny, feeling that she does not love him. Although there are some slight tensions and unintended miscommunications between Aziz and his new English acquaintances, there is a generally hopeful atmosphere surrounding their relationship. In the novel’s rising action, Aziz sets up a trip to the Marabar caves, a local natural phenomenon, and plans to bring Fielding, Mrs. Moore, Adela, and Professor Godbole, a Hindu friend. But the event goes wrong from the start, as Fielding and Godbole miss the train, and Mrs. Moore has a terrifying yet enlightening spiritual experience in the first cave, exhausting her and causing her to refrain from further exploration. Aziz, Adela, and an unknown Indian guide continue on alone. At one point, Aziz leaves Adela in the cave to have a moment alone, and when she emerges, she has been physically assaulted, and blames the attack on Aziz.

The action continues to climb as an inconsolable Aziz is arrested, and both the British and Indians of Chandrapore prepare for a bitter trial that pits the word of the English against the word of the Indians. Fielding joins the Indian cause, and the English rally around Adela. Racial tensions rise, and Mrs. Moore, although certain of Aziz’s innocence, is disillusioned with Christianity and depressed by her newfound nihilistic insight into humanity, and so wishes to leave India immediately. The novel’s climax arrives at Aziz’s trial, when, moved by an almost spiritual realization of the truth, Adela states that she has made a mistake and that Aziz is innocent. While her British peers are furious at their loss, and Ronny breaks off his engagement to Adela, the Indians throw a riotous celebration.

Following his victory, Aziz becomes increasingly bitter – he mourns the sudden death of Mrs. Moore, the only English person he felt pure love for, and is resentful of Fielding’s blooming friendship with Adela, whom Fielding respects for her courageous decision to tell the truth. Aziz grows to be decidedly anti-British, hardened by his traumatic experience, and the gulf between him and Fielding enlarges. Eventually, after years of contempt, Aziz and Fielding’s friendship is renewed when Fielding’s new wife, Stella Moore, and her brother, Ralph Moore, arrive in India. But the reconciliation is bittersweet: now more loyal than ever to their own people, Aziz and Fielding’s relationship will never be the same. The final scene of the novel, in which Aziz and Fielding race through the forest while Aziz rages at British colonial rule and how it has corrupted his and Fielding’s chance at true friendship, is bursting with energy and emotion, and functions almost as a secondary climax – albeit one that is hauntingly lacking in any sense of resolution.