A Passage to India by E.M. Forster – Review

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“It is easy to sympathize at a distance,” said an old gentleman with a beard. “I value more the kind word that is spoken close to my ear.”

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster has a well-known premise: suspicion between cultures creates a misunderstanding, which creates tragedy, which creates anger, which creates more tragedy, and so on. It’s the sympathetic way the narrator explores the minds of characters from across the spectrum of wealth, class and race in colonized India that sets it apart almost a century on from publication.

The novel is set in the 1920s, when the British Raj has an intense distrust of a native Indian population in the town of Chandrapore. Their suspicion is a self fulfilling prophecy: the natives can tell they are already being charged guilty of some yet to be named crime, and so walk on eggshells; they know they can’t expect any benefit of the doubt if they put one foot out of line of what their new rulers consider ‘proper’ behaviour. Pushback in such a repressive environment seems almost inevitable.

This  distrust creates a gulf which can only be crossed with great difficulty, and it’s the occasionally disastrous attempts at friendship of the native doctor Aziz, a melodramatic but affectionate man, and the tolerant British headmaster Fielding which drive this novel. Aziz is accused of a horrific crime by Adela, a sheltered young British woman who is the soon-to-be daughter in law of Mrs. Moore, whom Aziz greatly admires. They all try to come together with good faith, but suspicions over any interactions between natives and the British create an environment fraught with risk for any who step slightly out of line.

It’s a powerful but slow-paced novel, and around two-thirds of the way in I thought was let down by a lack of commitment to the perspectives of Indians, and though that less time with stuffy Englishmen and more time with frustrated natives would have done the novel some good. The final book (the novel is split into three) addresses this and is the strongest section by far, closing the novel with one of the most hopeful yet heartbreaking chapters I can remember reading. I’m a sucker for any story which focuses on empathy as a theme (hence my recent love for the film Arrival), but there are enough layers here to keep any patient modern reader invested. Just don’t expect a page-turner; this is a slow burn, but it’s worth the effort.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

“Why, alone of all the more-than-five-hundred-million, should I have to bear the burden of history?”

Trying to describe Midnight’s Children is like trying to describe a country: I can outline the flavour of the place, and say what I liked best, but it’s difficult to explain what actually makes it special or worth a visit. This book is bold, exciting, playful, thoughtful, funny, and sad, but if I had to use just one word to describe it, one that takes into account just how weird it gets at times, it would be ‘fantastic’.

Saleem Sinai is born at the exact moment India becomes independent, and as such has a monumental sense of importance and some rather strange abilities. Over the course of Midnight’s Children, the title of which refers to the other children born on the same day as Saleem, we trace his family to understand why he — and thus India — are the way they are.

Saleem’s entire family are woven throughout important historical events in India, giving readers peaks through a small hole into different parts of history’s inner-workings. This means the book feels fragmented sometimes, but when the story’s finished you can put all the pieces together in your mind to form something of ridiculous scope and beauty. The gorgeous prose is what ties things together and keeps the novel from buckling under its own weight; combined with Rushdie’s sly observations which never stop feeling interesting and insightful, the language here is just outstanding.

A weird mixture of history, fantasy, truth and lies, Midnight’s Children attempts to condense India into a novel. It shouldn’t work, it’s just too big, but it absolutely blew me away. The best way I can think of to summarise why is to bastardise a Walt Whitman quote: this book contains multitudes.