Tuesday, May 09, 2017

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

(Book Review)

My History With this Book/ Why I'm Reading it Now

I stumbled across the DVD of A Passage to India while browsing through the selection at the University of Melbourne library back in 2010.
Before then, I didn't know anything about the book (other than being vaguely familiar with the title in a way we're vaguely familiar with a lot of classic titles.)  I turned the DVD over and read the description on the back, and learned that the story was about the trial of an Indian man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in the racially charged atmosphere of British Colonial India.

It sounded to me like To Kill a Mockingbird set in India.
I usually dig political and historical films, so this sounded great.
I borrowed it from the library, and was tremendously disappointed by it.

I wrote all my frustrations in my 2010 review of the movie.  (It also got a mention on my list of the worst movies I've reviewed in 10 years of movie reviewing).

But just because the movie was bad didn't mean the original book was bad also.  This could just be a failure of adaptation.
And in fact, stripped of all the movie's meanderings, the plot--the story of a racially charged courtroom trial, and the problems of racism in Colonial India--still sounded like it had a lot of potential

And if I needed any further prompting, Whisky's comments on the blog post  officially persuaded me not to write the book off completely.  As Whisky wrote:

It's probably been 20 years since I saw this movie, but I can recall having my patience tested by it. I read the book a year or two later, and was completely blown away. It probably helped that I was enduring a romance with a similar arc, but the central issue of 'mystery vs. muddle' really took hold of me as I read.
There is a scene in the movie, however, that is not in the book, which I thought was brilliant. Just a footnote for you, 'cos I hope you'll still give the book a try.
I responded:

So you read the book after having seen the movie as well, huh? And it didn't spoil the reading of the book for you then?
Rest assured, it is on my list of books to read someday. Of course my reading list is so long, and my reading pace is so slow, that it could well be a few years before I get around to it.
And Whisky replied:

The experience didn't spoil it at all, because Forster really lets you inside the heads of the principle characters. I had a difficult time shaking the image of Alec Guinness as Godbole, however. 

So, with Whisky having re-assured me that the book was worth reading after all, I put it on my list of "Books to Get Around to Reading Someday".  However, as this is a very long list, it sometimes takes me a few years before I get to it.

The next thing which pushed me closer to this book was Burmese Days by George Orwell, which I read and reviewed in 2014.
Burmese Days really struck a chord with me.  The book fascinated me with its depiction of the relationship between expats and locals in Southeast Asia (and I thought I could see many parallels between the portrayal of the expat community in Burmese Days and the expat community in Phnom Penh in 2014.)  So when I learned that Orwell was inspired by A Passage to India when he wrote Burmese Days (W), it pushed A Passage to India toward the top of my reading list.

Then, two months ago, when our book club needed a new book to read (after having completed The Brothers Karamazov and Down and Out in Paris and London) I proposed A Passage to India.

The rest of the book club didn't really know anything about this book, but I tried to sell them on it.  "It's always dangerous to recommend a book you haven't read," I admitted.  "But I think this book will be really interesting to read here in Saigon."  (I'm now living in Saigon, having moved here from Phnom Penh two years ago.)  "It's supposed to be about the cultural conflicts between the locals and the expatriate community.  So since we're part of an expatriate community, we should probably get some interesting discussion out of it."

And I succeeded in getting everyone else to agree to it.  And now here I am with the review.

The Review
So... unfortunately this book hemorrhaged readers in our little book club.
With Down and Out in Paris and London, our book club had grown to 14 people.
Of those 14, most of them dropped out within the first 11 chapters, and by the end there were only 4 of us left.
Typical was the response of Sabrina, one of the founding members of the book club (who stuck with us all the way through 900 pages of The Brothers Karamazov), who said "I tried hard with this book, but I'm just not getting into it.  I'll just catch you guys on the next book."
I felt bad about this, because I was the one who had been pushing for this book.  But the problem with suggesting books for book club is that you find yourself recommending books that you yourself haven't read yet.  And as it turned out, E.M. Forster's prose lacked the wide appeal of Orwell.

The handful of people who stuck through the book till the end, however, all really enjoyed it.

In retrospect, part of the problem was that the key to getting through any book is adjusting your expectations to what the book is actually like.  I had sold this book to my bookclub as George Orwell's Burmese Days, only set in India.  But it's really not.  E.M. Forster is not George Orwell, and A Passage to India is not Burmese Days.

On the surface, they are both political books about the problems of colonialism.  But A Passage to India is not just political.   It has ambitions to be so much more.   And when you get into the thick of it, you discover that politics isn't even the main thrust of the book.
One of the main themes of the book is religion.  There are a lot of references to the differing outlooks of Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Atheism.
There's also a lot of emphasis on mystical and spiritual experiences in the book.  There are hints that some characters encounter the supernatural, but it's all left ambiguous.  (The "mystery vs. muddle" that Whisky referred to above.)
Also related to the ambiguity, another theme in the book is the misunderstandings between people, and the problem of forming relationships.  Some of  this is related to culture clash (which is another theme of the book), but even the characters from within the same cultures are constantly misunderstanding each other.
One of the themes of the book is that each character is trapped inside their own head, and can only see things from their own perspective.  This failure to see things from the perspective of others causes  constant misunderstandings.  Even when two characters like each other, and want to be friends, they have a hard time overcoming this barrier.  (Again, this relates to what Whisky said above: "Forster really lets you inside the heads of the principle characters").

And then mixed up with all of this is Forster's prose, which is heavy on long descriptions, and nowhere near as straightforward as Orwell's.
A typical example is from chapter 24.  This is from the courtroom drama scene.  It is right at what should be the climax of the plot, where the reader is hoping to see the political drama finally play itself out.  And yet, just when you're trying to get into the story, Forster is constantly stopping the forward momentum of his plot to give you observations about the universe.
I'll quote the whole paragraph to give you a feel for what reading this book can be like:

The Court was crowded and of course very hot, and the first person Adela noticed in it was the humblest of all who were present, a person who had no bearing officially upon the trial: the man who pulled the punkah. Almost naked, and splendidly formed, he sat on a raised platform near the back, in the middle of the central gangway, and he caught her attention as she came in, and he seemed to control the proceedings. He had the strength and beauty that sometimes come to flower in Indians of low birth. When that strange race nears the dust and is condemned as untouchable, then nature remembers the physical perfection that she accomplished elsewhere, and throws out a god—not many, but one here and there, to prove to society how little its categories impress her. This man would have been notable anywhere: among the thin-hammed, flat-chested mediocrities of Chandrapore he stood out as divine, yet he was of the city, its garbage had nourished him, he would end on its rubbish heaps. Pulling the rope towards him, relaxing it rhythmically, sending swirls of air over others, receiving none himself, he seemed apart from human destinies, a male fate, a winnower of souls. Opposite him, also on a platform, sat the little assistant magistrate, cultivated, self-conscious, and conscientious. The punkah wallah was none of these things: he scarcely knew that he existed and did not understand why the Court was fuller than usual, indeed he did not know that it was fuller than usual, didn’t even know he worked a fan, though he thought he pulled a rope. Something in his aloofness impressed the girl from middle-class England, and rebuked the narrowness of her sufferings. In virtue of what had she collected this roomful of people together? Her particular brand of opinions, and the suburban Jehovah who sanctified them—by what right did they claim so much importance in the world, and assume the title of civilization? Mrs. Moore—she looked round, but Mrs. Moore was far away on the sea; it was the kind of question they might have discussed on the voyage out before the old lady had turned disagreeable and queer.

[Sidenote: When I first read that description in chapter 24, I thought, "Oh, this is so typical of how this book is written.  Just when I want the plot to get moving, Forster stops everything to describe the room and comment on its mystical significance."  So I scribbled "Typical" on the margin, and marked the page  so I could find it again for this review.  When searching for an online copy of this paragraph just now (so I didn't have to manually retype the whole thing) I discovered that this paragraph is actually the subject of a lot of literary analysis.  See here, here and here.]

To summarize: This book is somewhat of a bait-and-switch.  You go into this book expecting a very political book about the problems of colonialism.  And instead what you find is a very literary book about spiritualism and the problem of human relationships.
As long as you recognize that that's the ride you're in for, you should be fine.  I think the problem with my book club is that most people expected a political book, and then got confused halfway through when the book didn't have much of a plot.

...Which is not to say it isn't a political book.  It's a political book as well, in addition to all those other things.  And I'll deal with the politics in my next section.

The Politics of the Book
It's impressive when you consider that this book was published in 1924.

India didn't get her independence until 1947, which means that it took British Government another 23 years to realize what Forster had already realized in 1924.

The book is also decades ahead of its time in its discussion of racism.  Again, remember, discussion of the racial problem didn't become mainstream in the US until the 1960s, and this book was published all the way back in 1924.

Throughout the book, many of the British Colonialists make overtly racist comments about the Indians.
The narrator in his authoritative voice never bothers to explicitly refute these comments, but the plot of the story refutes them all.
A favorite weapon is irony.  It is often discovered that the British Colonialists make offensive remarks about the Indians, and then in the course of the story we find that the British themselves are the ones who are guilty of these traits.

An example is from Chapter 24.  Mr. McBryde, The British superintendent of police, is giving evidence at the trial:

Here Mr. McBryde paused.  He wanted to keep the proceedings as clean as possible, but Oriental Pathology, his favorite theme, lay around him, and he could not resist it.  Taking off his spectacles, as was his habit before enunciating a general truth, he looked into them sadly, and 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 will confirm.
Although the narrator never explicitly refutes this, the reader knows McBryde is a hypocrite and an adulterer.  Plus the narrator has already given us insight into the minds of the Indian characters, and so the reader knows no such pathology exists.   The reader can simply recognize McBryde's statement as absurd on the face of it.
And yet, when this book was first published in 1924, it was at a time when it was not self-evident to everyone that these sentiments were ridiculous.   To put this book in it's cultural and literary context, remember this was at the time when Sax Rohmer was writing about the yellow peril in The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu.  (A book which talks about the cruelty of the Chinese race, and the ease with which Oriental women form attachment to men.)  And also at a time when Robert E. Howard was writing about evil Black skinned tribes which attacked white women.

The Expatriate Community Then and Now
In my review of Burmese Days, I said that sometimes you can learn more from literature than from history books.  By creating and preserving a literary portrait of the Burmese expatriate community in the 1920s, George Orwell has left a window open to that time through which future generations can look back and get some sense of what British colonialism was like.
E.M. Forster has done the same thing.  And like Orwell, Forster's literary portrait is based on his real-life experiences of living in Colonial India, and experiencing the expatriate community first hand.
There's a caveat, of course.   Literary portraits are inherently subjective.  For the full picture, you have to read several books from different perspectives.  (Forster's portrait of British Colonial India should be contrasted against other books, like Kim by Rudyard Kipling).

But with that caveat in mind, I felt like, as with Burmese Days, I could see parallels between the expatriate experience in Forster's portrait of 1920s India, and the expatriate communities that I have been a part of.  And as with Burmese Days, it's not an exact parallel, because the political structure of colonialism is not present.  But there are some similarities.

Everyone in the book club felt that there was sometimes an eerie similarity between the disparaging comments that the British constantly made about the Indians in A Passage to India, and the disparaging comments that expats constantly make about the Vietnamese in some of the on-line expat groups.
(The comments on the expat Facebook groups in Vietnam cover a spectrum.  Some people are clearly racist, but most people are just going through a low point in the culture shock cycle, and need a place to vent their frustrations.  Since I've also gone through low points in the culture-shock-cycle, and have also at times vented my own frustrations, I would be a hypocrite to criticize this too much.)

But A Passage to India also tackles the more subtle and difficult question of friendship between two cultures.

A Passage to India opens with several Indian characters discussing among themselves whether or not it is possible to be friends with the British.  They conclude that, at least in India, it is impossible, although it may be possible in Britain.

This section really got me, and I have to confess I felt a little bit guilty.  I reflected on my own set of friends, and how few of them were Vietnamese.
Vietnamese people are about the friendliest people on Earth.  They are often eager to make friends with foreigners, and they are very outgoing.  So it is incredibly easy to make Vietnamese friends.  In fact, foreigners simply walking about in the park, minding their own business, will often be approached by Vietnamese people who simply want to talk to them or be friends.
When I first arrived in Saigon, I didn't have a lot of other friendships, so I socialized a lot with the Vietnamese people who were eager to socialize with me.
However, as I got to know the expat community, I've gradually shifted my socializing over to other expatriates, and now I almost never socialize with Vietnamese people.  Despite the fact that there are ample opportunities.

So when I read the section in Forster's book, about the Indians reflecting that the British never want to be friends with them, I felt guilty about my own social habits.

In another case, recently, at a work party, I noticed that all the Vietnamese staff was sitting together at one half of the room, and all the Western staff was sitting together at the other half of the room.  I remarked to Tom (who was also a member of the book club), "Look at this!  This is just like The Bridge Party in chapter 5 of A Passage to India.  Remember in that chapter how they had the party, and  the Indians all stayed at one side of the garden, and the English all stayed at the other?  This is the exact same thing now."

Tom immediately agreed with me.  Although neither of us went over to the Vietnamese side.  We both agreed we were more comfortable on the Western side.

Actually, to tell the whole truth, I've been noticing this phenomenon now for a long time.  Back when I first started in Cambodia, I noticed at the first work party I went to that all the tables were completely segregated.  The Cambodian staff all sat at one side, the Western staff all sat at the other.  I didn't like this, and so I decided to go and sit at the Cambodian table.
I don't know what I expected to happen.  I suppose maybe in the back of my mind I had an idea that they would say, "Thank you so much for coming over here and gracing us poor Cambodians with your presence.  You truly are a main of the people."
Instead, what happened was that I immediately killed their conversation.  Up until I came over, they had been happily chatting away in their native language, and joking with each other.  As soon as I sat down, they had to shift the conversation over to English in order to accommodate me, and since they were less fluent in English then in their native language, the conversation immediately became stilted and awkward.  The easy-going joking ceased, and they struggled to find topics that they could talk to me about in English.
It wasn't a racial thing so much as it was a linguistic-cultural thing.  They were much happier speaking their native language and being able to make references to Cambodian culture--something  that they couldn't do with me in the conversation.
Whereas we expatriates often felt more relaxed when we could speak natural English (instead of simplifying our English for the Cambodian staff) and we enjoyed talking about books, movies, music, TV shows, and politics that were all common to us, but that the Cambodians wouldn't understand.

Since then, I largely gave up on trying to integrate the tables at the staff parties.
But the newbies always had the same reaction I first did.
You could always tell the newbies, because they would complain about the segregation, and try to sit down at the Cambodian table.  The old-hands, like myself,  used to watch them cynically from across the room, and reflect on how this kind of thing usually ended in failure.

It was the exact same dynamic in chapter 5 of A Passage to India.  Miss Quested is newly arrived in India, and is upset by how the two halves of the party make no attempt to interact with each other.  So she attempts to go over to the Indian side.  The old-hands in the British expatriate community watch her cynically, and remark how she doesn't yet understand how things work India.

In theory, I still feel guilty about this dynamic.  I still believe that I should make more of an effort to integrate myself over to the Cambodian or Vietnamese side.  But in practice, I often feel tired at these staff parties, and end up just preferring the company of my own countrymen.  In other words, I have almost the exact same attitude as Ronnie does in chapter 3 of A Passage to India.  In conversation, Ronnie explains that he can't be seen socializing and having a smoke with the Indian Pleaders (lawyers) because he can't show favoritism to any one of them.  In response, the newly arrived Miss Quested says:
"Isn't the lesson that you should invite all the Pleaders have a smoke with you?"
Ronnie replies:
"Perhaps, but time's limited and the flesh weak.  I prefer my smoke at the club amongst my own sort, I'm afraid."
The Age of Atheism
Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe England became a post-religious society around the turn of the 20th century.  Religion never went completely away, but starting in the 1900s secularism and atheism became mainstream in England.
This, of course, is different than what happened in America,  which has always been been a very religious society.  (For whatever reason.  Historians and sociologists can debate why religion went out of fashion in Europe, but has remained so strong in America.)

One of the things I remember from my College literature classes is that 20th Century British writers had to struggle with the question of what it means to live in a post-religious age.

A poem I remember from one of my professors talking about from a course on Modern British Literature is High Windows by British poet Philip Larkin.  The poem has stuck with me over the years as I've struggled with religion and atheism myself over the years, so I'll quote the whole thing below, because I think it's worth quoting:

High Windows by Philip Larkin (Written in 1967)

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide   
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide   
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Although A Passage to India was written 40 years before High Windows, I thought that I could see a lot of the same thoughts about struggling to find meaning and comfort in life in a post-religious age.

For example, there is this exchange between Mr. Fielding and Miss Quested in Chapter 26.

..."I did not intend to be rude.  I only meant it is difficult, as we get on in life, to resist the supernatural.  I've felt it coming on me myself.  I still jog on without it, but what a temptation, at forty-five, to pretend that the dead live again; one's own dead; no one else's matter."
"Because the dead don't live again."
"I fear not."
"So do I."
There was a moment's silence, such as often follows the triumph of rationalism.  Then he apologized handsomely enough for his behavior to Heaslop at the club....

Some of the passages I thought were quite moving.  Such as the description in Chapter 27 about coming to terms with the death of people you love.  The passage is describing the thoughts of the English atheist Fielding:

...it struck him that people are not really dead until they are felt to be dead.  As long as there is some misunderstanding about them, they possess a sort of immortality.  An experience of his own confirmed this.  Many years ago he had lost a great friend, a woman, who believed in the Christian heaven and assured him that after the changes and chances of this mortal life they would meet in it again.  Fielding was a blank, frank atheist, but he respected every opinion his friend held: to do this is essential in friendship.  And it seemed to him for a time that the dead awaited him, and when the illusion faded, it left behind it an emptiness that was almost guilt: "This really is the end," he thought, "and I gave her the final blow."


Orientalism
Throughout the book, E.M. Forster frequently tells the reader what is in the heads of all the characters.  He also emphasizes how the Indians view things differently than the Europeans.
Taken at its broadest, I'm sure this is uncontroversial.  Different cultures view some things differently.

But, sometimes I wondered if E.M. Forster was being a little bit too specific in claiming to know what Indians thought.  "Some people somewhere out there are probably upset about this," I thought to myself.
Sure enough, once I started reading criticism of the book, the charge of "orientalism" comes up.

It'd be interesting to hear the opinion of an Indian reader on how well E.M. Forster does at depicting the Indian mind.
My own opinion is worthless on this subject, so I won't bother.  I'll just note that there's an orientalism controversy about this book, and leave it at that.

Other Themes of the Book
So... there are a lot more themes in this book than what I've touched on so far.  This book is packed full of themes, some of them I didn't even fully realize until I read the study guide to this book.  (Which I found online HERE).  But I've touched on what struck me personally.  If I wrote about the other themes, I would be largely just plagiarizing from what was in the study guide.  And what's the point of that?  You can just click on the link above and read the study guide yourself if you're interested in reading more.

Book Club Notes:
For whatever it may or may not be worth, here are some of the posts I put on our bookclub Facebook page as we read the book.  (I've used XXXX  to replace all the personal names of people.)

March 14, 2017
What's been decided:
New book moving forward is "A Passage to India" by E.M. Forster. It's not in the bookstores here in Saigon, but apparently it can easily be torrented. Once XXXX sends me the PDF, I'll print up paper copies for anyone who's interested. So far it looks like it's me, XXXX , and XXXX . So 3 copies.

XXXX
How many pages are we to read for the next meeting? And when is the next meeting?
Me:
So it looks like the book is divided into 3 parts. We could do one part for every meeting? Meet up every 2 weeks say? Is that too slow or too fast?
XXXX
Certainly doable. That sets our meetings to the 31st, 14th, and 28th. I'm keen.
Me:
Okay cool. I'll miss the 31st, but I'll chime in with my two cents over Facebook. I'll be back for the 14th and the 28th.


March 15, 2017
okay, XXXX , XXXX , XXXX  , XXXX  and XXXX , I've got all your copies printed out and ready for you. Looks like it worked out to approximately 65,000 each this time. Grab me when you see me for your copy.

March 16, 2017
I was talking to XXXX   today, and we discussed reading Burmese Days by George Orwell as a bonus book to complement A Passage to India. The two books have very similar themes (both deal with the relationships between the expats and the natives in a Colonial territory) and George Orwell was supposedly inspired by A Passage to India when he wrote Burmese Days, so it might be interesting to compare Orwell's handling of the same themes.
Obviously this would be only for the more ambitious readers. If just getting through the one book is enough, than no pressure to go for two. But the schedule we were talking about the other day strikes me as being fairly relaxed.

As for me, I read Burmese Days a couple years ago. It's still relatively fresh in my mind, so I won't be re-reading it again, but should hopefully still be able to talk about it intelligently

March 19, 2017
Since I'm going to miss the first meeting on this book club, I'm going to use Facebook to chime in with my opinions more than usual.
One of my primary interests in both this book and Burmese Days is the portrayal of the expat community, and how the expat community looks down on the native population. And perhaps we could draw parallels to the expat community in Saigon? Or is that a debate?
I was living in Phnom Penh when I read Burmese Days, and the scene when the British were sitting in the club complaining about the native Burmese struck me as very similar to the way expats in Phnom Penh hang out in expats bars and spend all day complaining about the Cambodians.
I'm beginning to imagine I see some of those same parallels in the description of the expats in A Passage to India.
Of course there are differences. Burma and India were official colonies of Britain. But I wonder if the portrayal of how expats view the country they are living in is more similar than different?
For example, is it just me, or is the word "local" used a lot in a disparaging way on the Ho Chi Minh Expats Facebook page?
Or here's a quote from Orwell (in Chapter 10 of Burmese Days) that got me thinking a bit:
When describing the feeling of the British in Burma, Orwell writes “…most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants” –From Chapter 10.

What do you guys think. True?

March 20, 2017
Okay, so as I said the other day, I'm going to be posting on this Facebook page a lot over the next week to make up for the fact that I'll be missing the first meeting. Sorry in advance. Just ignore me if I get annoying.
I want to talk today about culture shock.
I think both "A Passage to India" and "Burmese Days" view the relationships between the locals and the British through the prism of colonialism and racism. In other words, in both books the British look down on the locals mainly because they are colonialist assholes and have racist prejudices.
I may be wrong on this, but I think that in Orwell's and Forster's day, there hadn't been anything written about culture shock. So when both authors were explaining why the expats complained about the locals so much, colonialism was the only prism they had to explain it.
Nowadays, though, there's been a lot of studies on culture shock, and I think we're more aware now that it's something all people go through. You could be the most open-minded liberal person in the world, but you do go through a period of "culture shock" where you feel hostility towards the new country and the locals.
My understanding is that there are two models of culture shock. In one model, you start out in the honeymoon period where everything about the new country is new and wonderful. After about 2 or 3 months, you move into a period where you hate everything about the new country.
For example, symptom number 4 on this list describes typical culture shock as:
Criticism of local people, culture, and customs
http://www.uniteforsight.org/cultural-competency/module2
This period is where we get a lot of the insensitive comments that is similar to the comments both Forster's and Orwell's characters make. (And both Forster and Orwell wrote partly based on their own experiences, of having lived in expat communities in India and Burma respectively). But the point is that this isn't a period that only racist people go through. All people experience some degree of culture shock. How much of this is racism, and how much of this is culture shock? I suspect the line gets a little bit muddled.
And then you move into a period of adjustment, and finally assimilation.
But another theory is that you never reach full adjustment. Even after years of living abroad, you are still on a constant cycle of ups and downs. When you're on a low point in the culture shock cycle, you hate the country and the people, but then a couple weeks (or months) later you'll be back in a good place, and you'll love the country and the people. But then a while later you'll be in a low place.
Anecdotally, this later model strikes me as more accurate, just because in my experience the expats who complain the most about the country are often the ones who have been there the longest.
Another point to be made about culture shock is that in both models, Culture Shock only sets in after you've been in the country for a few months.
In that respect, I think Orwell messed this up slightly in Burmese Days, because Elizabeth Lackersteen was too negative about Burma right from the beginning. It makes sense that all the old-jaded expatriates in the European club should be negative about Burma—much as Orwell describes. But Elizabeth Lackersteen should have gone through a period of interest and fascination about her new country. Instead, Orwell portrays her as wanting nothing to do with Burma and the Burmese right from the beginning.
I suspect this oversight might be because the psychological research on culture shock, and the 4 stages model, probably came after Orwell’s time. And perhaps I’m being overly prescriptive by insisting that his characters follow this psychology model. But, the four stages of culture shock very closely model my own experience, and the experience of the other people I’ve watched. I’ve never seen anyone be negative about a new country upon first arriving, so I have a hard time believing that this would be Elizabeth Lackersteen’s reaction. (Although, I don’t know, maybe back in the 1920s racism might have been more of a factor? Britains might have absorbed a disdain for the native inhabitants of their colonies even before they got off the boat, which would cause them to bypass the honeymoon stage? Perhaps?)
I think E.M. Forster handles this much better, because he portrays the fresh-off-the-boat new-comers as being very positive about India, and being very surprised at the negative attitudes they encounter from their fellow expats.

It would be interesting maybe to compare our own experiences of culture shock in Vietnam, and how this matches the portrayal of expat communities in "Burmese Days" and "A Passage to India"

March 22, 2017
Another interesting point of connection between A Passage to India and Burmese Days.
Both were apparently influenced by Amritsar. A Passage to India was written only a few years after Amritsar, and apparently the more militant attitude on the part of the Indians in the second book reflects the tension after Amritsar.
But Forster never mentions Amritsar explicitly.
It was Orwell, who wasn't even writing about India, who makes a big deal of Amritsar in Burmese Days.
The picture Orwell paints of the expat community in Burma--actually praising Dyer, is almost hard to believe. And yet, Orwell supposedly based the book on his real-life experiences in Burma, so...
From Burmese Days:
“…We’ve got to hang together and say, ‘We are the masters, and you beggars—’” Ellis pressed his small thumb down as through flattening a grub—“'you beggars keep your place!’”
“Hopeless, old chap,” said Westfield. “Quite hopeless. What can you do with all this red type tying your hands? Beggars of natives know the law better than we do. Insult you to your face and then run you in the moment you hit ’em. Can’t do anything unless you put your foot down firmly. And how can you, if they haven’t the guts to show fight?”
“Our burra sahib at Mandalay always said” put in Mrs Lackersteen, “that in the end we shall simply leave India. Young men will not come out here any longer to work all their lives for insults and ingratitude. We shall just go. When the natives come to us begging us to stay, we shall say, ‘No, you have had your chance, you wouldn’t take it. Very well, we shall leave you to govern yourselves.’ And then, what a lesson that will teach them.”
“It’s all this law and order that’s done for us,” said Westfield gloomily. The ruin of the Indian Empire through too much legality was a recurrent theme with Westfield. According to him, nothing save a full-sized rebellion, and the consequent reign of martial law, could save the Empire from decay. “All this paper-chewing and chit passing. Office babus are the real rulers of this country now. Our number’s up. Best thing we can do is to shut up shop and let ’em stew in their own juice.”
“I don’t agree, I simply don’t agree,” Ellis said. “We could put things right in a month if we chose. It only needs a pennyworth of pluck. Look at Amritsar. Look how they caved in after that. Dyer knew the stuff to give them. Poor old Dyer! That was a dirty job. Those cowards in England have got something to answer for.”
There was a kind of sigh from the others, the same sigh that a gathering of Roman Catholics will give at the mention of Bloody Mary. Even Mr. Macgregor, who detested bloodshed and martial law, shook his head at the name of Dyer.
“Ah, poor man! Sacrificed to the Paget M.P.s. Well, perhaps they will discover their mistake when it is too late.”
My old governor used to tell a story about that,” said Westfield. “There was an old havildar in a native regiment—someone asked him what’d happen if the British left India. The old chap said—.”

Flory pushed back his chair and stood up. It must not, it could not—no, it simply should not go on any longer! He must get out of this room quickly, before something happened inside his head and he began to smash the furniture and throw bottles at the pictures. Dull boozing witless porkers! Was it impossible that they could go on week after week, year after year, repeating word for word the same evil-minded drivel, like a parody of a fifth rate story in Blackwood’s? Would none of them ever think of anything new to say? Oh, what a place, what people! What a civilization is this of ours—this godless civilization founded on whisky, Blackwood’s and the ‘Bonzo’ pictures! God have mercy on us, for all of us are a part of it.”

March 23, 2017
When I lived in Cambodia, one of the things the expat crowd always rolled their eyes at was the phrase "the real Cambodia". It would come up in different manifestations. Like someone would say, "Unless you've been out to the countryside, you haven't seen the real Cambodia." Or backpackers would talk about how they wanted to see the "real Cambodia."
I had an American friend who was very good at mocking that phrase. "Just look at all these Cambodians here in Phnom Penh," he would say. "If only they knew they weren't living in the real Cambodia."
It was something that made me chuckle when Adela Quested made the same remark in Chapter 3. "I want to see the real India". And I love how the expats Ronny and Fielding mocked the remark.

It just goes to show that nothing has changed even after 90 years.

XXXX commented:
 Haha, indeed we have the same thing in Vietnam don't we? "District 2/7 isn't the real/authentic Vietnam." I even found myself saying it when I first arrived. Amazing how quickly we become "resident experts" of a place we know so little about.

March 24, 2017
I should have posted this video in connection with the post on Amritsar, but better late than never.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjNLlvODhQE



April 22, 2017
How's everyone coming with the book?
I have a confession to make, I finished the whole thing over a month ago on the 20 hour flight back to America.
But since that was a long time ago now, and since I was light-headed, nauseous, and sleep deprived on the airplane, it's all a bit fuzzy in my head now, so I'm currently re-reading it so as to have it fresh in my mind for Friday.
I'm also finding this study guide very useful for pulling out the themes of each chapter. Although be warned, it does contain spoilers.
http://faculty.mu.edu.sa/public/uploads/1385403740.1816A%20Passage%20to%20India%20Analysis.pdf

April 28, 2017
Hey guys,
Excellent discussion today. I think we definitely got our money's worth out of that cafe. Enjoyed hearing everyone's insights.
If anyone's interested, pretty much everything I had to say came out of this PDF I linked to earlier. Unfortunately it turns out I have very little original thoughts of my own. (Also, I know when I said I'd been reading stuff online, I implied I was reading several things. but that was just a lie in order to make me look more widely read than I really was. Actually it all came from this one source). They've got a nice chapter by chapter analysis of the themes in each chapter, and at the end they've got 3 different critical essays by 3 different authors.
http://faculty.mu.edu.sa/public/uploads/1385403740.1816A%20Passage%20to%20India%20Analysis.pdf

Video Review
Video review here and embedded below.



Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Canadian journalists at round table, 1988


2 comments:

Whisky Prajer said...

Gulp! Cue my Bart Simpson voice: "I can't help but feel partly responsible."

I apologize for the sloughing of readers. I suspect that, had I been consulted, I would have hesitated to recommend Passage so hot on the heels of Orwell and Dostoevsky (<- him especially). Forster's penchant for description is not the sort of thing that editors indulge anymore. But in his day he had an almost Hemmingwayesque taciturnity (some of what you pick out, though, screams "GAY WRITER!" Amusing to see). Whatever you do, don't suggest anything by Dickens for your next book. Maybe go with that newish Houellebecq book, or if you have to stick with early-20th-Century EngLit some Evelyn Waugh (Vile Bodies is my fave).

And now it's been almost 30 years since I saw the movie and 25 since I read the book. My bad.

You do a terrific job of tucking into it, though. And I'll applaud anyone who throws in "High Windows" for personal context. Now that I think of it, I read Passage for the same class that introduced me to Larkin. It kinda all fits, really.

I didn't watch your video, though -- sorry. Had to make some tough choices.

Joel Swagman said...

Apologies if I emphasized the negatives too much in the review. I'm glad I read this book, and thank you for recommending it.

Regarding the video: If you read the whole review, there's no need to watch the video. I just repeat all the same points.
Actually that's true for all my reviews. The video will just be a repeat of the written review.

Gay Writer:
Um, yeah, actually now that you mentioned it, I'm re-reading that same passage through different eyes.
Strange I never picked up on any of this until I read the criticism of A Passage to India, and a number of people think there are homo-erotic undertones through the book.
I guess I was so intent on the race/colonial themes that I completely missed all that. But in retrospect...yeah.