Irony in Forster's A Passage to India
Forster’s Use of Irony in A Passage to India
(List of content AP2I study guide)
A Passage to India is full of ironic characters and events. Forster shows that there are major contradictions in the cultural and social fabric of India. His work poses a difficult question that how will a race divided along so many lines govern itself even if it achieves freedom. He brings out several appreciable facets of the Indian culture and society but when compared to the West, he finds it poorly organized and backward. He calls it a muddle which is ironical because India lacks consistency. Here it rises, there it falls and when compared to European or Egyptian landscape, it looks complex. The Indian characters are complex and ironical that defy being fully understood and Aziz who appears an educated and civilized fellow initially leaves Fielding feeling confused by his behaviour afterwards. Godbole is a Brahmin and tries to be a Hindu philosopher most of the time but Fielding very well knows that his words never conclude at a definite end. Like the other Indians, he too does not know his fate. The uncertainty and inconsistency that Forster associates with India makes it look all the more ironic and complicated. However, if Forster sees India as a muddle then the British rule could be a reason behind it. India was undergoing a major change. Indians were rising against the British under the leadership of Gandhi and Nehru. The British used the divide and rule policy and that was also a reason these divisions grew so pronounced.
However, the British rule and the British government’s relationship with India is the most ironic chapter in the Indian history. Forster highlights this using characters of Ronny Heaslop, McBryde, the Callendars and similar more British characters like the Lieutenant Governor and his wife. The Indian side is also just as ironic and unaware of their situation and how the English are ruling and using them against their will. Forster tries to point out that these Indians are being ruled because of their simplicity and if not for their simple and honest nature, the course of India’s fate would have been different. India is made mostly of poor peasants and labor class people who know nothing outside their villages and are content with their simple life. This irony is evident in the third part of the novel ‘Temples’ at Mau where during Krishnashtami, these villagers are at the palace to celebrate their Lord’s birth. India does not paint a consistent picture. It is difficult to grasp a complete picture of the nation, which according to Forster has a rich cultural heritage but because of being divided along so many lines appears indistinct. The echo in the caves and the disposal of the Lord’s statuettes in Mau tank, all look ironic. Fielding tries to understand the Hindus through Aziz but Aziz himself does not know what they really are. Godbole’s words are another indication that they cannot reconcile with their truth but keep swaying between spirituality and philosophy. While the West believes in science and education, the condition of these things is poor in India and it is fighting back like a restive child being held by sheer force.
Aziz’s life is full of ironies and so is Adela’s. While Aziz has lost his life partner, Adela is unable to see a fit partner in Ronny. She has come to marry Ronny but gets to see a different side of his personality and character in India. Whether it is the local weather or the British government, she fails to understand what may have caused this change. She had wished to find him agreeable and kind but instead she found him being a brute. He was leading a life that made her feel sick and suffocated. She feels all the more lost in India already. Swaying between faith and intellectualism, she has started feeling as if caught in a void. When inside the cave, the same question strikes back, leaving her soul shaken and empty like a bowl. Feeling badly confused and harassed by the echo inside the cave, she blames it upon Aziz. While the court room drama is happily resolved in the favour of Indians because she takes her charges back, she is still a foolish girl to Aziz who never did what she meant and never meant what she did. The irony in Ronny Heaslop’s story is that he cannot go far from the line of duty and is proudly a part of the pack of comic English wolves. He keeps acting like a trained British wolf making his mother feel all the more helpless.
Forster's work is full of dialogues which make it look like a drama. However, if not for these dialogues, the irony would not have been less clear and the sarcasm less profound. Historical accounts show the British in even poor light in India – as difficult and unruly guests full of attitude. They are here to govern Indians for they are scientifically backward and will plunder them of their wealth and cultural heritage. They are an incorrigible race; the colonialist were here for nothing but only India’s wealth. Some Indians watch them with awe, some with disdain, some consider them a curse and for some they are the fish in the monsoon. They had come to India as merchants and by the time they left, they had plundered it and carried its wealth to England, leaving it hollow like the Marabar caves.
Aziz’s character is ironic for several reasons but particularly his lack of sight beyond Islam and his restive and childish attitude make it all the more ironic. He is a devout Muslim but educated and understands things better than the other Muslims. Yet, he fails to act wisely in the light of misfortune. He shrieks and shakes like a coward when the police tries to arrest him after the Marabar caves incident. However, his fear is understandable. All the name and trust he had built were going to be destroyed after that unfortunate incident. Fielding wanted to see him firmer and while he is passionate, his emotions can turn him weak. When he grows emotional, he starts longing to be back in the time of Babur and Alamgir which were not so agreeable names for the Hindu community constituting a larger part of India.
The Hindu Muslim divide and the ironies born of it are highlighted strongly in the novel. These two communities have learnt to live like friends but not really together. They are divided into sections and these lines are firm. This is particularly highlighted in part one and three of the novel. In part 2, you will see them united for a small period under the wave of nationalism erupting after Aziz’s arrest. However, again during the festival in Mau, Aziz is back on scene with Fielding and Godbole, the divide is again evident. By the end, Aziz has grown a real nationalist who believes the Indians will have taken the reins from the hands of the British soon. There is a profound change in his attitude and the educated, smiling and affable Aziz has changed into a freedom fighter who can bear the slack Hindus but not the British. He is a descendant of Babur and Alamgir which makes him an outsider in a society dominated by Hindus.
Mrs Moore has a brief appearance in the novel . She dies during the first half of the novel but is remembered as a noble soul later. She loved India unlike the poor Adela who cannot create the same trust. She wants Ronny to leave a better impression on Adela, but her preaching dissuades Ronny. She cannot withstand his gimmicks. The others at the club also make her feel not alive. Her story ends abruptly and she too does not find what she was looking for in India. When she tries to see real India, she sees a reflection of the monstrous British Raaj that leaves her feeling a part of some very sick species that controls, rules and abuses others by brute force that are not developed and educated. Her return from India ironically results in her death and she dies without having seen her two other children Ralph and Stella before her death.
Even Fielding starts looking like a wolf in the guise of a friend in the aftermath of the caves incident. Aziz loses trust in him. Later, his trust is retained to slight extent once the situation is clear close to the end. Aziz thinks he has married Adela in England and cheated him of the money she would otherwise have paid. It turns out that Fielding has married Stella and Aziz is feeling foolish to learn the truth. He cannot undo the effects of the Marabar incident. He hopes the British will be punished for having treated him so poorly. Fielding did his best to save Aziz during the court drama but the distaste it left behind is strong. Forster again highlights the irony that Indian culture keeps people locked in separate compartments. In this way the entire novel is filled with ironies of different sorts but the most ironic thing is the British rule itself. Forster has made the picture successfully clear to some extent that these club going British are not as civilized as they try to look.
India has always seen guests as Gods whether British, Afghan or French. At last you can see that despite all its divisions, India is India. The British could not change it, nor did Mughals. What Forster calls contradictions are just the varied colors of India. Despite all the chaos and contradictions, it is a melody. Mrs Moore was trying to listen to it keenly but the voices at the club kept disturbing her mind. Aziz finds some of the music back in his life in the later parts of the novel. Ironies abound in A Passage to India, but not everything is ironic. India belongs to the Indians and no one can deny this truth.