Failures That Connect; or, Colonial Friendships in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India

By Kiang, Shun Yin | ARIEL, July 2016 | Go to article overview

Failures That Connect; or, Colonial Friendships in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India


Kiang, Shun Yin, ARIEL


Abstract: This article reexamines the role of friendship in A Passage to India that previous scholarship has analyzed in terms of function, teleology, and political efficacy. Examining friendship in terms of its continuing flows and affects, this essay explores the moments and spaces in which friendship, in bringing together bodies and social worlds, challenges established social dynamics and spatial regimes. What is the point of being friends with someone in a colonial outpost like Chandrapore, the fictional Indian city in Forster's novel? What happens--or does not happen-when Dr. Aziz and Adela Quested have afternoon tea together or venture into the unknowns of the Marabar Cave? These questions, among others, serve as the starting point from which I trace the potentiality of colonial friendship as well as its relation to structures of power and knowledge. This article, in short, offers friendship as an analytic tool and subject matter to situate A Passage to India away from an identitarian logic that often takes the study of colonial relations to a host of ideological impasses.

Keywords: friendship, space, colonial relations, E. M. Forster, A Passage to India

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E. M. Forster dedicated A Passage to India (1924) to his life-long friend Syed Ross Masood, who, at seventeen and in need of a Latin tutor for his entrance exams to Oxford, was introduced to Forster in 1906. The timing was perfect: Forster was going through a period of solitude while writing The Longest Journey (1907). This interim of single-minded productivity, "[a] narrow suburban life that would stretch out interminably, unchangingly into the future ... [was disrupted by a] wonderful dark-skinned boy" (Moffat 88) whose grandfather had risked his life protecting the Anglo-Indian community during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The friendship between Forster and Masood, born out of a working relationship between tutor and pupil, would eventually outlast Forster's romantic relations, including his romance with Ali Mohammed, an Arabic Egyptian whose premature death in 1922 slowed down and much complicated the completion of Passage. '"When I began the book I thought of it as a little bridge of sympathy between East and West, but this conception has had to go,'" Forster later told Masood: "'my sense of truth forbids anything so comfortable'" (qtd. in Moffat 190). Where invocations of interracial romance are caught in the impasse of identity and ideological differences, friendship offers itself as a narrative thread with which the writer sutures together cross-cultural affinities. Instead of a "little bridge of sympathy between East and West" that was initially supported by Forster's fantasy of cross-cultural--and primarily homosocial--romance, Passage ultimately became a novel featuring colonial friendship as that which has the potential to disrupt a certain single-identity-based way of being with others. It makes "[a] sympathy between East and West" seem unattainable in the first place.

Indeed, friendship would inspire Forster as an enduring force, informing not only his views on subjectivity and sociality but also matters concerning the British Empire. In a BBC recording studio on 15 August 1947, a decade after Masood's death, Forster was asked to comment on the birth and partition of India and Pakistan. Instead of politics, however, Forster invoked once more his friendship with Masood as he spoke over the microphone radio to listeners at home and abroad:

Today, the country I have known as India enters the past and becomes part of history. A new period opens, and my various Indian friends are now citizens of the new India or of Pakistan. You must excuse me if I begin with my friends. They are much in my mind on this momentous occasion. It is nearly forty years since I met, here in England, the late Syed Ross Masood. But for Masood I should never have come to [that] part of the world, (qtd. in Lago, Hughes, and Walls 394)

In real life as in fiction, Forster's insistence on placing friendship ahead of political concerns or historical events reflects a strategic refusal of a subjective life which bears a recognizable cultural and national identity in favor of a life that, in apprehending and articulating its subjectivity and relation to space, does not seek to belittle, romanticize, or negate the lives of others, as experienced by the characters in Passage. …

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