Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

“His poems were on the decline of Islam and the brevity of love.”

This statement was used to describe Aziz, one of the key characters in A Passage to India. It could be reworded to describe the two main themes of the book - loss of faith and the aborted attempts at friendship to fill the void. E. M. Forster does a powerful job of describing the uneasy co-existence of two very different cultures: the Indian people of Chandapore and the English officials who live on the other side of the city. Both groups have wrong ideas about each other, but do very little to overcome them. Those who attempt to break down racial/social barriers are considered renegades and often have to choose between belonging to one group or the other.

Although I enjoyed Forster’s fine writing, I was disturbed that everyone’s faith (be it Christian, Moslem, or Hindu) was shown to be ineffectual. The two western missionaries who lived among the Indians were portrayed as weak and incompetent. Mrs. Moore loses her faith after her strange experience in the caves of Marabar. If any religion was given preferential treatment it was Hinduism in the final section called “The Temple”. Even then, the description of the midnight “birth” of the god Shri Krishna left the reader feeling more skeptical than hopeful.

Another sad aspect of the book was the attempts at friendship that miscarry. When Aziz tries to be friendly to the only two English ladies who are not prejudiced against him he is charged with a crime against one of them. When Cyril Fielding reaches out to Aziz he is rejected by the British community and is even misunderstood by Azis himself. When he leaves India to visit England, Aziz mistakenly assumes he is going to marry an English woman he considers his enemy. Forster writes, “Subsequent letters he destroyed unopened. It was the end of a foolish experiment.”

I must admit it pained me to read of cross-cultural friendships as “foolish experiments”. But having grown up in a Chinese culture and having spent the last 19 years in Brazil I know that the easiest thing to do is fall into an “us-them” mentality. Attempting to break down barriers is a tedious process and is often fraught with misunderstandings. Although I have not always been successful, one thing has made a huge difference. It is the same thing that Forster disdains… a faith-filled life. Only as God enables us to love those who are totally different from us are we able to come out of our protective shells and make the attempt. Only God can help us to forgive (and be forgiven) when a cultural faux pas has been made. I have been greatly enriched by such “foolishness”.

E.M. Forster forced me to think through some of my failures and successes in relationships and I always like a book that stretches me. Still, I would not be quick to put this on my “favorites” list because of the prevalent theme of hopelessness.


Amanda said...

Good comments! I didn't have time last night to develop mine more thoroughly but thanks for commenting kindly!

Amanda said...

BTW..."Amanda" is me "Mandi" from