The British and Indian characters in E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India are unable to understand each other. Not because east and west can never meet, but because it requires patience, trust and luck, and the circumstances here all conspire against it. The imbalance of power between ruling class and subjects makes every social gesture a potential grab for power or status, or a potential source of embarrassment.
The desire of two visiting Englishwomen to “see the real India” is based on an illusion. The imperial elite can never be friends with their subjects. They cause only problems by trying. One friendship comes out of it all, but at a high cost. It’s probably not worth it – but Forster wishes it was.
A century later, the empires are gone, but alien cultures keep grinding into each other, through immigration, globalization, tourism – and war, and A Passage to India is a template that fits all of these collisions, even today. It warns us not to assume that we know how people of other cultures are similar to or different from ourselves.
Forster’s Anglo-Indians can, if they want to, and most of them do, retreat behind the safe, thick walls of prejudice and hierarchy, – or if necessary back to England. There are no walls to hide behind today. The option of retreat from the foreign is gone. We’re all in this mess together. Any genuine, intimate cultural encounter is going to be at best confusing and painful, but what other option do we have?