Empire and Resistance in ‘A Passage to India’

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E.M Forster’s abiding novel, ‘A Passage to India’, can be safely described as a classic novel of empire. Empire is not an allusion or symbol, whose sole function is referential, like a distant colony maintained for the order at home. In the novel, the empire is a living presence, a stage on which the act is enacted. The action is not only foregrounded but maintained and sustained by Empire. It’s the reason why ‘A Passage to India’ is regarded as a major text in post-colonial studies of difficulties of cultural interactions between two races which are formulated or even made possible by empire. It’s not to say that cultural interactions cannot take place otherwise but these interactions serve only the function of Empire.

In simple words, these interactions serve the colonizer.

Who or what is an Empire? Is it a person, an idea, a figure or a symbol? Or is it simply the imperial structure? Empire is both an idea and a representation of an idea. The idea being that of imperialism and its various manifestations, the British Empire in case of Forster. One should not, however, ascribe empire to a political category (as is commonly done), only functioning as the administrator (ruler) of a place divorced from cultural and religious work. Empire is much more than that. Empire is a people – the opinions these people hold and the arguments they use to justify those opinions. The actions undertaken by these people is the work of empire and anything that is seen as un-beneficial to the true function of imperial powers is strictly opposed – that is why the unsympathetic and cold attitude of City Magistrate towards the ladies and Mr Fielding for entertaining and mingling with Dr Aziz – the native.

With such a pervading presence of empire, Forster hasn’t undermined the ‘resistance’ offered by the native. It’s there as an equal force and constantly challenges the empire and the notions offered by it. The scene at Aziz’s house at the time of his illness where Fielding is confronted with taunting questions of the basic injustice of British rule in India is a remarkable moment of resistance, however passive it may have been. At other instances as well, such as the Court Room scene, the anger and hostility of natives towards anything British shows that the work of empire is not an easy job. It also shows that the arrest and reaction thereof of the natives suggest a complimentary relationship between the work of empire and resistance. The difficulties of empire and of the ‘pinko-grey’ race in India, indeed, are Forster’s intended thematic aims.

The difficulty of choosing a suitable place for such sympathetic English figures as Mrs Moore, Adela Quested and Cyril Fielding is inevitable.  Contrary to other dominant English characters, they are separately and in their individual thought and action sensitive to native concerns and at many instances also indulge in questioning the British treatment and methods. But what of it? Unwittingly, they also become or rather were from the very beginning the agents of Empire. Mrs Moore’s quest for the universal spirituality and her passage to India is made possible because there is such a thing as British Empire where his son is a City Magistrate. Adela’s desire to see ‘real India’ is not possible without India being a colony and discovering its people and culture a favorite British enterprise. Fielding is a headmaster, an educator, performing the civilizing role, whose mere presence is impossible without the existence of a colony.

To read the novel as an attempt to bridge the gap between the natives and the colonizer would be unprincipled and uneducating as it takes Empire for granted, like something that was always there with both the consent and predilection of the native population. This reading is dangerous because it allows for a justification of empire in the guise of maintaining good relations with the natives, as if that was only question worthy of examination.

Whether Forster fails or succeeds but, at the end, even he gives up on the enterprise of possible friendship between the natives and the settler’s as India answers, “No, not yet … No, not there” to Fielding’s proclamation, “Why can’t we be friends now? ……… It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”

They can’t be friends because Empire doesn’t want it, doesn’t require it. What Empire wants and desires is undue obedience involving collaboration and manufactured trust. The whole idea of the Empire furthers what Edward Said called ‘the consolidation of authority’.

Originally published here — https://archive.authintmail.com/article/reporters-journal/empire-and-resistance-passage-india

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