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On The Uncomfortable Racism In A Passage To India

It’s hard for me to think that, just 50 years ago, in the decade prior to the one in which I was born, America was segregated. “Separate but equal” laws were prevalent all over the U.S., but especially in the south.

I don’t get racism. The foundations of my faith are based on the premise that someone greater than us created us all equal. The fact that, since the beginning of time, racism has popped its ugly head up all over the world, in all types of races and cultures, just doesn’t make sense to me.

As an American, I’m used to reading about racism within our country over the last century. It always makes me cringe, but it’s nothing new.

However, I haven’t read a lot about racism in other parts of the globe, and that’s what keeps A Passage To India interesting to me.

The novel deals with the tensions between India and Britain during the English’s occupation of India in the early 20th Century. Many Englishmen and Englishwomen moved into India during that period and experienced the Indian people and culture for the first time.

From what I’ve read, A Passage To India does an excellent job of reflecting their attitudes.

One of the most extremely racist characters in the novel is an Englishwoman named Mrs. Turton. Think about the racist women from The Help, add a few decades to their age, make them British, and you have Mrs. Turton.

Here, she tries to convince a younger, more open-minded, progressive woman, Adela, to drink the racist kool-aid. The Ranis are the Indian royalty.

You’re superior to them, anyway. Don’t forget that. You’re superior to everyone in India except one or two of the Ranis, and they’re on an equality.”

Fielding is one of the good guys in the novel. Think of him as an Atticus Finch type character.

He’s a British guy who stands for what he knows to be right, even if that means turning his back on his own people and siding with the Indians. This passage comes fairly early in the novel when E.M. Forster is setting up Fielding as a lone wolf in his beliefs among his English friends.

The remark that did [Fielding] most harm at the club was a silly aside to the effect that the so-called white races are really pinko-grey. He only said this to be cheery, he did not realize that “white” has no more to do with a colour than “God save the King” with a god, and that it is the height of impropriety to consider what it does connote.

McBryde is the British superintendent of police in India, and there’s no other way to say this: He’s a complete jackass.

Think of Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby. He has the same persona as McBryde in A Passage To India.

That said, the passage below is something that most of the English occupiers in India would agree with. McBryde simply says what all the others are thinking.

[McBryde] remarked that the darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa – not a matter for bitterness this, not a matter for abuse, but just a fact which any scientific observer would confirm.

To this point, A Passage To India isn’t as much depressing as it is an indictment on human nature. That’s depressing, but in a different way that I can’t quite explain yet.

What’s amazing to me is that this stuff still goes on across the world, nearly 100 years after A Passage To India was written. That’s disheartening.

If you’re interested by issues of race and culture, I think you’ll be interested by this novel. The pacing is slow and the story is fairly simple, but it’s definitely a revealing look into human nature.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. With every post you convince me more and more to read this book. Ok, fine. I’ll give in. It’s on my list. Actually, I’m as intrigued by the racism outside of what I have heard of and occasionally see here in the US as well. Thanks for sharing that tidbit. I love exploring new books that way.


    August 29, 2013
    • It’s good, but it’s slow. I feel like it could have been executed better.


      August 30, 2013
  2. teresa #

    Forster has such great insight into his characters and to their relationship to the socio-political currents of their era. He showed this in Howard’s End also.

    I think you are going to love Midnight’s Children because Rushdie has the same gift … but will you like Rushdie’s style? Can’t wait to find out.


    August 29, 2013
  3. Martian Poet #

    a good post i read today!


    August 29, 2013
  4. I think you’ll find that class plays a large part in the novel as well.

    The British colonists found close parallels between their class structure and the Indian caste system. Mrs. Turton plays the tune of the colonial government and it’s interesting that they keep in mind the rank of the Ranis—and use this to the colonial advantage.

    I wonder if class is supplanting race here in America?


    August 29, 2013
  5. Emily #

    I just finished listening to a passage to India (I’m starting to read my way through the time 100 list in chronological order) and one of the parts that struck me in Forester’s writing was of racism between the Muslims and Hindus. It really goes to show that no-one is immune from prejudice against someone else, even when they are on the receiving end from another group.


    August 29, 2013
  6. I very much appreciate this post! I read A Passage to India years ago and found it to be very fascinating and eye-opening in terms of British class and racism. Unfortunately, my opinion is that this social phenomenon remains in our very own present-day society. I had lunch yesterday with a person of color who had quite a bit to say about her experiences and those of her mixed-race children.

    Thank you for your consistently thorough reviews of your novels. I am never disappointed by your blog!


    August 29, 2013
  7. Like To Kill A Mockingbird, A Passage to India is a very good novel for exploring themes of racism (and the effects of colonialism) using an alleged sexual assault as the event that brings various different factions and philosophies into conflict. But I’m currently most of the way through A Jewel in the Crown – part one of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, the ‘Anglo-Indian War and Peace’ as some call it – and I think anyone interested in these themes should check it out. It has a more complex story and characters, is told from various points of view, each of with very strong opinions. It loses subtlety that way, but is very powerful.


    August 29, 2013
    • I’ve heard so much about this book. I should pick it up. There was a mini-series on TV, if I recall correctly and it was nice.


      September 3, 2013
  8. Thanks for the suggestion. As a multiracial woman this is a topic incredibly close to home. What frightens me is that people are in denial of the continued existence of racism. It shows that racism exists on such a profound level because we are not even aware of it. But I know that through continued dialogue and people openly sharing their thoughts and opinions, we can help to influence our society in a positive direction 🙂


    August 31, 2013
  9. Reblogged this on Adithya Entertainment.


    September 2, 2013
  10. I experienced ‘institutional racism’ as a white, in Tampa. Ted and I (one of the owners) were the only two white guys among 75 employees. The little stuff that goes unnoticed until you are faced with it….


    September 3, 2013

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  1. Book #61: A Passage To India | 101 Books

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