Culture Wars: Forster's A Passage To India - History Essay Example

Culture Wars: Forster’s A Passage To India In this age of cross cultural considerations in everything from education to the design on Kleenex boxes, it is refreshing to find a novel that incorporates the issues inherent in a situation where cultures are necessarily brought together - Culture Wars: Forster's A Passage To India introduction. E. M. Forster’s A Passage To India, brings the art of narrative to the rescue of a subject that seems to have been beaten to death (perhaps because it continues) in the seventy-seven years since the book was published.

The book is a study in cross cultural communication patterns set in a time when Imperialism made the subject a matter of class distinction, stereotypes, ignorance of norms and an attempt to bring the cultures together enough to have a peaceful interaction between the two. The story manages to keep the reader within the plot and subplots by manipulating the point of view. It is a subtle technique that reveals the core of the established conflicts.


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It is first and foremost a critique of the imperial disequalibrium that is sometimes known as justice and sometimes as oppression – depending on the point of view. Forster explores the meaning of the experience through cross-cultural friendship and an imperial legal crisis. In the end, the friendship, like the Imperialism that brought them together, continues – albeit on a make shakier foundation since the fundamental ethics of each side had been questioned and found to be less than perfect, thus making it difficult for the two cultures to comprehend each other and fuse.

In A Passage to India, Forster demonstrates how a lack of ethics, cultural similarity, and cultural understanding on both sides, British and Indian, causes a failure of the cultures to connect and maintain steady communication. The book is divided into three sections, Mosque, Caves, and Temple, which correspond to the tempo of the book (and the weather in the setting) as well as different aspects of Indian religious and cultural beliefs. They also provide a forum by which Forster is able to portray the differences in perception and reaction between the English and the Indian.

For example, Each section is characterized by three of Forster’s views, emotional nature, intellect, and capacity for love. These three views of Forster stem from the Hindu belief of achieving oneness with Brahman, or the eternal, achieving essence of all things. Each section of the book reflects on one of the three ways to achieve Brahman. Firstly, in “Mosque” Forster uses Aziz to express emotional nature through Islam. Emotional nature is the equivalent to the Hindu Way of Works which, for the active man, involves action in harmony with the soul of the universe with no thought of consequence.

Aziz tries to perform this through his religion. “Aziz liked to hear his religion praised. It soothed the surface of his mind, and allowed beautiful images to form beneath” (Forster 105). Secondly, Godbole represents Hinduism and love in “Temple”. Forster’s view of love is equivalent to the Hindu Way of Devotion (or Love), which, for the emotional man, involves loyalty and self-forgetting love to one deity. During the birth of Shri Krishna, love, as a faculty, is exercised. However, both these religions, Hinduism and Islam, lack the capacity of intellect or will. Islam provides no sanctuary for the intellect ” (Draper, Allen 206).

Likewise, the devotion to Shri Krishna requires the renunciation of the intellect. Lastly, “Caves” is characterized by Adela and Fielding, who express their western views through intellect. Forster’s notion of intellect is equivalent to the Hindu notion of the Way of Knowledge, which, for the thinking man, involves a search for the real self. Adela and Fielding lack the emotional and mystical insight to life possessed by Hindus and Muslims and depend on devotion, reason, and form to understand human relationships.

Thus, the presentation of the three sections demonstrates a difference in the mystical approach to life between the two cultures. The fact that there is a difference between the two cultures demonstrates they will have difficulty connecting as far as the idea of mysticism goes. Further differences between the cultures are presented through class distinctions. The novel is ripe with instances where the class distinctions are paramount to either plot, setting or motive. Firstly, the story begins with a description of the Indian city of Chandrapore.

The British compound is set outside the actual city, on a hill (representing the place in the hierarchy that the Britons feel is their ‘rightful’ place) and is purposefully placed as far away from the native population as possible. Secondly, the condescending attitude of the British is very well depicted when the Collector, as the highest official, decides to have a ‘bridge party’ as a means of bringing the natives into contact with the newly arrived Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested. The very mention of the word “bridge” conjures up ideas of not only the game, but also the two cultures, East and West, bridging their differences.

However, because of the British believing themselves superior to the Indians, this is not what happens when the party takes place. The British attitude is reflected in the comment by Mrs. Turton (the hostess) to Ronny Heaslop, “you’ re superior to everyone in India except one or two of the Ranis, and they’re on an equality'” (40). Thus, the British and the Indians hardly intermingle at the party because of the Brit’s snobbery, and instead socialize with their own races, forming two distinct parties, demonstrating a failure of the two cultures to connect.

The author has prepared the reader somewhat for this attitude of superiority assumed by the British by having the British describe the people who would not be invited to the bridge party as “people who wore nothing but a loincloth, people who wore not even that, and spent their lives in knocking two sticks together before a scarlet doll — humanity grading and drifting beyond the educated vision, until no earthly invitation can embrace it all. . . . We must exclude someone from our gathering, or we shall be left with nothing” (32).

The class distinction is made clear by the reference to poverty and the different cultural beliefs in the reference to the assumed primitiveness of those not British. The British attitude of superiority makes it difficult for the two cultures to connect. Any culture that assumes it is better than another is both insulting and distancing itself from the culture viewed as lesser because the “superior” culture is refusing to accept and understand the other culture.

Another reason the two cultures have problems connecting stems from the fact both parties in the cross cultural exchange seem to rely a great deal on stereotypes to form opinions as well as justify their position in the scheme of things. The above description of the Indians as basically nothing more than uncivilized heathens is a case in point. Another instance happens when The Collector suggests the bridge party and the British ladies, besides Adela and Mrs. Moore, are amused and shocked that anyone should want to meet Indians.

The communication here hints at a sense of discrimination, based on the primitive, lower-class stereotypes the British have of the Indians. Another example of the British stereotyping the Indians is reflected in the treatment Aziz receives in his very first encounter with the British. When two ladies take his carriage and ignore his very existence, he thinks, “The inevitable snub … they turned instinctively away” upon seeing him and, when “he called courteously” to them, “did not reply, being full of their own affairs” (11-12).

This example also shows how the British thought of the Indians, regardless of status or occupation, as servants and treated them as though they were there to provide whatever was needed at the time. The ladies went further, however, in denying his status as a fellow human, acting as though he were invisible. The rampant snobbery of the British in A Passage to India continues to demonstrate why the cultures cannot connect. Obviously, the British and the Indians do not share the same views about who is superior and who is inferior.

The Indians are not innocent of stereotyping the British, however. When Aziz takes Mrs. Moore and Adela to the caves he provides a number of opportunities for them to breakfast, have tea and other means of sustenance. It becomes clear that his concept of the English gentlewoman is that they have a need to eat every two hours or so. This particular stereotype does not have any negative repercussions other than the peculiarity of the situation, but it does serve to demonstrate that the Indians were also guilty of stereotyping the British.

It is further demonstrated that the Indians are also capable of generalizing about themselves. Stereotypes are also shared among Indian nationalities as Forster makes clear in his explanation of the Hindus by the Moslem Aziz: “Slack Hindus — they have no idea of society; I know them very well because of a doctor at the hospital. Such a slack unpunctual fellow! It is as well you did not go to their house, for it would give you the wrong idea of India. Nothing sanitary” (62). Aziz has generalized from his one acquaintance to the entire population of Hindus.

His disregard for Hindus continues throughout the book. “I wish they did not remind me of cow-dung,” Aziz thinks of a Hindu interlocutor, who in turn thinks of him, “Some Moslems are very violent” (256). The racial prejudices and stereotypes in Forster’s novel cross all of the boundaries and are interrelated as well. Thus, by stereotyping across and between the cultures, the British and the Indians are keeping the facts at a distance, which makes connection very difficult because of the lack of truth involved with generalizations.

Another reason the British and Indians have a hard time connecting is because each culture misunderstands the other. A certain number of cultural blunders is to be expected in any situation where two very different sets of people come together. Perhaps the difference in the book and in the situation of Imperialistic rule, is that one does not attempt even to learn the cultural traits of the other. The British, for example, seem oblivious to the fact that the Indians have a thriving culture, complete with norms that are felt to be of extreme importance.

Without respect for the Indian culture, which creates a lack of understanding, there is little hope for the British and Indians to communicate and connect without mishaps. For instance, when Aziz and Hamidullah go to dinner, Aziz receives a note summoning him to the home of Major Callendar, his superior at the hospital. He is upset because the Major did not have the courtesy to explain what it is he needs – merely orders Aziz to appear. Once he finally arrives, he finds that the Colonel has left without providing instructions.

Other than the obvious blatant disregard of general polite behavior, this also breeches the cultural norm of Indian individualism. Because it is on a personal level, there is little consequence outside of the indignation that is felt by Aziz and a later confrontation between the two men. A lack of knowledge of cultural norms is what inadvertently brings the three principle characters to the Marabar Caves. Mrs. Moore and Adela meet a number of Indians at the ‘bridge party’, one of whom off handedly invites them to visit. Unknown to the two women, this is a common Indian social gesture and not meant to be taken seriously.

They repeat the blunder when Aziz, in an attempt to cover for the other individual, also invites them to visit him. “He thought . . . of his bungalow with horror. Good heavens, the stupid girl had taken him at his word! What was he to do? ” (67). He then invites them to the Caves as an alternative of having them come to his home. Adela makes another breech of social norms when she blithely asks Aziz “Have you one wife or more than one? ” (144). Aziz is unable to refrain from answering, “To ask an educated Indian Moslem how many wives he has–appalling, hideous! (144).

His embarrassment causes him to absent himself from her presence for a time which turns out to be a mistake. Furthermore, differences in language result in further miscommunication. Because language is the main mode for communication, and because the British and Indians both have different languages, language divides the community more than it unites. Confusion results when language signals are missed or misinterpreted. This occurs often when the conversation involves a language not native to all participants (Draper, Das 241).

Aziz, as friendly as he is, is a victim of this inefficiency to communicate clearly. He is often misunderstood, and misunderstands just as frequently when speaking to people who do not share his language. His initial conversation with Mrs. Moore at the mosque is a good example of this. This is also the first meeting of people from two different cultures in the book. His ignorance when speaking socially to an English speaking woman is revealed. He unknowingly begins to patronize her, and later on mistakes her politeness for friendship.

The whole situation has a distinct air of tension. Aziz butchers the conversation stylistically, and assumes too much. The communication problem there is clear. (Draper, Das 243-2440) Thus, the Indians are not innocent of cultural mishaps because they do not fully understand British culture. The Indians lack of understanding once again demonstrates why the two cultures have a hard time connecting. However, even through the miscommunications and condescending attitude of the British, there are cases when the British try to integrate Indian ways into their lives.

It seems that the author, in trying to explain how the British were integrating Indian ways into their own ways of thinking focuses on the spiritual opportunities present in India that would provide a sense of connection for the British. For example, the meeting between Aziz and Mrs. Moore is a case in point. He has gone into the Mosque in order to calm himself after his interaction with the women at the home of the Colonel. Mrs. Moore has gone for very similar reasons. The two are able to form a bond with this small but significant inclination in common. Mrs.

Moore’s coming into the Mosque signifies her openness to the Indian culture. This is validated by her learning the expectation of removing her shoes and complying because it is the custom. Also, Toward the end of the book, when the people are engaged in a Hindu religious celebration, the British and Muslims are invited to join. By participating in the religious celebration those who choose to join in are behaving in a manner that is antithesis to the norms of their native land. Their willingness to do so shows that they can behave different if they so choose.

However, even though the British try to integrate in the spiritual sense, the religious doctrine that is a component of the festival is very confusing to the Westerners. The British do not understand the representation of a God that is and is not, however, they are seen to be accepting of the Indian’s beliefs in this area by the end of the event. The attitude is almost cavalier, “No definite image survived; at the Birth it was questionable whether a silver doll or a mud village, or a silk napkin, or an intangible spirit, or a pious resolution, had been born. Perhaps all these things! Perhaps none! “(284).

The typical British attitude, however, is reflected in the statement by Fielding, who dismisses the phrase “There is no God but God” as “only a game with words, really, a religious pun, not a religious truth” (269). Thus, even this spiritual attempt to bridge the gap between cultures fails because Western views often have a hard time fusing with Eastern views. Probably the most significant reasons why the British and Indians fail to connect has to do with the fact that there are cultural variables. The cultural variables are environment, time, action, communication, space, power, individualism, competitiveness, structure and thinking.

Forster addresses all of these in one manner or another. Communication is perhaps the most directly addressed in that he shows the interactions between the Indians and the British from both cultural perspectives. He is able to portray the importance of cultural elements, both those that are implied and those that are distinct, in his pursuit of story line and character development. As discussed earlier in this paper, the culture and language of the Biritsh and the Indians are as different as West and East, thus making it very difficult for the two cultures to connect.

The variable of environment begins with the very first paragraph of the novel, which describes the setting by negating the categories it invokes: “Except for the Marabar Caves — and they are twenty miles off — the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary … There are no bathing steps on the river front, as the Ganges happens not to be holy here; indeed there is no river front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream” (2). This appears to be the British viewpoint. The Indians are more likely to see the usefulness of the river and the beauty that one always sees in what is perceived as ‘home’.

Thus, the British and the Indians also have a different view of their environment, another factor that distances the two cultures. The heat, the dryness, the very atmosphere of the desert is used by Forster to show the cultural differences between the Indian and the British. The British are obviously ‘out of their element’ in India – both figuratively and literally. Unlike the British, the Indians are not out of their element. The response to the heat is similar for both cultures, however, it is the ‘differentness’ of the Indian world for the British that first brings the differences in culture to the foreground.

Power issues are also well defined in the book. The British feel that they, with the courts and the auspices of Imperialism as proof, are indeed in power. The Indians, who see the more important aspects of life as being family, friends and religious observances, do not see the British as the more powerful – more as a nuisance that is to be ignored or tolerated. However, it must be noted that although the class distinctions in Indian society are mentioned in the book, none of the Indian characters is a member of the lower classes which may have been the most traumatized by British rule.

However, obviously, the two cultures view British rule very differently, thus further distancing the cultures. Time is also very different for the Indian than for the British. There is a need within the British culture of the book to rush the events, to ‘get things done’ that is not seen in the Indian way of reacting. The trial, for instance, takes place immediately. The summons to Aziz requests his presence immediately. Mrs. Moore and Adela want the Indians to respond to them immediately. While understanding that this is a British cultural element, the Indians do not seem to be in as much as a rush.

For example, when Aziz and his friend meet for dinner they manage to take a walk, talk to the women in Hamidullah’s household and share conversation before they are actually seated for dinner. The differences in thinking are also numerous. One example would be the reaction of the British to Indian art and music. The British guests at the tea do not appreciate the singing in the same way that the Indians do – neither the music itself or the lyrics. This is seen in several instances in the book, including at the Hindu festival at the end.

Thus, a lack of understanding of thinking between the two cultures is another reason why the two cultures have problems connecting. The interaction between cultures can be seen on many levels and in many different ways. E. M. Forster has provided a fictional narrative that employs many of the cultural variables between the British and the Indian ways of life in an effort to bring across the realization that the stereotypes, the reliance on power relationships, generalizations, and the lack of acceptance by the British of Indian cultural norms led to the inability of the two cultures to connect.

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