Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Wonder That Is India

My fascination with India began in 1985. A graduate student at NYU, I spent much of the little money I had collecting ragas, watching the films of Satyajit Ray, and gorging myself on curry, dal, and nan in nearby “Little India,” a single block of East 6th Street crammed, at the time, with as many as 30 inexpensive Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants. Not long after that I met my wife-to-be, a former East Asian Studies major at Barnard, fell in love, when together we set our sights on India, travelling first to Delhi, Srinagar, and Leh, then, a year later, to Bombay (now Mumbai) and south—to Bangalore, Mysore, Ootacamund, Trivandrum, and Chochin, settling at last in Kovalam where we lived for a month on the beach.

In that time I read everything about India I could get my hands on, a stumbling, slapdash initiation into the country and its peoples that included such well-known and lesser-known works as The Discovery of India; The Great Mutiny; India: A Wounded Civilization; Sources of Indian Tradition; The Bhagavad Gita; Thy Hand, Great Anarch!; Portrait of India; The Essentials of Indian Philosophy; The City of Joy; Ramakrishna and his Disciples; The Speaking Tree; Freedom at Midnight; and The Wonder That Was India. As fiction was my passion, I devoured the novels and short stories of R.K. Narayan, Attia Hosain, Nayantara Saghal, Mulk Raj Anund, Ismat Chugtai, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Gucharan Das, Anita Desai, Indira Mahindra, Kushwant Singh, Altaf Fatima, Raja Rao, and Rabindranath Tagore (with one of whose most prominent translators, a man named William Radice, I happened to share a train ride between Oxford and London one day). In Kerala I read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in a hotel room flooded to the bedsprings by relentless monsoons rains.

Yet it is likely I would never have read any of these, let alone travelled to India itself, had it not been for a chance encounter with a single book—E.M. Forster’s novel, A Passage To India.

If colonialism produced anything good (a matter much debated to this day), perhaps this, this novel of Forster’s, is one of its bright, if bitter fruits. His treatment of the waning days of the British Raj (a time and experience he knew well) is not only politically nuanced and often commendably frank, but eminently sensitive, humane. While for many Forster stands damned by Katherine Mansfield’s so-eager-to-be-witty contention that he never gets any further in his novels “than warming the teapot,” I urge you to consider (or reconsider) this last  novel of his, a work, a brew, sampled and extolled by readers and critics as distinguished and varied as Leonard Woolf, Lionel Trilling, and Rebecca West. Among Forster’s more contemporary paracletes is the adroit and savvy British author, Zadie Smith, who remarked in a recent interview in The Atlantic that her novel On Beauty was an homage to Forster, “to whom all my fiction is indebted.” What she praises Forster for in general, what I praise him for in particular, is his unshakable liberal humanism, his unabashed, unapologetic devotion to Love and to the sanctity of human relationships, those dear and daily encounters that, for him (as well as for his more prescient characters like Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore, and Mr. Fielding) must finally and always take precedence over race and country and creed.

In his life, as in his fiction, Forster lived a kind of golden mean, charting a path, in an age of fanatics, that distinguished him by what might be called a teleological, Anglo-Aristotelian restraint. I love the way Smith puts it:

…there is a sense in which Forster was something of a rare bird. He was free of the many vices commonly found in novelists of his generation—what’s unusual about Forster is what he didn’t do. He didn’t lean rightward with the years, or allow nostalgia to morph into misanthropy; he never knelt for the Pope nor the Queen, nor did he flirt (ideologically speaking) with Hitler, Stalin, Mao; he never believed the novel was dead or the hills alive, continued to read contemporary fiction after the age of fifty, harbored no special hatred for the generation below or above him, did not come to feel that England had gone to hell in a hand-basket, that its language was doomed, that lunatics were running the asylum, or foreigners swamping the cities.

At the heart of this affecting novel are the valiant if hapless efforts of a few characters (one Muslim, two English) to surmount the many and cruelly consequential barriers that divide British India—barriers of race, sex, class, religion,  nationality, education, and caste. Indeed the hierarchical structure of human relationships during the more than three hundred years of British rule in India is clearly established in the novel’s first few pages with the brilliant description of the town of Chandrapore in which the bulk of the novel is set. 

Dedicated to his Indian friend, cicerone, and unrequited love, Syed Ross Masood, Forster’s A Passage to India is an eloquent, polyphonic, deeply affectionate tale about India and the insidious ways that colonialism corrupts and retards human relationships—a racist, sum-zero, implicitly violent sectarianism still very much alive in India today. 

Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970) is the author of Where Angels Fear To Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room With  View, Howard’s End, A Passage to India, and Maurice, which was only published after his death.

Peter Adam Nash

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