“A Passage to India”: enduring art in changing times

by Don Franks

In 1957, E.M. Forster wrote of his greatest work:

“The India described in A Passage to India no longer exists either politically or socially. Change had begun even at the time the book was published (1924) and during the following quarter of a century it accelerated enormously … there was the termination of the British Raj; there was the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan and the entry of them both into world affairs; there was the abolition of the Native states; there was the weakening of purdah and of caste; there was the increase of industrialism.  All these changes occurred in the 1940s, and with them has come the double impact on the peninsula of the USA and the USSR – two countries which are not mentioned in the novel at all.”

E.M .Forster

The subcontinent has changed even more since 1957, yet, as Robert McCrum wrote in The Guardian in 2014, “A Passage to India stands as a strangely timeless achievement.”

Forster’s achievement was reached after ten years of hard slog, rewriting, research and reflection.  The final effect is stunning.  Drama, humour and observation combine, in my view, to a Shakespearean degree.  The book’s title is from a poem title, Walt Whitman’s optimistic prophecy of globalisation, which enthused:

“…seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together…”

The poem’s vision of triumphant unity isn’t realised in Forster’s creation. The novel focuses more on aspects of human division and its main driving force is an unrequited love.

The book is dedicated “to Syed Ross Masood, and to the seventeen years of our friendship”. Masood was an Indian Moslem lad from a well-off family, destined for Oxford. As a young classics graduate, Forster became Masood’s Latin tutor. Over time, the two men became friends and the pupil became his teacher’s teacher. Forster’s obituary tribute to Masood said:

“…he woke me up out of my suburban and academic life, showed me new horizons and a new civilisation, and helped me towards the understanding of a new continent … he made everything real and exciting and seventeen years later when I wrote A Passage to India I dedicated it to him out of gratitude as well as love, for it would never have been written without him.”

The relationship of the novel’s two main male characters is reflective of the real life association. In the book, a middle-aged British teacher and a young Indian doctor combine and clash in the fiery cauldron of a colonised land. “We” (different Indian groups) ”may hate one another, but we hate you the most … if it’s fifty or five hundred years, we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then … and then, he concluded, half kissing him, you and I shall be friends.”

That passage from the novel’s young Indian character has poignancy when it’s remembered that Forster was gay, but his young friend was not. Growing up in the threatening climate of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, in a society where homosexuality remained illegal until 196, E.M. Forster was out only to a small circle of close friends.

Although he lived another 46 years after A Passage to India, Forster never published another novel. A disappointed reading public could not figure out why. The author privately told confidants that he was weary of writing about “the only subject I can and may treat” – heterosexual love. Between 1913 and sometime in the 1960s Forster worked on a novel closer to his heart – a story of homosexual love, titled Maurice. Before his death, the author only showed this to carefully selected friends; Forster was adamant that this novel couldn’t be published during his lifetime. Not because of its subject matter, but its treatment. Maurice has a happy ending. Forster thought the unhappy ending of a homosexual affair might have rendered the book socially acceptable, a compromise he refused to make.

One comment

  1. In December, 1965, I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University finishing up a two year BA degree after getting my US BA in 1964. The first year at Cambridge, I lived at the college (KIng’s) and E.M. Forster’s bedroom was right beneath my room. That led to my meeting him and he even once invited me to tea. He was an extremely nice, friendly, man – but that’s not what I want to share.

    The idea that A Passage to India is a timeless work of art was brought home to me in December of 1965 when King’s College hosted its annual “Founders Day” dinner. The Provost of the College, Noel Annan, gave the main speech and towards the end of it he said he wanted to highlight two “great Kings men” – one who has long since left us and one who is still with us. The first person he talked about was Keynes – I don’t remember a thing he said about Keynes. Then he turned to Forster (who it appears everyone called “Morgan” even though that was his middle name). Here is Annan’s quote, spoken with INCREDIBLE FORCE ,as if he was concluding an argument before Parliament:

    “When all of us in this room are dust . . . and everything we have ever written is COVERED in dust, A Passage to India will be read and cherished.”

    Based on the article written over 50 years later, he (Annan) knew what he was talking about. . .

    The one time I had tea with him, I asked him (naively) what he was writing and he said, “I have written some pieces for the Observer (a Sunday newspaper in Britain) about “reading I have liked” or something like that. Everyone thinks I have this novel sitting around waiting to be published but (smiling) that’s not true ….”

    Of course he was sitting on Maurice. (And I as a quite naive person those days had NO IDEA he was gay ….)

    Mike Meeropol

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