Mrs. Moore travels with the young Adela Quested to Chandrapore in India, because she wants to find out if she really should marry Mrs. Moore's son Ronny Heaslop. When Mrs. Moore happens to meet the young Indian doctor Dr. Aziz in a mosque, who would like to learn as much as possible about the British way of life, they make friends, and Dr. Aziz also meets Miss Quested through Mrs. Moore. She wants to get to know the "true" India and tries to avoid the prejudices and social barriers of the British living in India. Dr. Aziz organizes a trip to the famous Marabar caves for Mrs. Moore and Adela. This trip, however, becomes a stroke of fate for him, which at the same time puts an extreme strain on the relations between Britons and Indians. Adela accuses Dr. Aziz of sexually harassing her during her visit to the cave, and Dr. Aziz is arrested. During the trial, however, Adela Quested withdraws her accusation. The acquitted Dr. Aziz withdraws angrily into a Hindu-Muslim community and refuses further contact with Britons. In the third part of the novel, Dr Aziz has taken up a position in a state ruled by Indians, where he lives in peace with his young family, writes poetry and reads Persian literature. He is visited by his former friend Mr. Fielding, who was once the head of Government College. They discuss the future of India, and Aziz predicts that he and Fielding can only become true friends when the British have left India.
The Evils of British Imperialism in India
The majority of Indians suffer humiliation and injustice under British rule. Major Callendar, the chief surgeon at Minto Hospital, and Mrs. Turton, the wife of the governor of Chandrapore, are among the most bigoted of the British occupiers. The British get the best jobs and hold the best government posts. Moreover, they treat the Indians as racially and culturally inferior and exclude them from their social circles.
In separating themselves from the Indians socially, the British limit their opportunities to learn about Indian customs, religions, traditions, and so on. Consequently, many of them regard India as a "mystery" and a "muddle," in the words of the narrator. This attitude leads to misunderstandings and heightened tension between the English and the Indians. For example, Adela Quested unwittingly insults Dr. Aziz when she asks him whether he has more than one wife. She is unaware that such a question is out of bounds for an educated Muslim. British ignorance of the Indian ethos and psyche also leads to absurd generalizations, one of which is that dark-complexioned people lust after whites. It also leads to wrongful judgments on a personal level, such as Ronny Heaslop's unfounded assertion that Aziz is a "bounder" (scoundrel, cad, opportunist).
The Difficulty of Achieving Unity Amid Diversity
It is difficult in India to achieve unity and harmony amid cultural and religious diversity—unity here meaning equality, friendship, brotherhood. Forster begins developing this theme early in the novel, when Mahmoud Ali asserts that it is impossible for an Englishman and an Indian to become friends. Hamidullah counters that he did become friends with a British family while he was studying at Cambridge University in England. He qualifies his rebuttal, however, by saying that such an Indian-British friendship can happen only in England. After their arrival in India, Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested actively seek friendship with Indians. They succeed—for a while, at least. But their planned visit to the home of a Hindu family, the Bhattacharya's, falls through. Moreover, their genial relationship with Dr. Aziz ends after the visit to the Marabar Caves, where they hear diverse sounds echoed back as a single sound. (For information on the significance of the sound, see The Caves, The Cave Echo, The Echo as a Hindu Sound.) Adela then becomes Aziz's enemy after accusing him of sexual assault at the caves. Mrs. Moore remains his supporter in the days leading up to his trial, but she leaves India just when he needs her most. Cyril Fielding, the principal of Government College, befriends Indians throughout the novel. But his friendship with Aziz also suffers after a misunderstanding following the trial. The Nawab Bahadur, once on good terms with the British, sours toward them as a result of the trial.
Muslims and Hindus have always been—and continue to be—antagonists in India. In A Passage to India, the relationship between Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, and Dr. Panna Lal, a Hindu underscores the tension between Muslims and Hindus. Aziz and Lal despise each other, and Lal agrees to testify against Aziz at the trial. Throughout the novel, Aziz—though deeply insulted by British prejudice against Indians—frequently deprecates Hindus with unfounded generalizations in the same way that the British find fault with the native populace. Of the Bhattacharya family, he says, "Slack Hindus—they have no idea of society; I know them very well because of a doctor [Panna Lal] at the hospital. Such a slack, unpunctual fellow!" Aziz—and no doubt many other Indians—also object to Christian proselytizing, as a passage in Chapter 9 indicates. Aziz is lying sick in bed when he could hear church bells as he drowsed, both from the civil station and from the missionaries out beyond the slaughter house—different bells and rung with different intent, for one set was calling firmly to Anglo-India [the British], and the other feebly to mankind. He did not object to the first set; the other he ignored, knowing their inefficiency. Old Mr. Gaylord and Young Mr. Sorley [Christian missionaries] made converts during a famine, because they distributed food; but when times improved they were naturally left alone again, and though surprised and aggrieved each time this happened, they never learnt wisdom.
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