Go to Table of ContentsThe Central Role of Aziz in
E. M. Forster's A Passage to India

by Rob Doll (©)


On January 21, 1924, E. M. Forster wrote in his diary—the sole entry for that day: "Finished A Passage to India and mark the fact with Mohammed's pencil."   Mohammed el Adl, a Moslem Egyptian, was Forster's major inspiration when he began the last phase of writing the novel in 1922.  At that time the young man lay dying from tuberculosis.  Forster had begun working on the novel nearly a decade earlier, before he had ever known el Adl. He traveled to India in 1912-13 at the invitation of another Moslem, Syed Ross Masood, an Indian he had known for six years in England, and with whom he was also in love.  During that trip Forster finally realized that Masood did not share his feelings, and the theme of the novel he began after returning is the difficulty of friendship across racial and cultural divides.  Soon, however, he laid aside the nascent Indian novel to write Maurice, in which he imagined the kind of homosexual success he had not achieved in life.  

Then came the war and Forster's affair with Mohammed el Adl.  When he resumed work on Passage in 1922 he had considerable new experience to draw on, including a second trip to India in 1921-22.  In the end the novel is the result of a complex interweaving of Forster's experience on his two trips to India and the transformative years in Alexandria that came in between. Furthermore, the various literary influences operating throughout the period—the books he was reading and reviewing—contributed to Forster's final portrayal of a central Indian character.  As Leonard Woolf wrote in his June 1924 review of the novel, Aziz was "the only living Indian whom I have met in a book." 

When he first arrived in Alexandria in 1915, during World War I, Forster's feelings about the city and its inhabitants were negative, an attitude that persisted well into his second year there. Not long after his arrival he wrote to Masood (29 Dec 1915):

I do not like Egypt much—or rather, I do not see it, for Alexandria is cosmopolitan. But what I have seen seems vastly inferior to India, for which I am always longing in the most persistent way, and where I still hope to die. It is only at sunset that Egypt surpasses India—at all other hours it is flat, unromantic, unmysterious, and godless—the soil is mud, the inhabitants are of mud moving, and exasperating in the extreme: I feel as instinctively not at home among them as I feel instinctively at home among Indians. (Selected Letters, 152)

Although the image of "mud moving," used in his letter to Masood to disparage Egyptians, occurs later in A Passage to India, where it is applied by Forster to the Indian inhabitants of Chandrapore, its association with Indians actually predates Forster's stay in Egypt, appearing in the 1913 manuscript drafts.  The image functions differently in the manuscripts and the novel, where it is neither disparaging nor merely visually descriptive, but also implies a cosmic continuity between the earth and the inhabitants on it, a literal figuring of the "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" of Genesis or the "earth to earth, . . . dust to dust" of the Book of Common Prayer.  When Forster applies the image to Egyptians early in his stay in Egypt, it is partly to describe their skin color, but also to indicate--with no cosmic implications--that they are "dirty."  "Natives, especially of the lower city class, are dirty in body and mind, incapable of fineness, and only out for what they can get.  That is the theory to which, after some reluctance, I had fully subscribed, and like all theories it has broken down" (Selected Letters 174). 

As he saw himself, his attitude towards Alexandria and Egypt changed as his friendship with el Adl prospered and deepened. By the time he was finishing A Passage to India, Forster had made a second trip to India, but more importantly, he had known Mohammed el Adl, who emerged from the Nile mud as a passionate presence in his life, just as the Punkah Wallah in the courtroom scene stands out as a god among the people who are the moving mud of Chandrapore.  As he wrote in "Shakespeare and Egypt," an essay he published while he was in Alexandria: "Yet perhaps this mud of Egypt was working in his mind, and but for Egypt would not have been in it." On the two trips to India that provide the foundation for the book Forster went through the Suez Canal; Egypt was part of his literal passage to India, and it was also to be a part of his philosophical, emotional, and, indeed, artistic passage.  He ultimately arrived in India literally and figuratively via Egypt. On the return from India in 1922 at Suez Forster rendezvoused with el Adl for the last time and for but a few hours.

The process of the writing of A Passage to India is well documented.  Manuscripts exist and have been analyzed and published.  It is clear that Forster originally modeled the main character after Masood, to whom the book is dedicated; and Masood's friend Abu Saeed Mirza provided many details for scenes and settings involving Aziz.  Although he was frustrated in his love for Masood, the friendship opened Forster up to a much wider experience of the world, and Masood and his Indian friends were a major inspiration and source for the novel.

The Aziz of the pre-World War I manuscripts is an educated, middle class Indian who had been at medical school in Germany, where he enjoyed fencing and riding; he recites poetry in German. He has also visited England and corresponds with an English friend.   This version of Aziz clearly reflects Masood, who excelled in tennis and was fond of reading French poetry.  Forster finally portrays Aziz as poorer and less-Westernized, living in conditions comparable to those of el Adl in Egypt.  Many of Aziz's personal qualities are drawn from el Adl.

It seems obvious nowadays that the central character, the hero even, of A Passage to India is Aziz.   The publication of Forster's homosexual works, Maurice and The Life to Come and Other Stories, along with the emergence of biographical information after his death, have made it clear that the principal impetus and theme for the book was Forster's emotional involvement with first Masood and later el Adl.  The emergence in recent decades of cultural, subaltern, and queer studies, with the insights provided by the critiques of orientalism and colonialism, have all helped many modern readers to realize that the novel is about an Indian whose life is profoundly influenced by his interaction with English colonizers or visitors. A strong tradition in Forster studies, however, construes the novel as quite the opposite: it is the story of two English women who confront the "real" India and are profoundly changed.   Another English person, Fielding, is often worked into the center, but Aziz always remains in a supporting role.

This is the story as told in David Lean's film of A Passage to India, now perhaps the most widely known version of the work.  Ignoring Forster's maxim that "The end is of supreme importance in a book" ("Pessimism in Literature"), Lean discarded the novel's beautifully crafted closing—as well as its extraordinary opening chapter—in order to place Adela Quested's experience at the center of the work.  Aside from any mangling of Forster's meaning, this is aesthetically unfortunate, since both beginning and end are spatial and visual in ways that could have been rendered magnificently in the film with the resources Lean had available to him.

Forster was meaning to create a work that was "publishable," by which he meant not homosexual in any explicit way.  Thus, there is little if anything sexually suspect in the relationship between Aziz and Fielding.  If at all, the author's deeper motivations are revealed in his narrator's loving treatment of the main character Aziz.  After the original publication of the novel, Forster had written to his mentor and confidante, Goldsworthy L. Dickinson:

I fall in love with Orientals, with Anglo Indians—no: that is roughly my internal condition, and all the time I had to repress the consequences, or fail to hold the scales.  Where is truth? It makes me so sad that I could not give the beloved a better show.  One's deepest emotions count for so little as soon as one tries to describe external life honestly, or even readably.  Scarcely anyone has seen that I hoped Aziz would be charming . . . ." (26 June 1924)

While all of Forster's earlier novels—including the fragments "Nottingham Lace" and Arctic Summer—begin in the midst of the affairs of the principal English characters, A Passage to India begins with a descriptive chapter in which none of the main characters is present or even mentioned.  Humans are mentioned only generally; the earth and the sky dominate.  Towards the horizon where these vast expanses meet, erupt the Marabar Hills.  As the subsequent chapter begins, the sudden shift to the immediate human scale is reminiscent of a technique in the then still developing film medium: the panoramic establishing shot from which the camera zooms in to the human level.  It is on that immediate human level that Forster's other novels begin.  But even as the narrative focus of A Passage to India narrows from the panorama of the first chapter to the dramatic action of the second, something is quite different, for if Chapter 2 were the beginning of the novel—as it was originally intended to be—it would still differ markedly from the beginnings of Forster's earlier novels.  

The first character to appear in the shadow of the looming Marabar is the character who later proposes and eventually plans an expedition to the hills and whose life is most affected by the events that take place there.  Dr. Aziz appears socializing with Indian friends; the novel's dramatic action begins, that is, with the lives of people from a class or culture other than the British middle class.  Forster's earlier novels begin with British characters interacting in conversation or communication with their peers.   Where Angels Fear to Tread and Arctic Summer begin at train stations; A Room with a View, with dinner table conversation; The Longest Journey, with undergraduates at Cambridge discussing philosophy; Howards End with an exchange of letters between the Schlegel sisters; Maurice with a school walk by the sea shore; the early novel fragment "Nottingham Lace" starts with a mother and son looking out the window and gossiping about the new neighbors.  In these novels, characters from a lower class, or in one case a different nation—Gino, Stephen, George Emerson, Leonard, and Alec—appear after and in contrast to the middle class characters.  Aziz, however, first appears in his own milieu, not interacting with the English.  In A Passage to India Forster has essentially inverted his earlier technique: the English appear as a contrast to the lives of the Indians.

Aziz is the first character to enter and he and Fielding are the last characters to be seen in the final paragraph.  Of all the characters, Aziz is the one whom we know most about, who is present during more of the novel than any other.  Aziz is the touchstone against which all other characters are tested; all of the main British characters, and many secondary ones, are presented in some sort of interaction with Aziz: Mesdames Callendar and Lesley, Mrs. Moore, Fielding, Ronny Heaslop, Adela Quested, the anonymous British soldier on the polo field, Ralph Moore. Among characters in Forster's novels Aziz is comparable in fullness of development to Rickie Elliot in The Longest Journey, Margaret Schlegel in Howards End, and Maurice Hall in Maurice.  In spite of this, until recently critics have generally regarded him as a foil for the English characters, as the sympathetic native against which the feelings and reactions of these English characters can be measured.

Aside from the obvious differences in race and culture, the beginning of Chapter 2 of A Passage to India resembles the opening of The Longest Journey, where some Cambridge undergraduates are relaxing comfortably in Rickie Elliot's college room and informally discussing philosophy, "the existence of objects," or, more generally, reality in relation to ideas.  In A Passage to India an informal and intimate group of Muslim men are discussing "as to whether or no it is possible to be friends with an Englishman."  In both novels the congenial discussion is interrupted as the dramatic action of the plot begins to test out the theoretical problems posed in the talk.  In The Longest Journey Agnes Pembroke bursts into Rickie's room, dispersing the undergraduates and confronting him with the person whom his "diseased imagination" will "invest with the semblance of reality"; in A Passage to India a message arrives from Aziz's English superior calling him away from his dinner party.  From being a topic of the Indian's conversation, the English have suddenly become an intrusive power that manipulates their lives; their subaltern position is tangibly revealed.  The difficulty of relations between Indians and English is not in their individual personalities but in the nature of the colonial situation in which they are mutually contextualized.  Aziz goes off in response to his summons; two incidents which occur in the rest of the chapter bear directly on the question of friendship with the English.

In the interrupted conversation at Aziz's friends, Englishwomen were cited more than men, and it is women that Aziz first encounters.  The wives of two local British officials are leaving the house as Aziz arrives to report to Major Callendar; they ignore him and take the hired tonga he has arrived in, thereby enacting one of the extremes of behavior mentioned shortly before by Aziz's friends:
So it had come, the usual thing—just as Mahmoud Ali said. The inevitable snub—his bow ignored, his carriage taken.  It might have been worse, for it comforted him somehow that Mesdames Callendar and Lesley should be fat and weigh the tonga down behind. Beautiful women would have pained him.
Setting the general tone of British-Indian relations in the novel, their minor usurpation is a microcosm of the general British usurpation in India; but the incident is also the first indication in the novel of a sexual dimension to the problem of relations between the colonized and the colonizers.  The theme of beauty and attraction carries over to Aziz's second meeting with an Englishwoman, which occurs in the mosque where he stops to rest on his walk back to Hamidullah's house.

Aziz sits in the patio looking at the arcade with shadows within:

The front—in full moonlight—had the appearance of marble, and the ninety-nine names of God on the frieze stood out black, as the frieze stood out white against the sky.  The contrast between this dualism and the contention of shadows within pleased Aziz, and he tried to symbolize the whole into some truth of religion or love.  A mosque by winning his approval let loose his imagination.

Aziz's imagination leads him to poetry and pathos:

The secret understanding of the heart!  He repeated the phrase with tears in his eyes, and as he did so one of the pillars of the mosque seemed to quiver.  It swayed in the gloom and detached itself.  Belief in ghosts ran in his blood, but he sat firm.   Another pillar moved, a third, and then an English-woman stepped out into the moonlight.

In a sense the mosque, as perceived through Aziz's tear-filled eyes, is literally falling to pieces. A pillar "quivers," "sways," and "detaches."   Then two more pillars do the same. Aziz thinks it is a ghost, but the falling pillars turn out to be a human woman walking behind them in the shadows. Annoyed that Maj. Callendar had not even been home after calling him away from his friends, and smarting from the English wives' impoliteness, Aziz challenges the intruder, whom he has recognized as an Englishwoman (an Indian would have had her head covered), though he cannot see well enough in the dimness to perceive that she is old.  When she replies defensively that she has removed her shoes, Aziz's anger dissipates.  Thoughts of love now replace his initial superstitious urge. "Still startled, the woman moved out, keeping the ablution-tank between them."  This apprehension on the woman's part of the possibility of aggression foreshadows the later event when Adela Quested attributes to Aziz the apparent assault against her in a Marabar cave.  Aziz's sexual nature, too, is revealed, as their conversation proceeds more amicably.   When the woman says "Mrs. Moore," in reply to his asking her name, he realizes that she is married. "Advancing, he found that she was old.  A fabric bigger than the mosque fell to pieces . . . ."  Sexual tension underlies the scene: imagining her younger, Aziz had begun to integrate her into the romantic reverie he had fallen into before she emerged.  But love as a social construct finds her unacceptable because she is married; biological love finds her unattractive because of age. Just as belief in ghosts is a primitive form of the religious impulse, and formalized religions are intellectual elaborations of this basic feeling, the idea of love is the intellectualization of the emotions surrounding sexuality,  the biological urges of the organism, which precede even consciousness, let alone intellect.   This is the "fabric bigger than the mosque." 

As Aziz and Mrs. Moore continue their conversation, there is further foreshadowing of later events.  "I think you ought not to walk at night alone, Mrs. Moore," says Aziz.  "There are bad characters about and leopards may come across from the Marabar Hills.  Snakes also."   There is something foreboding in this mentioning of "bad characters," of things than can happen if the English wander out of their area, if they wander away, as Mrs. Moore has, from the harmless domesticity of Cousin Kate at the British club.  And at least one of the snakes Aziz warns Mrs. Moore against will appear later, on the train ride out to the Marabar, a snake which is or is not a snake.  When Mrs. Moore has rejoined her compatriots for drinks at the club after the play, her son Ronny, thinking of "his duty to report suspicious characters," questions Mrs. Moore about her encounter.  Thus the scene in the mosque initiates several of the novel's principal motifs, which will echo in later scenes: the interrelation of sexuality and religion, the multiplicity of points of view and the indeterminacy of experience.

This meeting in the mosque is echoed later when Aziz meets Mrs. Moore's son Ralph at the end of the novel.  As Aziz rides over to the British guest house with some salve for Ralph's bee stings, he sees that the English visitors have gone out in a boat to see the continuing Gokul Ashtami events.  Although he concludes that his patient will not be at the guest house, he goes ahead anyway, intending to ply the servants for information.  He finds the sentry asleep and, thinking the house is empty, Aziz snoops around and finds some letters.  Angered at something he reads that shows the English "closing their broken ranks against the alien,"  Aziz hits keys of the piano; the "swollen" notes produce a "remarkable noise" which attracts the attention of Ralph Moore, who, as it turns out, is there.   Like his mother, who wandered away from the production of Cousin Kate, Ralph has broken ranks with the English by not going out sightseeing on the lake.  The reason for this is the bee stings he had received earlier in the day.  Through a convoluted use of images of sound and insects, Forster relates Mrs. Moore and her son to a Hindu-like consciousness.  The verb "swell" appeared in connection with sound earlier in the novel, when Mrs. Moore--home after having met Aziz in the mosque--addresses an insect on the coat peg: "'Pretty dear,' said Mrs Moore to the wasp.  He did not wake, but her voice floated out to swell the night's uneasiness."  A wasp and Mrs. Moore pass through Godbole's mind when he is dancing in the Gokul Ashtami festival.  Ralph has been bitten by bees, and it is those stings which bring Aziz to the Guest House and ultimately to a reconciliation with Fielding.

This concatenation of images also takes place in the Hindu celebration which begins the final section of the novel, before Aziz's house call.  The celebrants "did not one thing that the non-Hindu would feel dramatically correct; this approaching triumph of India was a muddle (as we call it), a frustration of reason and form."  But for Godbole and the other Hindus in the Gokul Ashtami festival there is meaning and transcendence in the reenactment of the birth of Krishna.

Godbole consulted the music-book, said a word to the drummer, who broke rhythm, made a thick little blur of sound, and produced a new rhythm.  This was more exciting, the inner images it evoked more definite, and the singers' expressions became fatuous and languid.  They loved all men, the whole universe, and scraps of their past, tiny splinters of detail, emerged for a moment to melt into the universal warmth.  Thus Godbole, though she was not important to him, remembered an old woman he had met in Chandrapore days.  Chance brought her into his mind while it was in this heated state, he did not select her, she happened to occur among the throng of soliciting images, a tiny splinter, and he impelled her by his spiritual force to that place where completeness can be found.  Completeness, not reconstruction.  His senses grew thinner, he remembered a wasp seen he forgot where, perhaps on a stone.  He loved the wasp equally, he impelled it likewise, he was imitating God. And the stone where the wasp clung --could he . . . no, he had been wrong to attempt the stone, logic and conscious effort had seduced, he came back to the strip of red carpet and discovered that he was dancing upon it.
Near the end of the novel Fielding and Aziz have resumed their friendship and intimacy and go on a final horse ride together.  Fielding is talking to Aziz about his wife Stella and her brother Ralph Moore, in whom Fielding detects a sympathy for Hinduism which he (Fielding) cannot understand.  Unlike Ronny Heaslop early in the novel, who "never dreamt that an Indian could be a channel of communication between two English people," Fielding actually tries to recruit Aziz as a kind of intermediary to help him understand Stella and Ralph: "I can't explain, because it isn't in words at all, but why do my wife and her brother like Hinduism, though they take no interest in its forms? . . . I wish you would talk to them, for at all events you're oriental."   The textual echo here of what Aziz had said to Mrs. Moore in the mosque near the beginning of the novel, "Then you are an Oriental," answers Fielding's question by implication: Ralph and Stella's liking for Hinduism is inherited from their mother.  Aziz's declaration to Fielding that "it is useless discussing Hindus with me" is undercut by the subsequent paragraphs, which indicate that Aziz, unconsciously, has a basic congruity with Godbole.   Aziz replies to Fielding's question about "this Krishna business," by saying,   "officially they call it Gokul Ashtami.  All the State offices are closed, but how else should it concern you and me?"  Their conversation provides no immediate answer, but what follows in the text does, as Aziz undergoes an experience very like that of  Godbole's cited above:
Something—not a sight, but a sound—flitted past him, and caused him to reread his letter to Miss Quested.  Hadn't he wanted to say something else to her?   Taking out his pen, he added: "For my own part, I shall henceforth connect you with the name that is very sacred in my mind, namely Mrs Moore."  When he had finished, the mirror of the scenery was shattered, the meadow disintegrated into butterflies.  A poem about Mecca—the Caaba of Union—the thorn-bushes where pilgrims die before they have seen the Friend—they flitted next; he thought of his wife; and then the whole semi-mystic, semi-sensuous overturn, so characteristic of his spiritual life, came to end like a landslip and rested in its due place, and he found himself riding in the jungle with his dear Cyril.

A further elaboration of Aziz's mystical tendencies exists in the manuscripts of the novel.  At one point Forster intended to use the following lines by the thirteenth century Persian poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, as an epigraph to the first section of A Passage to India:

Four men went to pray.
The first said to the Muezzin "Surely it is not the hour for prayer yet?"
The second said to the first "Do not blame the Muezzin."
The third said to the second "Do not blame him for blaming the Muezzin."
The fourth said "Thank God, I am not as these other three!"
The prayers of all four were unheard.
[From Rumi, Masnavi II,12]
Although the epigraph was discarded, it is echoed in the novel in a description of Fielding:
He had discovered that it is possible to keep in with Indians and Englishmen, but that he who would also keep in with Englishwomen must drop the Indians.  The two wouldn't combine. Useless to blame either party, useless to blame them for blaming one another.  It just was so, and one had to choose . . . .

The poem is of the Classic Muslim type that Aziz enjoys reciting; but there is a deeper significance.  Rumi was a Sufi mystic poet, whose original inspiration to write was his sense of longing for a lost love.  He had become obsessed with a wandering holy man with whom he lived in an almost homoerotic intimacy, neglecting his family, who eventually may have had his beloved murdered.   Rumi began to write poetry, and to accompany his verses he originated the famous whirling dance, a mystic striving for union, which was practiced by his followers among the dervishes.  All of this lies behind Godbole's dance and Aziz's moment in the saddle with the "Caaba of Union." 

In A Passage to India Forster portrays Aziz as sharing something profoundly religious with Godbole, albeit unconsciously.  It is not Hinduism, but a basic truth that lies behind all religions.  Aziz's "semi-mystic, semi-sensuous overturn" points towards the fundamental unity of sexuality and religion, an idea that Forster had toyed with on his first trip to India, when he described in his diary a "temple full of gods and saints. . . . Lingams tipped with garlands," and recorded a visit to a fakir who had a "little lingam in a niche like a crucifix . . . ."



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