A Passage to India – Unmasking the Real Face of British Imperialism

The Britishers justified their colonial conquests as ‘A White Man’s Burden’ to civilize the Orient which was deemed to be ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’. They arrived in India with the romantic views of uplifting the masses but eventually turned inhumane and beastly in their conduct as they ‘struggled’ to maintain their sanity in the ‘muddle’ that India was. The movie that is based on E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name, titled ‘A Passage to India’, is set in the 1920s where the Indian Independence Struggle was at its pinnacle. Adela, the protagonist’s visit to India can be viewed as an exploration of the biggest British colony; and as an exploration of the characters, especially Adela herself.
In the story, Mahmoud Ali, Dr. Aziz’s friend, says that when McBryde first came to India, he was quite a good fellow. Dr. Aziz replies that they all become the same within two years while women take just six months. Dr. Aziz clearly understands that it is Mrs. Moore’s first visit to India from the way she addresses him for the first time. It is because of the unusual kind of behaviour from a Britisher towards an Indian.

Us Versus Other

The British hegemony sustained for a period of two centuries over India, mostly because they could successfully portray themselves as the advanced and intellectual race that is superior to the natives. They developed a class of Indians who had brown skin but a white mind to serve their imperialistic goals. However, the Britishers maintained a strict demarcation between themselves and the natives. People like Mrs. Moore and Adela in the novel, who visited India for the first time held romantic views regarding British colonization. They were appalled to see the sad state of affairs of the Indians, specifically the widening gap between the Britishers and the natives. Whereas people like Mrs. Turton and Mrs. Callendar who had been living in India; did not just despise Indians but would also maintain a distance from them. The colonizers achieved their purpose by pushing natives to the margins and themselves occupying the centre. Their lifestyle and their ideals were seen as norms whereas those of the natives were considered to be as uncivilized. The process of ‘othering’ is very much in play throughout the story. Indians are not allowed in the British club. A much senior and older Indian officer, Das, acts as Ronny’s deputy because promotion was based on colour and not on merit or experience.

The Western View of the East

Indians were viewed as foolish. This is a common depiction of the natives in postcolonial narratives where the Orient is shown as weak, foolish, inferior and effeminate, whereas the colonized is depicted as the savior, the civilized, the powerful and the masculine figure. In this one scene in the story, onboard the train to Marabar Caves, Dr. Aziz’s aid is shown cooking in the washroom. The movie is a very apt representation of how the West viewed the East. It is replete with the typical symbols associated with India. The opening credits are presented on the background of Indian mural paintings. Adela’s fascination with India in fact, begins with a picture of Marabar Caves, symbolic of the mysticism that was synonymous with India. No picture of India was complete without showing the natives in abject poverty, dirt, snake charmers and most importantly, people riding on elephants.

There are many instances highlighting the stark contrast between Britishers and Indians. Indian poverty has been juxtaposed to British extravagance. Where the colonised sleep comfortably in the first-class compartment of the trains, there are innumerable natives cramped up in a small space, sleeping amidst the excruciating noise of the passing train. Hundreds of thousands of Indians are shown welcoming their ‘lords’ with great enthusiasm.

Even today, India is referred to as the land of mystics and spirituality. This mysticism catches the fascination of the west. Mrs. Moore and Adela are shown as deeply interested in Indian philosophy. Mrs. Moore describes India as a puzzle, while solving which one explores oneself. Adela who enters the Marabar cave- a symbol of muddle- alone, ends up deciphering her own sexuality.

The Dark Side of Colonisation

It becomes very much evident that the whole colonial enterprise of civilizing India is a sham in the ‘Bridge Party’ where the Britishers are least interested in mingling with the Indians. In fact, Mrs. Moore and Adela come to witness the dark but real face of colonization. Ronny who has become a real ‘Sahib’ explains how he cannot sacrifice his career for the sake of Indians and their well-being. This highlights the fact that British officers saw their career advancement and the betterment of Indians at conflict with each other- two banks of a river that could never meet.

Dr. Aziz, though a doctor, is shown to be slightly foolish; a man who is servile and is ready to do anything to please the British. This image is a typical representation of a native man in a colonized space. He is easily excited by Fielding’s invitation. He, in fact, gives his only back collar stud to Fielding without caring for himself. This incident foreshadows how Dr. Aziz may get into deeper trouble out of his gullibility and willingness to help Britishers.

He wants to please the Britishers at any cost and doesn’t think twice before inviting them on an extravagant picnic to Marabar Caves. He is ashamed of his humble house. He apologises on behalf of his friend, Ali who directly asks questions regarding British imperialism in India to Fielding. He wishes to project an image of himself in accordance to British standards by emphasizing on the difference between the Eastern and the Western ways of thinking.

The ‘Unbritish’ Rule of the British in India

In the beginning, the City Magistrate, Ronny Heaslop is seen pronouncing judgement against an accused Indian without even listening to his plea. The judgement is purely based on the “evidences” presented by the prosecution. Hence, this one-sided judgement which was very much against the laws prevalent in England shows how the justice delivery mechanism depended on the colour of the accused. Later on, during the trial of Dr. Aziz, all efforts are made by superintendent McBryde to defame Dr. Aziz by assassinating his moral character. All attempts are made to prove the doctor to be guilty, although his only ‘fault’ is his colour. The prosecution’s arguments rest on racial prejudices. The skin colour of Dr. Aziz colours the lens of judgement of the British.

Das, who is much older and experienced than Ronny Heaslop, is his deputy; implying that the natives were always kept subordinate to the colonisers irrespective of their qualifications. Fielding, who supports the innocent Dr. Aziz, is met by stern opposition from his British friends. Mr. Turton clearly warns him in front of the whole gathering to not support the ‘enemy’. Fielding quits the membership of the club and vows to leave the country if Dr. Aziz is found guilty. When Adela realizes her mistake and mends it by declaring Dr. Aziz innocent, she is ostracized by the Britishers, who cannot accept an accused native celebrating his rightful victory. Dr. Aziz’s win was, in fact, a blot on their arrogance. Adela is abandoned by her fiancé and acquaintances, except for Fielding, who values the humanist aspect in everyone, regardless of one’s colour.

Unmasking the Façade of Civilization

‘A Passage to India’ is a movie that exposes the true face of British colonial conquest in India. It reveals to the audience a stereotypical view of the East for the West that is tainted with prejudices against the natives. The discrepancy between the said motives of colonization and the actions of the colonizers highlights the fact that the welfare of the masses was actually in opposition to their economic interests. The way the whole colonial enterprise operated was by imposing their values and ideals as the standards onto the natives and rejecting the latter’s claim on their own resources.

The process of ‘othering’ ensured that the colonisers maintained their domination over the ‘other’ i.e. the colonized. The other was viewed as devoid of any civil values. If any of them exhibited any such good qualities, that would be attributed to the English civilization.

Colonising Our Minds till Today

The British enslaved India for about two hundred years; however, they still continue to rule our perception about ourselves. Till today, our standards of aesthetics, development and modernity are based on theirs. Western popular culture dominates our folk culture. The ability to speak English fluently is seen as a sign of sophistication. The use of the English language has seen unprecedented rise in India at the cost of many native languages that have gone extinct. We continue to seek validation from West and our tastes, preferences and choices are strongly influenced by western media. Therefore, the brainwashing that British colonisers did in those two centuries when India was colonised, has had far reaching ramifications, and in a way, it can be said that the British are still influencing India, albeit indirectly.

Picture Credits: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty

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