Saturday, 11 February 2017

British Racism and its Dislike of Change - E.M. Forster in A Passage to India

E.M. Forster, Public Domain
It's shattering to acknowledge that racism, in all its many forms, is still as rife today as it was before World Wars I and II; it is as though we have learned nothing. I have noticed that there are many intelligent people whose knowledge of the history of our world is scant, if not almost non-existent. To expect them to take on board the lessons of the past is no easy task. 

E.M. Forster, in his 1924 novel, A Passage to India, cites "fear of change" as one of the sources of British racism.

In A Passage to India,  Forster exposes  British racism and its dislike of change, most apparent in characters like Ronny, the British city magistrate of Chandrapore, who ends his engagement to central female protagonist, Adela, after she retracts her accusation against Aziz of raping her.

Ronny constantly repeats the opinions of his superiors, for example: 

"We're not pleasant in India and we don't intend to be pleasant. We've something more important to do."  

The privileged status of the white, educated male over that of his female counterpart seems accepted and reinforced by the even tougher Indian attitude towards their own women, who are nothing without a husband. 

"What is to become of our daughters if men refused to marry," and "She might die... without the joys God has intended her to receive - wedlock, motherhood, power in the house, for what else is she born...?" 

Forster describes but does not seem to criticise or judge these attitudes.

Sexual discrimination occurs in the Indian ambivalence towards Englishwomen, and this is balanced by the obvious racism of most of the women. 

"Oh, these Purdah women. I never thought they would come!" and "You're superior to them anyway. Don't forget that. You're superior to everyone in India except one or two of the ranis, and they're on an equality." 

The patronising tone of Miss Derek is apparent in the following statement: "If one couldn't see the laughable side of these people, one'd be done for." and "How a decent girl like Miss Derek can take service under natives...."  All this is obvious and could arouse the reader's indignation - in fact, it should rouse the reader's indignation.
Sexism - A Part of the Imperialist Ideology
There is a sinister aspect of gender discrimination in the way Aziz describes his children. 
"The first is called Ahmed, the second is called Karim, the third, she is the eldest - Jamila."  
Thus, Jamila, although the eldest, is rated as the third child, in other words, by implication, the least in importance. Although Aziz's love for his wife is clearly shown in the novel, as well as his appreciation of her loyalty and intelligence, yet there remains the old assumption that a decent woman is, by nature, submissive and graceful, in short, deferential to her husband. 
"He was won by her love for him, by a loyalty that implied something more than submission... She was intelligent, yet had old-fashioned grace."
A particularly double-edged reference is the phrase: "For you, I shall arrange a lady with breasts like mangoes..." This confirms male sexism about the ideal female body, and allied with the euphemism: "lady" it becomes patronising and dishonest. Since the flat-breasted Miss Quested has already been described as a "prig" and "a pathetic product of Western education", it seems almost as though an educated woman, "...trying hard to understand India and life" has to be both socially unpleasant and sexually unappealing.
There is also a specific bias towards educated Indian males, which gives some weight to accusations of superficiality made by Virginia Woolf and other critics towards the novel. Forster's main Indian characters are Anglicised, and possibly only an educated Indian would be suitably exposed to British influences and therefore be capable of becoming Anglicised.
Patronising Attitudes and Social Climbing
The acceptance of the need for servants, both by English and educated Indians, seems to be taken for granted. In both cases, attitudes are patronising. "Windows were barred lest the servants should see their memsahibs acting."  Aziz's servant, Hassan, is presented as rather stupid, needing to be spoken to like a child: "...but why have I called you?"  "To drive them - the flies - elsewhere," said Hassan after painful thought.
Forster pinpoints intolerance between classes and viewpoints. 
"They all become exactly the same - not worse, not better... I give any Englishman two years... And I give any Englishwoman six months. All are exactly alike." 
The fact that all the roads are named after victorious generals openly indicates the level of British dominance which the Indians naturally resent. Sometimes, the feelings of the Indians are depicted as eccentric and Forster uses irony, patronising them. 
"Unless a sentence paid a few compliments to Justice and Morality in passing, its grammar wounded their ears and paralysed their minds. What they said and what they felt were... seldom the same. They had numerous mental conventions and when these were flouted, they found it difficult to function."
Class Bias within a Culture
Hindus appear to come off worse in the novel. Panna Lal is apparently of a lower class than Aziz and also a Hindu. Panna Lal, being an honest and straightforward person, is confused when an arrangement is casually dropped by Aziz. "But Dr. Lal, being of low extraction, was not sure whether an insult had not been intended."  
I felt that Forster's sympathies may have been with Aziz. "Aziz detested ill-breeding".  
Did Forster, too, look down on bad-breeding, even if it meant no more than lack of knowledge of a culture?  At a later stage: "Come here!" he called gently, and when the guide was in reach, he struck him in the face for a punishment." It seems that Aziz, mostly portrayed as refined, gentle and kind, behaves as it suits him to behave at the time. He is also a social climber.
In making superhuman efforts to please the English, Aziz demonstrates his subservience. He goes out of his way to impress two English ladies on a day out. "Like most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it is tainted with the sense of possession." Although this may seem, superficially at least, fair comment, I wonder if it is, and that in Indian culture, hospitality does, in fact, imply intimacy. His realisation - that it is more blessed to receive than to give - may simply imply that Aziz is beginning to understand Western culture himself. 
Without doubt, this tendency exposes Aziz's insecurity. Throughout the novel, Aziz teeters on the borderline between the cultures.
A Harsh Judgement
As far as the emotional differences between English and Indians are concerned, the Indian's disgust with Miss Quested because she did not "beat her breast" in court, thereby seeming insincere, is described by Forster as her "cold justice and honesty". Forster say that her sacrifice was rightly rejected because "...although it came from the heart, it did not include her heart." This is a harsh judgement. Sympathy with what may be false in Indian culture has, at least in this instance, indicated a sexual bias. Adela has tried to do the right thing, but she is not, of course, attractive.
Forster leaves us in the air about whether or not Aziz committed the rape. Could it be that Aziz's antipathy towards Miss Quested's lack of sexual attraction make the central action of the rape implausible? "What a handsome little Oriental he was," and "She regretted neither she or Ronny has physical charm." 
Perhaps, leaving the reader in the dark was Forster's way of avoiding accusations of implausibility.
  • Forster, E.M. A Passage to India, First published 1924.
  • Suleri, Sara, "The Geography of A Passage to India", Literature in the Modern World, Ed. Dennis Walder, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Copyright Janet Cameron


Frank Parker said...

An interesting analysis, Janet. It's a book I have not read. Have you read Khalid Husseini's Kite Runner (or seen the film)? Although set in Afghanistan in the 1970s and early '90s it also deals with racism and class barriers in the prevalent culture.
As for British attitudes to the societies they colonised and tried to dominate, I've spent a lot of time trying to understand how the mutual distrust between the British and Irish came about. On the face of it the two peoples are not as different as, for example, the British and the people of the Indian sub-continent. And the conquest took place much earlier - the 12th Century. Integration and interbreeding should have eliminated any differences. And yet, a study of, for example, the British government's response to the famine of 1845-52 suggests it was defined by the belief that the Irish were inferior, that their lives did not matter.

Janet Cameron said...

How true, Frank. Just goes to show distrust is due to any number of factors, not just those of colour or "class." (How I hate that word, which is why I have put it in speech marks.) I see so many analogies in what is happening now with sequences of events in history, but many people seem to find it hard to make the connections. I guess, to some extent, we all believe what we want to believe and sometimes what we believe can drift very far from reality. I haven't read the Kite Runner but I need a new book on my Kindle so I'll take that one next. Maybe it will prompt another article. Thanks for commenting, Frank. I will be looking out for your next book.