Forster’s A Passage to India – Mosque

A Passage to India Summary – Part 1 Mosque (Chapter 1 – 11)

Forster’s “A Passage to India” is a window to India and Indian culture at a time, the Asian subcontinent was reeling under British rule. The novel highlights several issues including the menace of imperialism that was destroying the cultural wealth of the British colonies. However, the damage was deeper as Foster highlights in his novel which became clear with the Indian partition. The British are a comic institution (tragic in reality, as the novel highlights in the later parts), occupying others’ land by force and playing Gods for them. Forster’s description of the Indian culture in his novel is particularly notable. The Britishers speak of India as a lesser nation and a culture that they hold by force for its benefit. Forster’s India opens with a description of the locale Chandrapore where most of the initial tale is set. It is a small, nondescript town with nothing noticeable about it except that nature decides its shape and form. The town keeps changing its form with the changing tide of the river. It is just like another piece of earth, rising here and falling there. All throughout the novel, Forster notes this lack of form and in later parts, he calls it a muddle.

As far from clamor Chandrapore may appear, it is just as alive inside. Despite its lack of significance, Chandrapore is important. In Forster’s novel, Chandrapore represents a mini India. Forster highlights how the Indians are reeling under British rule, being treated as an inferior race and culture. He also highlights the inner divisions of the Indian society. Still, however, prominent these divisions are, India is one and unique in itself. Forster’s intention also is to portray the many India’s that exist within one. British occupation is the most miserable part of the Indian story. For the British imperialists, India is nothing but a piece of land to be occupied by force and ruled. British imperialism had affected Indian socio-cultural fabric deeply changing it in unexpected ways. The comic attitude of the British characters portrayed in the novel is not a bit exaggerated.

Chandrapore is a small British outpost with some British bureaucratic families living there. The first Indian character Forster introduces is a devout Muslim – Dr. Aziz. Aziz admires everything related to Islam including Islamic art and architecture. In chapter two, he is having a lively meeting with some of his relatives over a hookah when the message from Major Callendar arrives. He has to leave in a hurry for the hospital where his presence is requested. Aziz feels disgusted that the Major has left when he arrives. The English have absolutely no regard for the natives and their convenience. The English women too are full of haughtiness and two of them do not bother to ask Aziz before taking away the tonga he brought. At every step, Forster highlights how farcical British rule is. Trying to treat themselves like local Gods, the English have kept aside both humility and humanity. Aziz is a humble doctor. In his modesty, Forster has portrayed a distinct characteristic of the Indians and Indian culture. Irrespective of their caste, religion, and class, most Indian characters in the novel are modest. This forms a contrast against the vanity exhibited by the British. Aziz leaves after he does not find Major Callendar. He goes to the Mosque where he sees the figure of a woman. Slightly agitated and fearing it was a ghost, he asks Mrs. Moore why she is at the Mosque at that hour of the night. He asks if she has left her slippers outside. Aziz is a talkative and pleasant Indian who generally likes the British except for those whom he finds unbearably full of attitude. He shows his disgust for Major Callendar during his small conversation with Mrs. Moore. Mrs. Moore finds him honest and pleasant. He is the first native she has met and in him, she finds the reflection of India that satisfies her imagination – cool and without the distasteful attitude most British carry.

The small meeting leaves her feeling impressed. However, British India is very different from what Mrs. Moore expects. Particularly, the British in India treat the natives as inferiors. They maintain a careful distance to express their higher standing over the natives. She is amused at Aziz’s mention of the ‘Callendars‘. She starts understanding the gap between the English and the Indians when Aziz tells her they are not allowed inside the club. Mrs. Moore has brought with her Miss Quested, an English girl who is to marry her son Ronny Heaslop, the City Magistrate. Ronny was initially quite friendly to Aziz but acquired the same attitude as the Turtons and Burtons after being in India for a little long. The entire British community in Forster’s novel is full of lies and vanity and so, appears comical. They do not change their attitude for the fear of losing control. Ronny’s mother is not satisfied with their treatment of the natives. Forster’s characters are all carefully selected from the various sections of society. They demonstrate the diversity which is characteristic of India. Forster records the vastness of India, its culture and how dwarfed are the English occupying it before its diversity and simplicity.

Ronny has become an embodiment of British imperialism in India. As the city magistrate, he has become the part of a lot that Mrs. Moore finds very difficult to identify with. She finds the environment at the club suffocating. The Mosque is like an oasis and offers her some relief from the suffocation inside the club. It provides her with a pleasant break she desperately needed. Forster’s India is beautiful despite the odds it has faced and despite its internal differences. However, English’s exploitation of the country is painful. They have not come here attracted by India’s beauty but by its wealth.  If anything is at stake here, it is an ages-old culture and the wealth that has lured the British. Ronny is Mrs. Moore’s son but he has cultivated the same attitude as the other Englishmen who came before him. In this regard, he is not much different from the Turtons and Burtons, except that he respects his mother. He considers her request not to pass on to the Major what she told him about Aziz. Soon Forster introduces one of the other important characters in the novel.

This is Fielding the principal of the local government school. He mingles with the natives, unlike the other English men and women. Fielding represents the English open-mindedness and educated outlook. In him, one can find the attitude of a learned Englishman. He sees India as a land seeking connection and not dominance.  He values Indian culture and its originality. Fielding is much different from the other British in the novel. He is an Englishman minus the pretentiousness of the British. Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore are curious about seeing and knowing the natives. Upon being asked by Ronny that how one could know India, Fielding replies, “Try seeing Indians”.  To know India you have to know Indians and the British cannot know them for it stops them from playing the Gods. India is no more than another adventure for them. Forster’s account of India is that of a cultural sojourn. Many people find in Fielding a reflection of Forster himself. It is because Fielding most closely represents Forster’s outlook towards India.

The other people at the club do not find the idea of seeing the natives very amusing. In their view, it is good to maintain a distance from them and to stay careful. Still, Miss Quested is excited. Others feel that her impression of India would soon be gone. Soon she would have bored herself and returned to the British way of life in India. Like Fielding, she is lacking in judgment and experience. The collector decides to throw a bridge party to amuse the newcomers. It is called a bridge party for it is thrown to bridge the gap between the Indians and the English. Generally, the British love to maintain a distance from the natives as anyone of higher standing should. In the words of Ronny Heaslop, no one gets to know India without spending twenty years here. He implies the British should continue to deal with Indians as they do. However, everyone knows letting India go out of hands is not profitable for the British government. Ronny asks his mother not to tell Adela about her meeting with Aziz. Ronny does not want her getting excited about the natives until she has grown experienced and known India. The British are a distinct class from the natives but perhaps neither Mrs. Moore nor Adela Quested understands it.

Mrs. Moore found Indians likable. In her sudden meeting with Aziz at the Mosque who repeatedly apologized for his initial behavior and offered to lend her company to the club, she had a good impression of India and the Indians. Her behavior towards the natives at the Bridge party impresses Fielding. He decides to compliment her for her treatment of the Indians.  However, Ronny’s attitude differs a lot from his mother. He has his own distinguished philosophy. He believes Indians like Gods and the British need to play Gods for them. Overall, he believes Indians to be a foolish and inferior race. They cannot be left to govern themselves. According to him, there is nothing to know about India except its weather. It is the alpha and omega of the entire country or there is hardly another thing notable about it according to Ronny. He finds India a wretched country that the English are here to hold by force. He represents the colonial mindset. Ronny explains to his mother that he is not here in India to be pleasant. He is in India as a government servant with far more important things to take care of. He clearly implies that the British are here to rule India for their own selfish motives. They are not here for the emancipation of the natives. It is the white man’s burden he is carrying. He wishes to stay the way his government wants him to.

Being a government servant, he is posted in India taking care of the British government’s affairs. Mrs. Moore remains unimpressed by his logic. She does not like the British dominating others. She tries to remind Ronny of God for He has put us here to treat others equally. However, this has no appeal for Ronny. According to him, religion should not interrupt with government matters. The English can be Gods without being human in India because that is going to deter them from their real motive. Mrs. Moore feels a bit lonely. In her room, she sees a tropical cousin of the wasps she knew, sitting on the peg. She wonders if Indian wasps have any sense of interiors. In the wasp, Forster has used a  powerful symbol. The British do not have any sense of hospitality. They are anything but good guests. Like the wasp, they have forgotten India belongs to its natives and not them. It is the Indians however, who are being forced to bear the sting.

The bridge party is unsuccessful as it was doomed to be. Except for the few pleasantries that Mrs. Moore exchanged with the natives, it was as farcical as the British rule itself. Aziz is also there at the bridge party. However, Major Callendar disgustingly questions him why he did not arrive upon being called. Aziz cannot clarify because Major Callendar would not accept his clarification. Still, the Major knows what a surgeon Aziz is. He can be anything but dishonest. Aziz is amused at the Major’s show of disgust. He finds the English a comic institution. Aziz is a  distinct and deep character in Forster’s novel. Except for his embarrassing remarks against Miss Quested which were not aimed at her directly, made before Fielding in jest, he is generally very pleasant and gentle throughout.

He is a good friend of Fielding and gets a telegram from him upon returning from the party with an invitation to tea the next day. He and Fielding get to be very good friends quickly. Miss Quested considers Aziz to be India ignorant of the fact that no one can be India. Even Aziz cannot be India. India is more than a vast expansion which neither Aziz nor Professor Godbole can represent fully. Even the British who were here for long, try to avoid understanding India except Fielding. Aziz’s wife is dead and he is worried no one is at home to take care of guests arriving there. He finds the Hindus slack and still appreciates Professor Godbole’s sweets. He invites the two ladies to see him at the Marabar caves. The three people Fielding, Mrs. Moore, and Miss Quested are different from the others at the English club. They are ready to be with the natives and get touched by them, their culture and affairs.

Miss Quested is here to know Ronny better before she can marry him. She finds that India has given rise to new sides in his character. He is pretty much indifferent and particularly exasperating whenever proved wrong. Under the tropical sun, he has turned into a different being. He is here to hold India by force with his bureaucrat friends. He finds Indians slack like Aziz finds the Hindus. As per Ronny, they lack attention to detail, are not cultured like the English and deserve to be ruled by force. There is a great difference between him and Miss Quested which seems to have doubled after her arrival in India. Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested can understand the cultural gap between the English and the Indians, but cannot know the reason it is used to exploit the Indians. They find India and Indians amazing. They find it a good break and believe they can learn of new splendid things by being among the natives. Forster highlights that despite all of this, India is like music, rising here and falling there. Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore had caught some of the music and so had Mr. Fielding. India had gotten him. India has a strong and old culture. Forster’s novel captures the beauty of the nation’s diversity very well. He also makes his point on Indian’s sovereignty very well proving the British rule to be a major farce.

Aziz is like an artist himself who kept thinking of beautiful women and art. He meditated upon life as an artist would. When he is ill, Fielding pays him a visit. Fielding is used to being friends with Indians. Some show of kindness towards them is good according to him. However, his behavior does not generally amuse the other Englishmen and women. They though Fielding was making himself cheap before the Indians. Aziz tells Fielding that Indians are in need of kindness. Even they themselves do not know how much they need it. Fielding loves to travel light and like the Indian hermits, he would let his name die out after him.  Both Fielding and Aziz have their own distinct manifesto of life. However, they feel united in one thing and that thing is India. Perhaps Ronny Heaslop or the Turtons and Burtons would never know. Forster brilliantly highlights the vast difference between the Indian and English cultures and how British imperialism fails to shadow the Indian culture. Ronny is afraid that his mother and Adela might grow influenced by it. Still, he cannot help their exposure to a culture whose vastness he somewhere dreads.

Why is the first part of Forster’s novel titled Mosque?

Forster’s novel is divided into three different parts. The first part is ‘Mosque’. The other two are ‘Caves’ and ‘Temple’. In the first part, after having introduced the locale Chandrapore, Forster begins the tale with Dr. Aziz. Dr. Aziz can also be understood as the protagonist of the first part of the novel. If Forster’s novel forms a discussion of the socio-cultural, religious and political issues plaguing the British ruled India, the first part presents the Islamic part of the story. Dr. Aziz has his own perspective of the English. The first encounter between Dr. Aziz and Mrs. Moore is set in the Mosque. It can also be seen as a meeting between the East and the West. Aziz frequently meditates over Islam and Islamic art. He is mostly concerned with Islam rather than India. The Muslims used to be an important part of the Indian population before the partition. Aziz is at the center of most of the story taking place in the first part of the novel. Forster also provides a glimpse of the Islamic culture as seen in India in this part of the novel.

Overall, the first part brings readers to an important part of the Indian culture – the Muslim part. Mosque, in general, implies Islam and sets the stage for the entire drama that follows. Aziz feels one with the Islamic culture but is disgusted over the presence of the British in India. The first part presents how an educated Muslim sees the British presence in India. A Passage to India also represents a cultural tour of India undertaken by Forster in his times. ‘Mosque’ is the Islamic part of the tour and a reminder of how the Indian culture is influenced by the Mughal rulers who came before the British. It holds a very deep meaning in the context of the novel. Particularly, it is important since after the British occupation of India ended Muslims remained only a minority in India because of its partition and creation of Pakistan. Forster presents India as a powerful cultural force and Mosque as the distinct Islamic part of it. Through Aziz, one gets an appreciable view of Islamic poetry and art. Except for his criticism of the Hindus, he is an open-minded and humble Muslim. Forster’s novel uses the three sections also to highlight the internal differences that exist between the Indians, particularly that between the Hindus and the Muslims. However, religion and culture both are important in the context of Forster’s novel. Mosque deals with the religious and cultural aspects of Islam as seen in India.

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.