Reviews

Victims of the Machine Inhabit 'A Passage to India'

All the characters 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.


A Passage to India

Director: David Lean
Cast: Peggy Ashcroft, Judy Davis, Victor Bannerjee, James Fox, Nigel Havers, Alec Guinness
Distributor: Acorn
Studio: MGM
UK Release date: 2013-05-13
Affiliate

‘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.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.