“A Passage to India” on Its 100th Birthday

By Sameer PandyaMarch 27, 2024

“A Passage to India” on Its 100th Birthday

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

THIS YEAR marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I’ve never loved the novel, nor have I been able to let go of it. And so I started reading it again as I began a passage of my own to India—where I lived until I was eight—with my wife and our two teenage sons.

Across his work, but particularly in Passage, Forster uses miscommunication, or what he calls “muddles,” as a productive source of narrative tension and propulsion. “Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.” The opening line sets up the location of the novel’s primary action in a cave that produces only an echo—the absence of real communication.

A young Englishwoman named Adela Quested arrives in British India with Mrs. Moore, her prospective mother-in-law, so that Adela can determine if she and Mrs. Moore’s son, Ronny, are the right match. Adela quickly notices the clear divide between the colonists and their native subjects and desires to see “the real India.” Hearing of her interest, an Indian Muslim doctor named Aziz agrees to take Adela, Mrs. Moore, and Cyril Fielding, the principal of a local government college, on a day trip to visit the Marabar Caves.

Trouble ensues when Adela enters one of the caves and rushes out, accusing Aziz of having made “insulting advances” in the darkness. Fielding refuses to believe Aziz would do such a thing, and as the accusation widens the gulf between the British and Indians, he stays on Aziz’s side. During the trial, Adela finally admits that she’d made a false accusation, leaving Aziz angry at everyone around him, except Mrs. Moore, who at this point has left India to make her way back to England. She dies as she crosses the Suez Canal, in the approximate spot between East and West.

For much of 2023, as we planned our trip, I was mired in a bureaucratic muddle of my own that made it unclear if I would be able to go to India at all. In order for me to get an Indian visa, I had to officially renounce my Indian citizenship, which I had essentially done 30 years ago when I became a United States citizen. For a trip that turned out to be full of easy metaphors, having to officially renounce my Indian citizenship in order to revisit my Indian childhood seemed too on the nose.


I read Passage for the first time when I was in graduate school in the mid-1990s. And here I want to distinguish the verb to read between the private act—in which one sits simultaneously in discomfort and enthrallment with how an author creates character and tells a story, all in the comfort of one’s head—and the public act—in my case, reading as a chore I did in graduate seminars, for my doctoral exams, for essays I wanted to publish to enter the profession of literary and cultural criticism.

The novel struck me then as a book that articulated British anxiety about its declining empire. Forster seemed to be examining it critically by using Adela’s accusation of rape to consider the impossibility of communicating across racial difference and, more broadly, to question the legitimacy of the British colonial enterprise.

At the same time, Forster had also created in Aziz an Indian character I absolutely hated. My reaction may have had less to do with the character that Forster had produced on the page and more to do with Victor Banerjee, the Indian actor who played Aziz as a pathetic sniveler in David Lean’s early-1980s film adaptation. How would I understand Aziz now? What would I make of the homoeroticism of Aziz’s friendship with the schoolmaster (and perhaps Forster stand-in) Fielding? What of Adela’s desire to see the “real India” and Mrs. Moore’s ability to bridge East and West? And what about that cave and its unique echo? “Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. ‘Boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it.”

Reading it this time as a private act, I settled into the book as we made our way across the Pacific, through Singapore, on to Bombay—now named Mumbai—late one December night, several days before Christmas. After all these years, was it time to let the novel and the place go?


The driver that the hotel had sent to pick us up didn’t say anything until we passed an enormous house overlooking the Arabian Sea. I was sitting in the front seat, but it was my white wife he addressed in the back: “Madam, this is the house the richest man in India gifted to his daughter.” Mukesh Ambani had built his own 27-story home a few miles away, on the site of a 19th-century orphanage.

The next morning, our first stop on what my sons called “the tour of dad’s childhood” was the Waterloo Mansion, an Indo-Gothic style apartment building in the Colaba neighborhood. Though she has never been much of a sentimental storyteller, my mother always had plenty of details about growing up in the second-floor apartment in the 1940s and ’50s: the religiously and racially mixed upper-middle-class residents, the great height of the apartment’s ceilings, the art deco Regal Cinema across the street where she would go see movies on Sunday afternoons.

But now, as we tried to locate the window, we saw that the building was in absolute shambles. On the ground floor was the Dave Brothers photo studio, which my maternal grandfather ran from the 1930s to 1958. Now, the current owner, the nephew of the man who bought the shop from my grandfather, runs a very light business in visa and passport photos and a makeshift art gallery. On the street outside the building’s entrance, a vendor runs a brisk business selling knockoff NBA jerseys. From there, we visited the modern apartment building I lived in as a child; it was completely shut down, for residents and visitors alike, because it was being gut renovated. And nearby, my old school, aptly named New Era, had closed and was now in complete disrepair.

While the new Mumbai was being constructed all around us, the primary places of my family’s Bombay childhood had finished with their old lives. Their new lives were yet to be born.

Forster traveled to India for the first time in 1912 and a second time in 1921. Years later, he wrote about starting the novel before his second visit and taking the pages with him: “But as soon as they were confronted with the country they purported to describe, they seemed to wilt and go dead and I could do nothing with them.”

When we arrived at the Victoria Terminus train station, the late afternoon light made the building—a 19th-century Gothic edifice that was designed for deep English winters, built in the middle of humid Bombay—glow orange. VT happens to be the main location of a novel that I have tried and failed to write over the last 20 years, and as we stepped in, I thought about Forster’s description of Fielding arriving at VT: “This Mr. Fielding had been caught by India late. He was over forty when he entered the oddest portal, the Victoria Terminus at Bombay, and—having bribed a European ticket inspector—took his luggage into the compartment of his first tropical train.”

When it was completed in 1888, the heavy footprint of the station was certainly a signal by the colonial power that they had no plans of going anywhere. By the time Fielding took that tropical train, Gandhi and a broader nationalist movement had arrived on the political scene, and there was already talk of a postcolonial India. Upon publication in 1924, the novel sold incredibly well in Britain and the United States. Perhaps the readers wanted the news of what was happening in Britain’s jewel colony.

Watching the thousands of people getting on and off trains in VT, I had wanted to show my kids the India I remembered, but I really wanted them to get a sense of “real India,” in its wild swings from incredible wealth to crushing poverty.


We took the train north from Mumbai to Surat. I wanted to see my maternal aunt, who was like a mother and grandmother to me when I was growing up. Why is it that we connect with certain people and not with others? She and I had operated on a similar emotional register. Since her husband had died, and through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she had been unwell, her heart weak, and now she was completely bedridden after a bad fall. She was nearly 90. She had lived a long life, and for a country that ages you, she had aged. But there was a certain calmness to her, as if she knew that she had lived well, had seen her four children live their own their lives, and now was getting a kick out of the fact that I, the last of the cousins to be born, had shown up from the United States with children of my own.

In Aspects of the Novel (1927), Forster famously distinguishes between round characters, who have the capacity to change in the course of a narrative, and flat characters, who remain the same throughout. In Passage, the round honor goes to Fielding, Adela, Mrs. Moore, and Aziz. But to this taxonomy I want to add likability, which seems like a naive mode of reading. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that there are characters that Forster likes and dislikes.

The author clearly dislikes the “prig” Adela as much as he likes Fielding’s struggle to be a part of and apart from the empire. On this reading, I still felt as though he really likes Aziz but doesn’t get him. Forster has an anthropological desire to know him—the Muslim Indian man out in the colonial wilds—and he ultimately cannot travel the ethnographer’s distance between writer and subject. And he likes Mrs. Moore, in the way that Aziz likes her, for her desire to transcend racial differences. She says to her son early in the novel: “India is part of the earth. And God has put us on the earth to be pleasant to each other. God … is … love.” And yet, over the course of the book, she grows progressively tired of people and their inability to be pleasant, of convention, of the heat: “She had come to that state where the horror of the universe and its smallness are both visible at the same time—the twilight of the double vision in which so many elderly people are involved.”

As I said goodbye at the end of our stay in Surat, I didn’t quite know how to say goodbye to my aunt. I didn’t want to say goodbye. Sitting in bed, she seemed tired, but not tired in the way Mrs. Moore is tired as she takes the ship out of Bombay, heading back to England. For my aunt, I want to believe, the universe is not small at all. It is big and wide.


We then arrived in Ahmedabad—the heart of the 19th- and 20th-century global textile trade—where Gandhi made a home in the 1920s in a spartan ashram along the Sabarmati River; where both Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier designed and built minor buildings; and where, in 2002, major Hindu-Muslim communal violence broke out. This symbolic moment marked the national power shift away from secular Nehruvian politics to Hindu majoritarian Narendra Modi’s politics.

In 1936, my paternal grandfather designed and built a grand house for himself and his growing family. Architecturally, the house borrowed from Islamic style in its exterior and combined haveli and pol style in its interior, with the structure’s core open to the sky. The last two of the five children my grandmother birthed arrived in this house. The children grew up here, with plenty of space and accustomed to plenty of visitors for my grandfather, who had made a prominent name for himself as an attorney in the waning years of the British Empire and the hopeful decades that followed the formation of the new India.

As the children got married and started having kids, they lived in the upstairs wings of the house. Eventually, some of those children migrated to the United States in the early 1970s, while the rest left by the early 1980s.

I stayed in this house for roughly seven summers until we moved to the United States. At the height of the summer heat, the kids all slept on the roof, waking to the sound of peacocks and parrots. On Sunday evenings, the patriarch and matriarch gathered with their children and their children’s children to read from the Gita. I would sit in that living room, gazing into the four glass-and-teak bookshelves, filled with works of science, history, anthropology, and on and on.

Sometime in the mid-1980s, a nasty conflict grew over who would inherit the house. The siblings split into two camps, and the family has remained in those two camps. Nobody has actually lived in the house for three decades. On this trip, the house smelled of mildew, dust, and ruin.

When I was growing up, there were photographs of Gandhi and Tagore hanging above those bookshelves. The Gandhi one was still there, along with a reproduction of The Last Supper. We walked upstairs and found things my parents had left behind when they departed India. I grabbed my father’s Dave Brubeck record and a marked copy of Julius Caesar that he read when he was 20. But I kept returning downstairs to the living room and the four bookshelves that anchored it.

The contents reflected the man who’d built the house: a cosmopolitan reader, a liberal secularist in the postcolonial Indian sense of the phrase. Perhaps my own desire to be a writer started in this living room. If this essay were a work of fiction, I would have found a marked-up copy of A Passage to India tucked between The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908) and Alfred Kroeber. My grandfather and Forster were similar kinds of liberals: trying to figure out how to live amongst racial and religious difference. But there were very few novels among the hundreds of books.

Forster was a classic novelist of manners operating in an era of high modernism. The same 1920s that produced Passage also produced Ulysses, The Waste Land, To the Lighthouse. Among these other writers, Forster seems like the fussy old man. And yet, the novel has its modernist experiments. From paragraph to paragraph, and sometimes within paragraphs, Forster will make point-of-view shifts without any clear signal that he is doing so.

Several generations of MFA workshops have collectively beat that out of us. But perhaps his most modernist move was to set the crux of the novel in the Marabar Cave, which makes no sound. A black hole. The mouth in Munch’s The Scream. The novel refuses to answer the question that it poses: what happened in the cave?

I remember my grandfather’s house being full of sounds, of noises, of laughter, of quiet confrontation. But now, the house had gone completely quiet. The house felt just like an echo. It no longer had a voice of its own.


At the end of Passage, Fielding and Aziz meet for perhaps the last time, going horseback riding together. And the two go back and forth, Fielding mocking Aziz’s idea of an Indian nation and Aziz responding back:

“If I don’t make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it’s fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then”—he rode against him furiously—“and then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends.”

“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other, holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.” […]

“No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”

Here, Forster is speaking to the impossibility of crossing the colonial divide, but of course, one wonders whether he was also talking about the sense of impossibility that he himself felt over his sexuality. Forster’s more openly gay novel, Maurice (1971), would not be published until after his death.

After Ahmedabad, we made a brief stop in Udaipur before heading back across the Pacific. This time, with the trip and the rereading behind me, the phrase “not yet” kept echoing in my ear. Not yet, or more accurately, not anymore.

Novelists may do many things, some good and some bad, but most of us are obsessed with making sense of the past we have lived. To stop, in a sense, the past from disappearing. And having arrived at my own past, having made a journey across the world to see it and feel it and show it to my kids, I felt for the first time that I might be done with it. I didn’t need it anymore. The utter ruin of the places I knew in Bombay and the house in Ahmedabad was enough of a signal. It was time to be done with my memories. The India I knew, the secular India of my grandfather, was being replaced by tribalism and intolerance.

After my own repeated rereadings, I was also done with Passage. The message about communicating across racial difference seemed contemporary but also antiquated, even a bit naive. Where the possibility of violence remains the novel’s subtext, violence is the text of our times.


After I returned to California, the news out of India was about a Hindu temple opening in the northern city of Ayodhya, in the same spot where a mosque had been torn down in 1992 by Hindu activists who argued that it was the birthplace of Ram. In his wisdom, Forster had named the first and third part of his novel “Mosque” and “Temple.” He seemed to know then that the argument between the two in India would still be raging a century after he published his novel.

And alas, I was not done with the novel quite yet. I had assigned it for a class, and it is a testament to its layers that I had no trouble reading it once again, alongside my students. And this time, in a very California college classroom about as far away from India as possible, I thought about Aziz, Fielding, and the others again. In all these readings, I had always placed myself in the shoes of Aziz and the other Indians. It was a natural, expected affinity. But what if, on this last trip, I was actually Adela seeking the “real India”? Or alternately, maybe I felt closer to Fielding, who Forster arms with foresight and clarity, his one foot in India and the other out of it.

In the 40-plus years I have lived in the United States, my first eight years in India have played an outsized role. I have looked to them as a cornerstone of thinking about myself in the United States whenever who I am here didn’t make sense. As an undergraduate, I studied Indian history. I went to graduate school to study postcolonial and Indian literature. My first academic job was as an expert in South Asian literature. The longer I stayed away from the place, the more my intellectual identity became tied to it. But I couldn’t write about it. The United States, sure. India, a no-go. And yet, as much as I thought I could let go of the place, I can’t. It’s my childhood, my family, my memories. And though memories do not always mean you well, they are always there, insistent and shifting.

The gift of great novels like A Passage to India is that they tend to echo in other novels. I certainly hear the echo in the different Doctor Aziz who appears in the opening pages of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) and its narrator, Saleem, who is the Ahmed and Karim in Forster’s closing passage. And as I finished teaching that last passage to my students, the “not yet” now hitting in a different way, I began to think anew about a novel that begins in that “oddest portal,” Victoria Terminus, and that beautiful house in Ahmedabad in a time when it was not in ruins. And I began thinking about a memory that is as clear as any memory I have: of waking up on a warm summer morning on the roof of that house, with an old man holding kernels of wheat in his hand, of a peacock gently eating one piece at a time, of that man nudging me to join him.

LARB Contributor

Sameer Pandya is the author of the novel Members Only, a finalist for the California Book Award and an NPR “Book We Love” of 2020, and the story collection The Blind Writer (2015), long-listed for the PEN/Open Book Award. His forthcoming novel will be published in 2025 by Ballantine/Random House in the United States and Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom. His cultural criticism has appeared in a range of publications, including The Atlantic, Salon, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN. He is an associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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