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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
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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Passage to India!