An Unsettling Read

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It seemed somewhat trite to be opening E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India on my first flight to the subcontinent. Nothing could more obviously have given away the fact that I knew virtually nothing about the place to which I was headed. I fancied that some of the other travellers – international businessmen, rich European families off to exotic islands and manual workers on their way home from the Gulf States, all of them more accustomed to the long haul to Asia than myself – were perhaps rather amused by my choice of reading. It must have looked as if, like the main female character in the novel, the terribly British Adela Quested, I thought the ‘real India’ could somehow be pinned down and examined, without realizing that there were in fact, as Forster himself puts it, ‘a hundred Indias’ (and probably more).

Nevertheless, as the Gulf of Qatar slipped from view on the second leg of the journey, I plunged eagerly into the book’s central mystery. In the (fictional) British-occupied town of Chandrapore, a
young visitor, Adela Quested, claims that she has been humiliated – either assaulted or raped, it is not clear which – during an expedition to the caves at Marabar by Dr Aziz, who works at the local hospital. She has come to India to marry Ronny Heaslop, the city magistrate and son of her chaperone, Mrs Moore – an English lady of liberal Christian views. The incident causes outrage in the British community, and its members rise to support Adela. Aziz meanwhile is supported by his friend, Fielding, the British Principal of the local Government college. As a result, Fielding is shunned by his fellow-countrymen.

As the long flight plugged on through the night, Forster’s powerful descriptions of the scenery and climate of India beckoned me. I longed to feel the way the Asian heat ‘leapt forward’ hour by hour, to see the ‘angry orange’ sun that ‘had power without beauty,’ and to smell the toddy palms and neem trees and sweet ‘green-blossomed champak’. I wanted to feel beneath my feet what Forster describes as ‘something hostile in the soil’ and see the sky at night when ‘the stars hang like lamps from the immense vault’.

At one level, A Passage to India is a fine detective story, and I was eager to solve its central mystery. What really had happened to Adela Quested in the caves? Did the morose Dr Aziz indeed assault her, or was she attacked by someone else (perhaps the guide who

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About the contributor

Ruth Symes is a freelance writer and historian. After an academic career in Cambridge and York, she now lives in Manchester with her Indian husband.

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