MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH E.M. FORSTER
THE ENORMOUS REACH OF “A PASSAGE TO INDIA”
NOTE: At 8:00 AM this morning, it was 13 F (-10 C) with wind shills down to -20 or so, and I figured that after dashing out to the front porch to collect my Sunday papers, that would be my last trip outside for the day. So I had some extra time on my hands and thought I'd take a break from my usual sharp, cogent and keenly insightful political analysis and offer you this today.
Just finished reading (re-reading in truth for the fourth or fifth time) E. M. Forster’s “A Passage To India” one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century. Ostensibly about the trials and tribulations of one Aziz, a Moslem in Hindu dominated colonial India, the novel is actually about the decline of Imperialism, the ostensible unbridgeable gulf between civilizations, religions and different cultural norms, and the magical mysteries of Hinduism, one of the world’s most ancient of organized religions and one practiced by some 15% of the earth’s billions. It seems that each time I pick through Forster’s work, new gems emerge from the narrative like gold nuggets plucked from a rushing stream veiled by the refracted surface and camouflaged by the confusion of grey flotsam resting below.
This time, though, I came to the realization that the last chapters of the work, the denouement following the novel’s climax when Miss Quested recants during Aziz’s trial for molesting her during a picnic at the Marabar Caves, are prophetically luminous, predicting the future of India and England (East and West), gripped as these two nation’s were between World War I and the Great War that was to follow, in a death match of power, culture and world influence in the Modern Era.
Written in 1924, in the final chapters of “A Passage To India,” Forster accurately predicts (in metaphorical terms) India’s Independence, the decline of Imperialism and India’s spreading world wide influence in world trade, yoga, spirituality, Eastern mysticism and curries. Like Forster, who lived in India for several years (his “The Hill of Devi” is a first rate depiction of working for a Rajah pre-WWII), I too have a broad yet shallow knowledge of all things Indian. I, like Forster and his protagonist, Aziz, a Muslim outsider to Hindu India in which he lives, cannot fathom the excesses of sound, color and pageantry of Hindu spirituality, forgiveness, atonement and resurrection depicted in religious festivals. He and I don’t quite “get” the Hindu penchant for assaulting the senses that is the very essence of the ultimate Hindu religious experience yet, admittedly, when I attend such religious excesses, I do feel a “something” that overtakes my observant rationality and transports me an inch or two along the mysterious pathway that is the Hindu road to spiritual ecstasy and enlightenment.
Describing an annual religious festival in Mau that marks the start of the monsoon season and where Aziz has decamped with his two children and unofficial wife to escape the constant reminders of his public fall from grace, (never mind that he emerged unscathed) as a result of the false accusations leveled against him by the English in Chandrapore. His Muslim sensibilities towards public humiliation won’t allow him to remain in the community where he practices Western style medicine. Having broken with his one male English friend, Dr. Fielding the head of the local college, Fielding returns to England and Aziz mistakenly believes he has married his nemesis, Miss Quested, his accuser. A chance encounter in Mau (Fielding has once again returned to India on assignment) during the Festival, reveals to Aziz his mistake. Fielding has married Mrs. Moore’s daughter and not Miss Quested. Mrs. Moore was the impetus for the ill fated Marabar Caves picnic, yet Aziz is rescued not once but twice by Mrs. Moore from beyond the grave. She left Chandrapore before Aziz’s trial began and died enroute to England. It was the local crowd in the courtroom who religiously chanted “Esses Moore” in an effort to elicit her post mortem testimony and it was her daughter who rescued Aziz in Mau from his lost friendship with Fielding.
Other than the last scene in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” where the last of the line in Colonel Buendia’s long family lineage, watches as his papers, belongings and even his room are swept forever into the void in perfect Hindu style dissolution, there is no other more illuminating marriage of the Christian West and the Hindu East than the collision of Fielding’s and Aziz’s wooden boats in Mau’s grand tank during the Festival surrounded by melting idols on a flame-lit palanquin steered by naked Hindu youths, bursting colorful fireworks exploding across the expanse of the sky, the heavenly monsoon rains pelting all – Christian, Muslim and Hindu alike – with the sweet glories of spiritual release, is there a finer crafting of a metaphorical confluence of diverse people, religions and civilizations.
Life, as both Marquez and Forster illustrate so sublimely, is filled with adversity, struggle and defeat, abounding misunderstandings and misinterpretations, duties fulfilled and unfulfilled, mysteries small and large as another English author of the 15th Century so brilliantly informed us, yet as in Hindu reality, life is a gossamer construct that we weave to protect us from the yawning void of emptiness and futility that is forever threatening us with oblivion. And in all three cases – Forster, Marquez, and Shakespeare – each proclaims that we live our lives in the illusionary world of Maya, that grand Hindu philosophy that informs us that life is but a fleeting mirror of our own illusionary existences set against the endless cosmic churning of the universe over which we exercise no control.
“All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players”
Namaste, Buenos Dias, Good Day!