“How can the mind take hold of such a country? Generations of invaders have tried, but they remain in exile. The important towns they build are only retreats, their quarrels the malaise of men who cannot find their way home. India knows of their trouble. She knows the whole world’s trouble, to its uttermost depth. She calls “Come” through her hundred mouths, through objects ridiculous and august. But come to what? She is not a promise, only an appeal.” (Highlight Location 2025-28, Kindle version)
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.
Adela Quested and her soon-to-be mother in law Mrs. Moore have come to Chandrapore, a city in British India, to visit Ronny Heaslop, Adela’s fiancee. Ronny is the Magistrate in the city of Chandrapore, and a prominent member of the expat English society there, in the waning days of the British Raj. Mrs. Moore encounters a Muslim physician named Aziz while investigating a mosque, and a friendship of sorts grows between the two, who bond over accounts of one another’s children and a mutual respect. When Aziz invites the two women on an excursion to the Malabar caves, events are set into motion that will disrupt the balance of power between Hindus, Muslims and the occupying English. Emotions are set bare as the situation threatens to ignite a powder keg of distrust and inequality.
This was a pretty solid read. What I liked most about the book was that not a single character in the story really understood one another, while we the reader benefited from the third person omniscient narration and could see the problems from all sides. Everyone in the book is an outsider, in a way. The two women are obviously so: just off the boat from England, looking to see the mythical “real India”, they are unaware of the preconceptions they bring with them, as well as the tenuous, hard-fought peace they will go on to unknowingly disrupt. I love this quote, by the way: “This pose of ‘seeing India’ which had seduced him to Miss Quested at Chandrapore was only a form of ruling India; no sympathy lay behind it …” (Highlight Location 4613-15). It perfectly describes how I feel about travelling, when “seeing” things almost becomes a way of taking ownership of them, of catching them and diluting them down into a Facebook slideshow of things you did on holiday. You can never get out of your own skin long enough to actually experience a foreign land, the most you can do is translate it into something that makes sense to you.
Aziz, on the other hand, is a Muslim, and as such is precluded from experiencing Hindu society to almost the same extent as an English person is. We learn a lot about what Muslim life would have been like at the time, and are helped to understand the theological and social underpinnings that separate Hindu India from Muslim India, which was to become the nation of Pakistan 23 years after the novel’s publication. The book helps us to understand all of the differences between the two cultures, who use the English almost as an intermediary in many cases.
Forster is an amazing descriptor of Indian society and the landscape of the country. He spends a lot of time (especially near the end of the book) describing Hindu religious ceremonies with an anthropological eye; never really getting the reader into the mindset of someone participating in the rituals, but describing them as an outsider would have experienced them. While some might find that a fault of the book, that we never really get to know a Hindu person as well as we do a Muslim and several Christians, it is definitely done with a purpose in mind. I don’t really think that this book is guilty of being written with “orientalism” as the goal, the Hindu world is instead used as a backdrop for the personal dramas of the protagonists to play against. The core of the book comes from the culture clash between Aziz and Adela, as well as their mutual friend Cyril Fielding, who is an Englishman who has ingratiated himself well in the country and acts as a sort of midpoint between the two in many ways.
I liked the imagery Forster used with regards to the “echo”: Adela, in the Marabar cave, hears an echo in the circular chamber, which afterwards seems to loom over her whole existence. What actually happened to her in the cave remains a mystery, but her accusation of Aziz of impropriety causes echoes, ripples, to spread over the entire city. Adela’s virtue starts as a cause celebre for the English occupiers, but grows into an excuse for a general distaste for the region they chose to conquer, and a reason to punish its inhabitants. I loved how “Marabar” starts off as innocent, the name of a cave structure, but grows into an all encompassing catch-all term for racial hatred that threatens to turn into violence. It’s the same way news organizations nowadays label everything “-gate” in an attempt to reclaim all of the feelings that the Watergate hotel came to signify in American popular culture. If you’d like something to compare the frenzy that is stirred by the ensuing trial (that most of you have had to read in school), I’d compare it to fellow Time 100 list member Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, which captures the same sort of feeling, this time in the American South. What began as a supposedly simple sexual assault (if you can really have such a thing, of course, but hear me out on this), turns into a huge debate, over the future of India itself; Miss Quested, described as extremely plain and priggish, temporarily metamorphoses into the very flower of British womanhood herself, and just as quickly vanishes from the pubic interest soon afterwards once her usefulness as a symbol is extinguished.
Anyway, Forster must have been an incredible judge of character and had a great eye for landscapes, if the evidence found in this book is to be believed. He is able to, with short declarative language, capture the tenor of an entire age, of a Raj about to go into decline, and an India about to become resplendent once more.
“They had started speaking of ‘women and children’ – that phrase that exempts the male from sanity when it has been repeated a few times. Each felt that all he loved best in the world was at stake, demanded revenge, and was filled with a not unpleasing glow, in which the chilly and half-known features of Miss Quested vanished, and were replaced by all that is sweetest and warmest in the private life.” (Highlight Location 2754-57, Kindle version)
Who would I recommend this book to?: People who are interested in the historical period known as the British Raj. People who like seeing how small events can blow up into large calamities. People who enjoy reading about other cultures handled really well.
Total pages read since January 1st: 13245 pp.
Total books on the Time 100 list read since January 1st (not including ones read before 2011, and two extras): 31
Next up on the Resolution Project: A Handful of Dust (1934) by Evelyn Waugh