This blog entry follows on from the previous review of “A Passage to India”, and focusses on the novel’s opening paragraph. This kind of detailed, deep dive analysis of text is a different approach to the reviews I have been writing over the last couple of weeks.
This is an unusual opening. Novels usually tell us that the scene they are about to describe will be interesting, not “nothing extraordinary”. The term “presents” is a hint that there will be a difference between the outward appearance of the city, and what is to be found behind the façade. Obviously, the reference to the caves is a hint that these are to play a key part in the novel’s events, and come back to mind when the trip to the caves in being planned, and underway. Overall the tone here, deliberate I suspect, is of a sneering Victorian tour guide, summarising the merits or otherwise of this backwater for the benefit of our incoming tourists, Mrs Moore and Miss Quested.
Here the description strikes an even more unusual note. Firstly, what is the difference between edged and washed, a distinction the narrator takes care to point out. The simple answer is dirt – the river runs past the city, regardless of verb choice, but does not flood, and therefore the city remains filthy. This description is reinforced by the verb choice “trails” – the city lacks energy, spreading itself pointlessly along the banks of the river. It – the city – must be relatively small if it only runs ( a more traditional verb choice) for two miles, but it is “scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits”. Hold up there – the narrator tells us that he cannot tell the difference between the city and the rubbish it produces. It is a rubbish tip. In any other context this would be dismissed as ridiculous hyperbole – no city in the world, however polluted, is indistinguishable from a rubbish tip. This is more than hyperbole – it is abuse.
Another sentence that is easy to pass by, but once more, hold up. The ganges is the holy river of Hinduism, and that holiness doesn’t switch on and off as the river passes through the landscape. Forster must surely have known that. So what is he doing saying this? Is the reader being invited to question the narrator’s veracity (this early in the novel)? Is Forster assuming lazily that his readers will allow this to pass, being ignorant of other faiths? This is part of the “nothing to see here” lacklustre description of the city, but I find this approach puzzling – if Forster wanted to imagine a non-descript city in the middle of India, why set it on the banks of one of the greatest rivers in the world? And then proceed to ignore this setting for 300 or more pages?
What? For an innocuous piece of description this is the third time in two sentence that I have to ask that question. No river front? Ignoring the fact that a few lines earlier we have been told that the city trails along the river bank (I appreciate that there is a subtle difference between a river bank and front), why would a city be built on the bank of (to repeat myself) one of the greatest rivers in the world, and then effectively turn its back on it? Surely one of the reasons the river is worshipped as a God is because of its life-giving properties. The citizens of Chandrapore would need access to the river for water, for washing, for cremations, for leisure – the idea that they would ignore this incredible resource beggars belief. By now this narrator is losing credibility. This is not a realistic portrait that is being painted, which alerts the reader to the fact that there is more to Chandrapore than we are being led to expect.
Here we have filth again. The narrator/Forster’s sense of disgust with this city is palpable. One has to ask, in what sense are the temples “ineffective”. Presumably architectural, although there may be a small comment on the spiritual ineffectiveness of these foreign religions.
Confirmation, if it were needed, that this is a tour guide, or an effective parody of one. The emphasis on the absence of tourist goods in the bazaar and the imperial history of the town put the reader in the role of armchair traveller, learning about the city by proxy, but guided by a very unreliable mentor.
What wood? The wood of the carvings which scarcely can be found? Or something else – this is ambiguous, but leads to the next thought – the people of Chandrapore are “inhabitants of mud”. Literally of course this means ‘people living in mud – that is, the mud-like wood” – but the very clear reference is to ‘people of mud’ – that is mud-people. This is an old racist taunt which JK Rowling references in her use of the term “mud-blood” as a deeply offensive term, as indeed it is.
We return to the Ganges. I take the phrase “come down” to mean flood or burst its banks. Excrescence is a powerful word, expressing a sense of disgust, and the speaker here seems to anticipate a flood almost wishfully, looking to see a cleansing of the filth that appals him so much, back into the soil – note back into, not just into, again referencing the idea that the people of India have arisen from the soil, are people of mud.
As throughout this paragraph, there is ambiguity here. The tour guide voice has been abandoned for something much more expansive. It is not clear whether “houses do fall” (as opposed to ‘houses fall’) refers to what happens when the Ganges comes down, or as something that periodically happens in any event. People are drowned and left rotting is also ambiguous – if people drown their bodies would normally be washed drown stream, or eaten by crocodiles. This phrase could mean either ‘people are drowned, and then their bodies are left to rot’ or ‘some people drown, and others die in the streets where their bodies are left to rot’. The ambiguity doesn’t rest there – people are drowned actively, rather than drown passively – is this something done to them, or something that happens. Leaving bodies to rot is unlikely to be something that actually happened in India other than in a major disaster, but the narrator gives the impression it is a common occurrence.
Here as throughout ‘A Passage to India’, the narrative voice shifts subtly, and can never be trusted. In an apparently innocuous scene-setting paragraph, numerous under-currents lead the reader to understand that India may seem harmless, but if you scratch the surface you will find it threatening, distressing, and dangerous. Miss Quested is about to find that out.