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.