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Ou-Boum

 

That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.

— T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Fictional characters can feel like real people in our lives; they can influence our behaviour and wait for us in remote places. Sometimes they even shape our experiences before we have them. I knew, for example, that a trip to India would mean an encounter with Adela Quested.

“I want to see the real India.” With this declaration Adela makes her first appearance in E.M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India (1924). Although she is arguably the main character— she causes the central conflict and we often see India through her eager eyes— she doesn’t enter the story until Chapter 3. First we meet the Indian Dr. Aziz and his friends, debating whether Indians and British can ever truly understand each other, and the British Mrs. Moore, whose friendship with Aziz will dramatize the question.

But even before this we meet the land itself, encompassing both muddy flats and a civil station on a leafy hill, connected only by a blue sky. Forster drew on a real place to describe the fictional Chandrapore: he visited India in 1912 and returned in 1921 as a private secretary to a local prince in Dewas Senior. He wrote voluminous letters home about this “real” India and published them later as The Hill of Devi. Forster struggled to write the novel: he wrote the opening chapters before he returned to India,

but as soon as they were confronted with the country they purported to describe, they seemed to wilt and go dead and I could do nothing with them. I used to look at them of an evening in my room at Dewas, and felt only distaste and despair. The gap between India remembered and India experienced was too wide. When I got back to England the gap narrowed and I was able to resume. But I still thought the book bad, and probably should not have completed it without the encouragement of Leonard Woolf.

As Forster acknowledged, the image of India is a particular view from elsewhere. Like many before and after him, he used “India” as a way to explore questions about how to connect to other people, and what it means to experience or understand difference. These questions overflow their historical or factual origins and easily become myth or stereotype. Don’t Westerners expect to go to India to discover something and come back changed? For that project India itself is both necessary and unnecessary. The “real” India, for both Adela and Forster, turns out to be all about them.

My own passage to India began in a British Airways business class lounge at JFK airport. I arrived in Chhatrapati Shivaji airport in Mumbai the next day to stained carpeting and an overwhelming smell of mildew. The sky was dark and the air humid. Men slept in the airport corridors. No matter. A car awaited and swept me away to a glossy hotel where uniformed staff ushered me toward a cloud of white-white pillows. Namaste. Like Adela, I was in India because of a man. Adela was visiting the civil servant Ronny Heaslop to decide whether or not to marry him. She came from a long line of English misses who travelled to India in search of husbands in the British military and colonial service. Victorians called them the “fishing fleet.” I was following my husband on a business trip for an American multinational with IT employees in Chennai. I too was implicated in the complicated power relations that Forster described in his novel: like Adela, I was an outsider who assumed she could observe without participating in Indian life. But A Passage to India had made me wary.

Adela states her desire for the “real India” in various forms and in various situations throughout the first third of the book. What she means by it is unclear, to herself as much as to her British compatriots in the small community of Chandrapore. She wants to meet Indians, and go to their homes, and understand them. The colonial administrators, including her intended, are amused and indulgent, as are we readers — at first. When I say “Namaste” to the staff at my hotel, they are paid to indulge me. I press my palms together at the heart, bow slightly, and murmur. The gesture implies closeness without actually touching the other. Like greetings in many cultures, it also ensures that neither hand holds a weapon. I want to be polite and learn local customs, but for all I know I am just ridiculous. Finally I ask someone, which is my sincere and clumsy way of managing cultural confusion. Yes, says the smiling waitress in a printed sari, you may use our greeting, but you aren’t expected to since you are not Indian. It’s just friendliness. When I move on to a less expensive hotel, however, these greetings stop. The burly Sikh porter, resplendent in tasselled jacket and turban, who looked exactly as I imagined the mutinying soldiers of the 1859 sepoy rebellion to look, was an ordinary trousered employee at other hotels. I paid for the privilege of my Orientalist fantasy.

My relationship to India, such as it is, began when I was a child and heard that I had a new second cousin who was born there. My mother’s cousin worked for the United States Department of State and his third child was born while they were stationed in New Delhi. To have been born in India seemed wildly glamorous to me, and those cousins swept through my life every few years with panache, talking of their exotic vacations, their drivers, their private schools. One thing became clear to me: India was a place where ordinary people like my relatives could live in luxury. When I made this trip to India I looked up an old friend of my cousin’s and heard stories of his parties, his knowledge of Indian wines, his wide-ranging acquaintance with Europeans and Indians. This was another view of India that countered the stilted and segregated “bridge” parties between English and Indian in Forster’s novel (“not the game, but a party to bridge the gulf between East and West,” one colonial administrator explains to Adela. That party is a disaster, bringing only embarrassment to both sides.)

“Friendliness,” after all, can get people in trouble. To demonstrate this, Forster contrasts Adela with Aziz, who is similarly eager for “real” connections and equally burned by that eagerness. Aziz believes British and Indians could be real friends, though his neighbors argue that even the British who come to India well disposed toward Indians are converted to prejudices within a year (six months for the women). Those who had real friendships in England, through education or visits there, lose them once back in India. Forster, however, sustained just such friendships across decades in England and India, with his Cambridge classmate Syed Massoud (to whom he dedicated this novel) and with His Highness Tukoji Rao III, maharajah of Dewas Senior and Forster’s erstwhile employer. Those friendships were long lasting and mutual. In fact, the maharajah read A Passage to India after it came out in 1924 and defended it to the British colonial administrators who disapproved of it.

Dr. Aziz has two friendships with English people, though both are vexed. First, he meets Mrs. Moore, Ronny’s mother and Adela’s chaperone to India, in a mosque and calls out to her before realizing she is English. In turn, Mrs. Moore mentions him to her son without saying he is Indian, and her son, irritated, wonders why she didn’t mention his race at once, why she didn’t convey it with the tone of her voice, and why she spoke to the “Mohammedan” at all. Aziz’s other friend, Cyril Fielding, is an English educator whom Aziz can’t bring himself to trust fully, though he wants to. The lack of trust and intimacy between characters is not only limited to relationships across race and culture, though. Adela and Ronny have just as much trouble communicating and their decision to marry, then not to marry, is largely nonverbal. The communication gap between the sexes mirrors the communication gap across cultures — or is it the other way around? In the struggle for intimacy and connection with others, much is lost between the lines: words and gestures are not clear enough.

That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.

Walking down the street in Mumbai it is risky to meet men’s eyes. I look at them and smile, trying to close the cultural distance, but they stare back unblinking and unsmiling. Later my husband tells me he feels challenged by these strange men— as if he is supposed to protect me from their hostile gazes. To make eye contact is intimate, but these looks are more confrontational than sexual. At the Gateway to India, where Adela and Mrs. Moore disembarked from their ship to board the train at Victoria Terminus, now Chhatrapati Shivaji Station, I discover that looking at anyone immediately invites them over to sell to you or beg from you. I can’t help but look at the girl with the monkey on a leash so she follows me for several excruciating blocks, talking to me in what I assume is Hindi. “Please” and “ma’am” are the only words I understand and I struggle to look at her and not look at her, to say “no,” but express sympathy and sorrow, and guilt. I know that to give her a coin would invite a crowd around me, but I have left two daughters at home and they follow me around too.

It is in the Marabar caves that the nameless, wordless encounter between Adela and Dr. Aziz occurs, or doesn’t. The caves are dark and echoing: “‘Boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘bou-oum,’ or ‘ou-boum’.” Forster doesn’t represent the scene in the text. “Miss Quested has been insulted in one of the Marabar caves,” an administrator states, grimly, and that is the clearest statement we ever get. “Miss Quested herself definitely accuses him of—?” Fielding asks desperately, unable to name it. A nod. “Ou boum,” the caves repeat, mysteriously. “Ou boum.” The echo in Adela’s ears persists until Aziz’s trial, when she can finally declare positively “Dr. Aziz never followed me into the cave.”In Forster’s novel the inarticulate is personified by Mrs. Moore, who knows more than she can say. “If you don’t know I can’t tell you,” she says irritably when Adela asks her to explain the echo she hears after her experience in the cave. Mrs. Moore is so disheartened by Adela’s charge against Dr. Aziz that she leaves India immediately. The Indians find this suspicious and demand her presence at the trial as a supporting witness: “Esmiss Esmoor!” “Esmiss Esmoor” they cry, to her son’s horror. She has become more of an idea than a character, herself an echo of some possible harmony between English and Indian that has faded away.

The only home I entered while I was in India was occupied by a Brahmin priest, part of a tour I took of the old town of Mylapore in Chennai. Our beginning and ending point was the Hindu temple in the middle of the neighbourhood, its figured roofs rising high above the low stucco buildings that crowded around it. The Brahmin worked in the temple and lived across from its reservoir, on a busy road full of worshippers and scooters. As I try to describe the scene, the place, the house, the people they elude me as they eluded Adela, or Forster at first: not only as all realities elude representation but because they have already been written by others. I could describe the face paint that the men used to show their allegiance to a particular god, but it would feel false – like cheap trinkets brought forth as treasure, like tinny trophies to my own importance. In India I took few photographs and wrote little. Yet my experience seems no clearer now, after time and distance.

A Passage to India ends with the land itself rejecting the desired friendship between Fielding and Aziz, between English and Indian, colonizer and colonized, saying “not yet.” Adela returns to England. Ronny stays in India. They do not marry. A bitter Dr. Aziz declares India’s independence to Fielding: “Hurrah! Hurrah!” Though in English, it too is lost in translation because some intimacies, like theirs, are difficult, or impossible, to communicate. Adela can’t tell us what happened in the cave and neither can Forster. In a foreign land words can seem like complete gibberish or like mere echoes of the familiar. To say “I want to see the real India” is to interrogate the place but also the self and the real, and even what we mean by “to want” and “to see.” I had no illusions that I would see the real India on my trip, but my discomfort was as real as Adela’s. Forster, the novelist most famous for the cry “Only connect!”, may have hoped that A Passage to India would create connections to the land, connections that he had genuinely made there himself, even though the connections between characters within the novel largely failed. My travel to India was shaped in advance by my reading of his novel, but the text was an unreliable guide to the place. “Only connect” may refer us back to literature itself, where the “real” connections occur between readers and books.

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Victoria Olsen teaches writing in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. She is the author of a biography of Victorian photographer, and Anglo-Indian, Julia Margaret Cameron.