E.M. Forster’s fifth novel, A Passage to India, was first published on June 4, 1924. It had been 14 years since his last novel, Howard’s End.
Forster had struggled with writing A Passage to India for 11 of those years, and it turned out in many ways to be his most personal book. Although Forster lived for another 46 years he never published another novel.
(Forster did complete a homosexual themed novel during that gap, Maurice, but considered its sexual content “unpublishable.” It wasn’t released until after his death in 1970.)
A Passage to India is an overtly political novel, with its criticisms of British colonialism and racism (which were more biting in 1924 than they seem today) but it also explores themes of friendship, longing, and the ultimate unknowability of other people’s secret desires.
The famous central scene of the novel is a trip to the fictitious Marabar caves where a young British woman visiting India for the first time, Miss Quested, accuses her host, an Indian man named Dr. Aziz, of sexually assaulting her in a dark cave.
Aziz’s trial becomes a metaphor for British rule over India, and Miss Quested’s withdrawal of her accusation against Dr. Aziz throws everyone’s certainties into confusion.
Part of the power of the novel is that the usually omnipotent narrator becomes vague and ambigious about what happened to Miss Quested in the Marabar caves.
We know that Dr. Aziz is innocent, but we never know what happened to Miss Quested – an attack by someone else? (I’ve always suspected the tour guide.) A hallucination? A wish fulfilment fantasy about her repressed and “unacceptable” feelings for Dr. Aziz?
Forster was by all accounts a shy and timid man who struggled with his own sexuality. His diaries reveal that he didn’t lose his virginity until a homosexual encounter with a wounded soldier in World War I when he was 37, an incident where he first “parted with respectability” as he put it.
In 1906 he had fallen in love with a 17 year old Indian student whom he was tutoring, Syed Ross Masood. Masood was preparing to be a law student at Oxford. The two remained close friends, and when Masood returned home to India after his call to the bar in 1912 Forster quickly followed him there.
Forster spent six months in India, but spent only three weeks with Masood. We know, again from Forster’s diaries, that an upsetting incident or blunder took place between the two men (Masood claimed to be straight but sent Forster mixed signals) and that Forster left the next morning after a trip with Masood to the Barabar caves, which Forster lightly disguises in the novel as the Marabar caves.
Forster remained fascinated by India and spent a year there a decade later as the private secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas. By this time Masood was married and a father and Forster was resigned to the situation between them.
Forster dedicated A Passage to India “to Syed Ross Masood and to the 17 years of our friendship.” Masood became a respected lawyer and university administrator in India and received a knightship. Masood and Forster remained close and Forster was the guardian to Masood’s two sons during their British educations.
Forster was worried about the reception A Passage to India would receive but it became one of his most popular novels. It is still widely read and studied today. Some of the racial and gender stereotypes Forster relies on, despite being progressive in 1924, are now seen as problematic by some academics. Still, Forster was writing in a particular time and place and to me his psychological insights remain intriguing.