Friday, April 8, 2011

Book Review: Passage to India by E.M. Forester

If you're as big into Central/South (or really, Cool) Asia as I am, you are probably reading some of the good stuff that Jonathan Shainin writes, or what he posts on his Twitter feed. One of his larger rages in the past week or so has been against the Guardian, that ol' English rag that apparently has been celebrating the British Empire and all of its good.

That wasn't all that much good. It's fun to look back wistfully, of course. When I first set off for Central Asia, I was with a bunch of Brits, Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians celebrating the triumph of their spirit. It's, well, sometimes a bit off from the truth.

Probably the seminal novel of British India is Passage to India, which came out in 1924 at the sunset of the British empire. Forester was pretty pissed off from his experiences in India, or at least upset enough to write a fictionalized account (there is no Chandrapore) of how Indians and Anglos interact.

Passage to India is a great read because it's an easy read. It reads less like a Merchant Ivory production, which I was expecting. For being nearly 90 years old, the characters are fresh and their English is very easy to understand. They're each sketched out individually, and for having the whole Anglo vs. Indian divide, it's not Sharks vs. Jets, its a feud that develops into a race war. None of the main characters are entirely good or entirely evil. Some of the side characters may seem it (particularly the Nauwab Badhur) but you realize they're just following their own path. I remember getting into a long talk with some older gentleman in a hostel in Split a month ago. He was very proud of finishing his first book and was explaining that, "the funny thing about characters is, they don't always do what you want." I couldn't really believe for anything I've ever written, Lord knows, but I did believe it here.

Like any very good book, Passage to India is just as much about the human condition as anything else. The characters are set down their paths by external coincidences, unable to stop themselves from fulfilling some certain destiny. The fate of the country can be seen in the fate of the characters, and the whole fate/God/reason thing comes into play as much as the reader allows it to.

There's a reason why Passage to India is one of the triumphs of the English language. I was lucky to pick up an aged copy at a book exchange for free, and it was one of the better accidents (OR FATE OMGZZZ) I stumbled into the past year. So yeah, worth checking out.

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