Review of A Passage to India

I’ve heard E. M. Forster’s name thrown around in the literary world, but didn’t know much about him. I finally picked up a copy of “A Passage to India” in a used bookstore because I’ve seen it often pop up on those “100 books to read before you die” lists. But to be honest, I was expecting him to be pretentious and overbearing (especially when writing about colonization). I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Take a look at two of his quotes from the book:

“Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim ‘I do enjoy myself’ or ‘I am horrified’ we are insincere. ‘As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror’ – it’s no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent.” E.M. Forster

“Adventures do occur, but not punctually. Life rarely gives us what we want at the moment we consider appropriate.” E.M. Forster

The book was peppered with small insights like this that increased its interest for me. In addition to that, I thought his characters were very well thought out and patiently exposed.

All that being said, it wasn’t my favorite book. But it was definitely one that lodged itself in my mind. His fascinating three-fold division of the book from Mosque, Caves, and Temple as a typification of cross-cultural relationships is pretty brilliant. As I understood it:

“Mosque” is the honeymoon stage. It is the stage when you see similarities and are delighted by differences. It is the stage when you see the mistakes your countrymen have made and determine to be different.

“Caves” comes after some time has passed. Usually some larger event helps you to see the insurmountable differences between your two cultures. You become disillusioned. Your loyalty returns to your home country and the familiarity and protection it affords. Emotions like frustration, anger, bitterness, and judgment crop up. Sometimes this isn’t one big event, but a lot of smaller events.

“Temple” is the final phase, which I might say that not everyone reaches. It comes after more time has passed and you have re-established your identity with your own culture. Some of the fondness for the new culture returns. You reunite with old friends and are now able to establish a mutual respect without demanding that each other change. You both acknowledge the degrees of separation between you and are able to be respectful of each others’ culture.

At this point in the book, however, “India” and “England” separate because they are unable to be friends. But I think if he had changed the ending there would have been a fourth stage although I’m not sure what it would have been called.

Overall, I’m glad I read the book and I salute the author.

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