A Passage to India
Peggy Ashcroft, Judy Davis, Victor Bannerjee, James Fox, Nigel Havers, Alec Guinness
UK DVD: 13 May 2013
‘Cricket’, wrote the social commentator Ashis Nandy, ‘is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English’. Anyone who has ever followed it will recognise the passionate, almost religious fervour which the sport attracts in the subcontinent and will admit, rather readily, that the Bengali Nandy has a point.
However, the accident, if there was one, was slim. The British, particularly the English, have much in common with India, from a shared love of tea to rigidly codified class structures (definitive to the inhabitants while remaining pretty much unintelligible to the outsider) and a set of manners that lean towards excessive politeness. Then of course there’s cricket, a game that evolved on green English fields for centuries before being taken to its natural Indian home.
Culture is one thing. History quite another. And the history shared by India and Britain is a little more problematic. The British Raj lasted for a mere 89 years, a mere blink in history, but its impact was colossal, and continues to be felt in both countries, in terms of culture, cuisine, language and demographics. Despite the best efforts of revisionist historians, the Raj, like the Empire itself, was experienced as an imposition, a set of circumstances held in place by a constant tension.
The testing of this tension is the subject of A Passage to India, first published in 1924, a good couple of decades before India finally spilled over into outright independence. David Lean’s excellent adaptation appeared several decades after, meaning that the situation in India had changed immeasurably in the interval, but the film is broadly as faithful to its source as the medium allows.
Young Englishwoman Adela Quested arrives in Chandrapore with her companion Mrs. Moore. There she intends to meet, and possibly marry, Moore’s son, colonial magistrate Ronnie Heaslop. At the invitation of the naïve and eager-to-please Dr Aziz, Adela and Mrs Moore take an excursion to the Marabar Caves, where the younger woman accuses the doctor of rape. A trial takes place and the tension between the English and the Indians explode into conflict.
The trial provides a crucible for local feeling, but A Passage to India makes certain that they are felt before the cave visit takes place. There are a spectrum of views on both sides, from politicised hostility and mistrust to genuine, open-hearted interest and respect.
Mrs. Moore and Adela, certainly prior to her visit to the Marabar Caves, are curious, interested individuals. They want to see India, the real India, not the sanitised theme park that the institutions of the Raj wish to present. We might disparage it as ‘McIndia’, and although the reference is ahistorical, our denigration isn’t. This is not a piece of temporal moral relativism, a reassurance that ‘at least now we know better’, because the characters in the ‘20s had ‘knowing better’ available to them. Mrs. Moore floats into the moonlit mosque at night, where she disturbs the Muslim Aziz. She is there uninvited, but hers is a respectful trespass. She remembers to remove her shoes and remarks ‘God is in here’.
The contrast between the Indians and the British and their decidedly less liberal hosts, Heaslop, Turton and Callendar is stark. These latter three tread that dichotomous line between being determined to civilise the ‘heathens’ and being utterly convinced of the futility of the attempt. ‘Different psychology’, reckons the local superintendent, MacBryde. He tells Fielding that there’s no point in thinking of Aziz’s alleged assault as an ‘English crime’ which at least has the civilised adornment of motive.
MacBryde is a blunt functionary of Empire, the sort of official who epitomises the contradictory thought that they are doing this for their own good. It’s a reflex that reappears in another colonial copper, played by Ray Winstone in John Hilcoat’s 2005 Western-in-the-Outback The Proposition ‘I will… civilise this land’, wheezes the sweaty, flystrewn cockney, an entire world away from home. The unforgiving landscape says otherwise.
It’s a futile desire that resembles Heaslop’s rigid preservation of public and personal barriers. He has been in India for some time, certainly longer than his mother, but he cannot surmount its exoticness, remaining forever remote from the real India. He casually describes the proposed picnic as an ‘expedition’, the noun carrying a crass naïveté, but he is partly right, and Mrs. Moore and Adela don pith helmets for their trip. They look like they’re in colonial fancy dress. The local police, British and Indian, wear khaki (itself a Hindi loanword) uniforms and the constant presence of brass bands adds a military air. This is peacetime (for want of a better word) but it is a martial peace.
It’s a contradiction that suits Heaslop, a man on the make who, like so many ‘lower upper middle class’ young men (to borrow Orwell’s system of classification) has chosen the colonies with which to do it. He is a boorish philistine, a man who lives in Chandrapore not because it is India but in spite of it. His callous smirk at Adela as he sentences a man to two months’ hard labour betrays his purposes. He is not dispensing justice, whatever he may say about the matter. The hapless Indian he casts down is merely a vehicle for his reputation. He treats his position as magistrate like a young man approaching a Test Your Strength game on a date to the funfair.
Reasoning why they are in India is beyond the prerogative of most of them. It is a simple fact of existence. The jittery Mahmoud Ali directly challenges college master Cyril Fielding on this. ‘How is England justified in holding India?’ he demands. Tellingly, Fielding’s response ignores the general in favour of the personal. ‘I’m here because I need a job’ he says. For him, India is a source of opportunity and fascination, the Raj merely a convenient means to learn. He is a subtle and intelligent man, a man of letters for whom the world is an education.
The personal is, however, an insufficient explanation. His attempts at befriending Dr Aziz are thwarted, not by any personal enmity between the two men, but by the disparity in their status. Aziz deferentially offers Fielding a ‘spare’ collar stud, lying that he always carries a spare in the face of Fielding’s protests. It brings to mind the instruction to assist the occupation troops in Matthew 5:41.
The problem is a public one. The characters may give it different names, or attribute it different mechanisms, but it’s all the same. Following Aziz’s arrest, Ronnie and Mrs Moore talk of ‘the machine’, a thing that must run its course. The Brahmin Hindu professor Godbole (played, for some insane reason, by Alec Guinness in brownface) relaxes in the certainty of fate. For him, Dr. Aziz’s destiny has already been decided and there is no point worrying about it. For the English magistrate and his colleagues, the outcome is also a fait accompli, albeit for rather different reasons.
They may differ in their philosophies but they’re all victims of fate, or the machinery or whatever. The larger fact of the matter is the Raj itself, and by further extension, the entire Empire. The ease with which Fielding drops in and out of Indian company is not merely testament to his own easy-going open-mindedness (a fact made explicit by his frequent semi-public ablutions) but also of the extent to which British rule has continued. The conversations between the Indians and the British take place in English. Even the culturally adaptive Fielding, who has a few words of Hindi, is spoken to in English.
They are in thrall to their institutions, whether they be the English legal system in the case of Heaslop, of English-led colleges for Fielding, or the larger institution of the British Raj itself. They are all victims of the machine.
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