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Swimming the Ravine:
The Question of Friendship
|by Tanvi Patel|
The beginning of the 20th century marked the peak of the British Raj in India. During this time, the tensions between the English and the Indians were at an all time high. Specific events in the past had triggered a deep hatred between the two groups that segregated their bodies, their minds, and their philosophies. In, A Passage to India, E.M. Forster poses the question of friendship between the Indians and the English. He finds that certain innate problems such as miscommunication, hierarchy, and mass generalizations have separated these groups and thus they can not remain friends during this time. In the friendship between Dr. Aziz and Mr. Fielding, Forster illustrates that even the most open-minded and good-hearted individuals can not seem to completely shed their national loyalties enough to make new cross-cultural friendships. Forster suggests that in order to keep friendship alive, it sometimes becomes necessary to separate the two individuals so that they grow individually and perhaps come together again at a later time.
Miscommunication is one of the main reasons for the separation between the English and the Indian in India. Various events throughout the novel suggest that the cultural differences between these races make it difficult for them to understand one another's intentions. The first of these incidences occurs at the beginning of the novel between Major Callendar and Dr. Aziz. The problem of punctuality leaves both of these characters in confusion. While the English tend to highly value punctuality and thus do not understand the Indians lack of attention to time, it seems the Indians remain a more casual nationality where time is not always of the essence. In this episode, both Major Callendar and Aziz are left wondering why there was a problem in the first place. Each fails to understand that the other does not hold the same notion of punctuality and therefore the mode of action is different. While Major Callendar is angered by Aziz's tardiness, Aziz wonders why the Major expects him to be enough of a social hermit to promptly arrive whenever summoned. The miscommunication arises because of a certain type of mindset that each individual holds and not because there was a breech in the information process. Thus, this problem is one that can not be fixed easily because it is built into their mental structure.
Forster suggests that when the Indians attempt to adopt the ways of the English, they fail because they do not completely believe the new sentiments. One example occurs when Aziz, who later becomes quite aware of the necessity of punctuality, becomes the host of Mrs. Moore and Ms. Quested to the Marabar Caves. Aziz has been told that the English like to do things a certain way in terms of food, time and space. Even though he tries earnestly to cater to these needs, all his attempts fail because he overdoes everything. In order to make sure he is punctual at the train station, Aziz inadvertently spends the entire night there. Next, when Aziz attempts to provide the right type of food to the ladies, he buys way too much of everything and both women feel they have to eat too much. Lastly, in an attempt to show them India in a way he thinks they would wish to see it, Aziz hires a group of elephants to take them to the Marabar caves. However, the women have no interest in riding elephants and they go along with the idea only to keep form insulting their sincere host. Thus, when the Indian tries to become a little more English by doing things English-style, his efforts will ultimately fail because he has not completely adopted the ideology. He carries out the practices without knowing or understanding why they should be done. Forster illustrates that innate belief systems of these two nationalities keep them from trying to bridge the gap they face.
Often times, a certain statement may be perfectly accepted in one society while remaining taboo in another. This type of miscommunication occurs between Adela Quested and Dr. Aziz during their trip to the Marabar Caves. She casually poses the question of multiple wives to Aziz not knowing that it is considered a very disrespectful topic. While Aziz takes great offense to Adela's inquiry, Adela herself remains unaware of the turmoil she has caused. This type of cultural barrier remains at the heart of most misunderstandings that occur in the novel. The two nationalities do not quite understand how certain things will offend the other race. Along the same lines, later in the novel when Adela denounces her own loyalties to the English and redeems Aziz in court, the sacrifice and courtesy that she gives to the Indians is completely lost on them. They do not understand the difficulty of her actions and they readily pass her off as another confused Englishwoman when she clearly is not. The misunderstanding results because each group does not have the cultural capacity to think about actions with the other's point of view. Thus, these kinds of misunderstandings further expand the chasm that keeps these groups apart.
Fielding also continues Adela's trend of carrying out offenses unknowingly. When Fielding visits Aziz at his bedside, the principal's blunt remarks are not well received by the other Indians in attendance. They find him to be too straightforward and downright rude. Fielding has no intention of giving off this sentiment and he believes that he is simply speaking his mind. He never does understand that the Indians believe him to be rude. The misunderstanding results because each does not understand the other's motives. These motives will remain in confusion since these groups have been raised in different societies. No one has ever tried to explain the differing mentalities to each group. Thus, Forster attempts to explain to his audience that the gorge between these nationalities results from fundamental mentalities that will not change very easily. Only the passage of time will slowly chip away at these barriers of communication and help each group step into the shoes of their adversaries.
Misunderstandings also occur between the most culturally diverse individuals. Dr. Aziz and Mr. Fielding are both noted to have studied a wide range of topics and subjects. Yet, even amongst them there are misunderstandings that result because of racial differences. When Fielding and Aziz discuss the post-impressionism painting, Fielding ridicules Aziz without realizing it. While Fielding meant to suggest that he should not be asked about the painting because he has no real concrete knowledge of the era, Aziz believes his friend's remarks are directed at his stupidity. Even though Fielding does not refer to Aziz at all in his words, the latter believes that Fielding finds him too stupid to carry on a conversation about such a cultural item. Thus, while Aziz is offended at the remarks, Fielding doesn't realize he said anything out of sorts. Although both are aware through body language that something has gone awry, both of their cultural backgrounds thwart them from ever realizing what exactly happened. This time, the confusion is not even in the words, it resides in the syntax and tone of speech. Forster illustrates that tiniest differences can lead to great perplexities. Although they were talking about similar things, the way in which the speech was conducted confused the two friends.
Following the unknowledgeable miscommunication aspect of segregation, the notion of hierarchy becomes the second largest separation source. The Raj during the time of novel used fear and ignorance to control the Indians. They felt that instilling these ideas into place would result in better acceptance and participation by the Indians. Forster illustrates many scenarios in which the English purposefully attempt to keep the Indians in the dark so that the former will have greater control in the long run. The British feel that they are superior to the Indians and thus better equipped to run India. They believe India would be in chaos without them because the Indians do not have enough discipline to live on their own. This type of hierarchy increases the ravine that separates these two nationalities. The British will not become friends with those they find inferior. Forster suggests that the only way the two entities can really become friends is if this classification structure is broken down and each man seen the other as its equal.
One specific hierarchical episode occurs during the bridge party towards the beginning of the novel. At the bridge party, whose name is quite ironic since no bridging between the two nationalities ever takes place, the missionaries from the outskirts of city make their presence known. Mr. Solely and Mr. Graysford attend the bridge party and subsequently they shed some light on English philosophy on hierarchy. Although they bounce into the arena boasting about equality and the love of God for everyone, they fail to include all things. They say that all humans shall be included, but certain plants and insects shall not. The Indians are quite inquisitive about this thought process because they believe that the smallest of creatures deserve love. Mr. Solely's philosophy on the relations between these groups is that one must be kept on a higher level then the other to increase their sense of self-importance. The wasps are not included into the mix of love because if they were, they would be on an equal footing to humans. He says that these insects are put on the earth to be looked down upon so that the higher individuals can feel a sense of excellence. Forster wishes to show that this scenario parallels the problem of the British Raj. Even on the simplest levels, the English hold a strong affinity to hierarchy. The British use the Indians as a marker to establish themselves as a superior race. Forster suggests that the same consideration that is left out of the Solely equation resembles the Indians being left out as equals on the English front.
Ironically, it is the British women that enforce the hierarchies in Forster's novel. More so than the men in the novel, the English women act upon the hierarchical structure they believe in. In relation to the Indian women that are their servants, the English women speak only in the imperative form of speech. This form traditionally is very authoritative and commanding. There is no respect given when using this form of speech and the English women purposefully learn the imperative because they feel that the Indians do not deserve the respect that other forms of speech would give. The English women are also quick to caste their own. When Adela comes to the India she is immediately judged by the other English women as someone who is too much of an individual to fit into the security and conformity that they cherish. The English women label Adela as not being "pukka" meaning they don't believe her to be someone who can adequately fit into the Anglo-Indian society in India. Notice here that the men only receive these sentiments from their wives. Thus, the English women go a long way to strengthen the separation between the them and other women: English or Indian. This kind snobbery reinforces Forster's notion of hierarchical separations in India.
To counter such hierarchical tendencies, Forster beautifully uses natural imagery to make the reader realize that the all individuals are one and the same. He suggests that nature already sees the British and the Indians as people instead of nationalities even though they don't see this themselves. Nature does not segregate between people and to do so in India becomes an unnatural event. Forster specifically uses the sky to represent the encompassment of humanity. Through his specific diction, Forster shows that the sky arches all around the world and unites the species that fall under it. It suggests that all over the world, the human condition of turmoil and difficulty remains the same. He wishes to establish the possibility that the problems of division that the English and Indians face has been a problem of the past and will once again surface in the future in different regions of the world. Forster uses this natural imagery to show the inclusionary nature of the world.
The nature imagery continues with the universality of the moon. Through a specific example in the novel, Forster portrays that regardless of whose eyes are cast upon an object, it will always remain the same entity. The episode at the mosque when Mrs. Moore wonders if the side of the moon she is looking upon is different in India than it was England shows that she assumes universal objects to change according to space. She does not realize that the moon holds its identity regardless of what country you view it from. Later, an observant Indian passerby, who hears the contemplation of Mrs. Moore, recalls that the moon is the same in England and in India. Forster attempts to comically illustrate that regardless of the differences in culture between two ethnicities, certain universal principals will always hold true. Mrs. Moore sees India as a completely different country that she fails to realize it too is on the same planet as her native homeland. Forster sees this ideology as a defining reason of separation.
Another major mode of division apparent in A Passage to India is the distinction between Indians and the individual. Forster's carefully chosen diction illustrates that the major problem with the English is that they see the Indians as one large entity instead of a group of distinct individuals. When Ms. Quested and Mrs. Moore tell the people of the English society that they wish to see the "real India," most of the Anglo-Indians suggest places to go and visit. It is Cyril Fielding that suggests that they see the real India through the Indian people. He understands that the people of India are the essence of the land. The English see the entire group of them and generalize their tendencies. The Sikh, the Muslim, the Hindu are all the same in the English book. They are especially depicted as unidentifiable in the episode of the unknown object that comes under the car of Nawab Bahadur when Ronny and Adela are given a ride. The classic example of unidentifiable Indians is of course Adela's mistaking Aziz as her attacker in the Marabar Caves. These examples show that there are many unidentifiable things that are grouped together under the category of India. Forster understands that if, like Fielding, the Anglo-Indians were open to the idea of individuality amongst the Indian race, they would be better able to from friendships by tearing down stereotypes. They would see that people like Dr. Aziz are able to hold intelligent conversation with the elite British. Forster notes the lack of individuality in the minds of the British remains yet another chapter in this book of separations.
The Indians do not try to break this British mentality because they too sequester together in their common hatred of the English. It has been often noted in the text that without their mutual loathing of the Anglo-Indians, not much else would hold these diverse people together. Forster foreshadows the separation between Indians that occurs after the revolution in 1947. He shows that the problems amongst the Indians will readily come to light once the British are no longer in the equation. They do have inherently different views on many of their philosophies that often stem from their religions. Thus, Forster shows that both the English and the Indians contribute to the unification of the Indians as a group instead of individuals.
Although there are many barriers to the connection of friendship, Forster tries to show that it might be possible between the most open-minded and good-hearted individuals. He brings together two of most crafted and intellectual individuals who might have a chance at breaking through the stereotypes and becoming good friends. Both Dr. Aziz and Mr. Fielding have well educated backgrounds since the former is a doctor and the latter a learned college principal. The education itself gives rise to the possibility of overlooking each other's given stereotypes. Both are characterized as having understanding hearts that can give sympathy to each other's nationalities. Fielding is open to the idea of Indians mixing with the English when he invites both Aziz and the newcomers to tea. Aziz in turn invites Fielding and the English women to the Marabar caves hoping ardently to bridge the gap between their societies. Aziz and Fielding are also very cultured people not just in their own societies but also in each other's. Aziz can discuss art and go horseback riding with Fielding while the latter attends the cultural festival at Mau and casually goes to Aziz's house to check on him. In this sense, both Aziz and Fielding are a part of the Western and Oriental cultures. They feel at ease with each other's cultures because they see each other as individuals and not English vs. Indian. Forster has deliberately chosen these two characters because of they are the most receptive to the idea of breaking barriers. They are the closest to an English-Indian friendship however, in the end, they too can not seem to keep their friendship.
Specifically speaking, Mr. Fielding goes out of his way tear down the separation between the English and the Indians and this fact makes him an ideal candidate for the possibility of friendship. In times of turmoil, he is not quite to side with the Anglo-Indians. He first surveys the facts and makes up his own mind on the topic. For example, when asked to decide on the guiltiness of Dr. Aziz, he doesn't side with the English immediately because he takes into account the character and personality of Aziz. The other English men have never taken it upon themselves to investigate whether these acts alleged by Adela could possibly have been done by another individual. They are too quick to judge. In this way, Forster reiterates that Fielding sees the Indians as people and not a group. Fielding furthers his quest to gap the gorge by becoming a principal at the Government College. When he decides to come to India and teach the students, he knows that his ideologies are going to be instilled into the minds of the people he educates. He chooses to show the growing Indians that the segregation is not a good thing. He attempts to break the mold of the society and bring these two groups together. In this way, Forster crafts Cyril Fielding to be the best individual in the attempt to bridge the gap between the English and the Indians.
On the Indian side, Dr. Aziz is the most apt to become a part of an interracial friendship. He tries to include the English, especially Fielding, into his life because they fascinate him. He yearns to learn about their lifestyle. In a specific scene in the novel, Aziz welcomes Fielding into his life by showing him a picture of his deceased wife. This act, although not completely understood by Fielding, is a very sacred and special event that only a few people have had the pleasure of sharing. Fielding must be the first person who was taking into confidence by Aziz regarding his cherished wife. Forster includes this scene to show the reader that Aziz is the ideal Indian to chose in this attempt of friendship. Aziz is also the most mutable character in the story. At the beginning of the novel, he seems that he can go either way with his affections. He is easily molded by the free spirit he possesses. Sadly, he is pulled deeply into the Indian camp when the accusations against him are announced. He retreats into the security of his people because he has been badly wounded with this kindness. Therefore, Forster suggests that it is the events in their lives that separate Aziz and Fielding. Their personalities still yearn to have the kind of friendship that the world is not ready for.
Fielding and Aziz also do things to stray from the friendship they begin to create. Since it is not a major priority, their lives lead them in different directions depending on the choices they make. When Fielding tends to Adela after her confession in court, Aziz sees this as a person stab against him. Fielding is only trying to do what he feels right by Adela since the others in the Anglo-Indian community have abandoned her. But Aziz sees Fielding as a traitor. When Fielding later married Stella Moore, his affinities towards his British buddies become intensified. With the incident in Chandrapore, Aziz too becomes quite Indian and less open-minded. The problem is that they refuse to completely adopt the tendencies of the opposing nationality. Ideally one would hope that they could remain within their races and still be free to know others. However, during this period, Fielding suggests that the only way to complete a friendship is if one side completely deserts his loyalties and joins the other side. Since neither Fielding nor Aziz is able to do this, their friendship can not remain. Forster shows that even though these two individuals are ready to hold a relationship, their worlds are not yet equipped for it.
At the end of the novel, when the two friends find themselves wanting to stay in touch but not being able to, Forster illustrates the necessity of separation. In his diction, he shows that even nature is not ready for them to be friends. The horses and the rocks separate them. Forster's last words in the novel suggest that there could come a time when the two races could come together peacefully without tension. Yet, the world and the individual still have a lot of growing to do before good interracial friendships can occur.
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