Forster’s Use of Irony in A Passage to India
A Passage to India is full of ironies as well as ironic characters and events. Forster shows that there are severe contradictions in the cultural and social fabric of India and his work poses a difficult question that how will a race divided along so many lines govern itself even if it achieves freedom. He brings out several appreciable facets of the Indian culture and society but when compared to the West, he finds it poorly organized and backward. He calls it a muddle which is ironical because India misses consistency. Here it rises, there it falls and when compared to European or Egyptian landscape, it looks complex. The Indian characters are complex and ironical that defy being fully understood and Aziz who appears an educated and civilized fellow initially leaves Fielding feeling confused by his behaviour afterwards. Godbole is a Brahmin and tries to be a Hindu philosopher most of the time but Fielding very well knows that his words never conclude at a definite end. Like other Indian creatures, he too does not know his fate. The uncertainty and inconsistency that Forster associates with India makes it look all the more ironic and complicated. However, if Forster sees India as a muddle then the tumultuous times of British rule could be a reason behind it. You are on a ship through a storm; you cannot see the horizon clearly. India was undergoing a major change. Indians were rising against the British under the leadership of Gandhi and Nehru. The British used the divide and rule policy and that was also a reason these divisions grew so pronounced.
However, the British rule and the British government’s relationship with India is the most ironic chapter in the India history and Forster does not miss to highlight it using characters of Ronny Heaslop, McBryde, the Callendars and similar more British characters like the Lieutenant Governor and his wife. The Indian side is also just as ironic and unaware of their situation and how the English are ruling and using them against their will. Forster tries to point out that these Indians are being ruled because of their simplicity and if not for their simple and honest nature, India’s fate would have been different. India is made mostly of poor peasants and labor class people who hardly know of anything outside their villages and are content with their simple life. This irony is evident in the third part of the novel ‘Temples’ at Mau where during Krishnashtami, these villagers are at the palace to celebrate the Lord’s birth. Held by superstitions and religious divisions, India does not paint a consistent picture. It is difficult to grasp a complete picture of the nation, which according to Forster has a rich cultural heritage but because of being divided along so many lines appears quite different from itself. The echo in the caves and the disposal of the Lord’s statuettes in Mau tank, all paint ironic pictures. Fielding tries to understand the Hindus through Aziz but Aziz himself does not know what they really are. Godbole’s words are another indication that they cannot reconcile with their truth but keep swaying between spirituality and philosophy. While the West believes in science and education, the condition of these things is poor in India and it is fighting back like a restive child being held by sheer force.
Aziz’s life is full of ironies and so is Adela’s. Together they look as two pillars of a major irony. While Aziz has lost his life partner, Adela is unable to see a fit partner in Ronny. She has come to marry Ronny but gets to see a different side of his personality and character in India. Whether it is the local weather or the British government, she fails to understand what may have caused this change. She had wished to find him agreeable and kind but instead she found him a Dracula. He was leading a life that according to her is sick and disastrous. She feels all the more lost in India already. Swaying between faith and intellectualism, she has started feeling as if caught in a void. When inside the cave, the same question strikes back, leaving her soul shaken and empty like a bowl. Feeling badly confused and harassed by the echo inside the cave, she blames it upon Aziz. While the court room drama is happily resolved in the favour of Indians because she takes her charges back, she is still a foolish girl to Aziz who never did what she meant and never meant what she did. The irony in Ronny Heaslop’s story is that he cannot go far from the line of duty and is proudly a part of the herd of wolves that the English people are, mostly sadistic and comic. The way Ronny and other English people behave during the court trial of Aziz and how he reacts to his mother’s advices makes him look like a government trained dog who wags his tail before his seniors and treats poor Indians like underdogs. It is difficult to help feeling so because of the comic attitude exhibited by the British people and Forster’s sarcasm makes the entire drama look very real. Wait, are we reading fiction??… Forster has filled his work with so many dialogues that the entire account looks more of a drama. However, if not for these dialogues, the irony would not have been brought out so well and the sarcasm would not be as profound and effective. Historical accounts show the British in even poor light in India – as difficult guests who will not mend their attitude and because their hosts are simple and less scientific, they can govern them like a lesser society and plunder them of their wealth and cultural heritage. They are an incorrigible race – the colonialist are here for nothing but only India’s wealth. Some Indians watch them with awe, some with disdain, some consider them a curse and for some they are just aliens who are here to stay like the fish in the monsoon. The British did leave India but by the time they left, they had plundered it and carried its wealth to England, leaving it hollow like the Marabar caves.
Aziz’s character is ironic for several reasons but particularly for his lack of sight beyond Islam and for his restive and childish attitude. He is a devout Muslim who because of being educated can understand things better than the other simpler Muslims. Yet, he fails to act wisely in the light of misfortune. He shrieks and shakes like a coward when the police tries to arrest him after the Marabar caves incident. Fielding wanted to see him firmer and while he is passionate, his passion still is more of an emotional weakness. When he grows emotional, he starts longing to be back in the time of Babur and Alamgir which were not so agreeable names for the Hindu community constituting a very large part of India. The Hindu Muslim divide and the ironies born of it are highlighted strongly in the novel. These two communities have learnt to live with each other but the underlying emotions keep them from being together. This is particularly highlighted in part one and three of the novel. In part 2, you see them uniting for a small period under the wave of nationalism that erupted out of Aziz’s arrest. However, again at the time of the festival in Mau, when Aziz is back on scene with Fielding and Godbole, the divide is again evident. By the end, Aziz has grown a real nationalist who believes the Indians will have taken the reins from the hands of the British soon. There is a profound change in his attitude and the educated, smiling and affable Aziz has changed into a freedom fighter who can bear the slack Hindus but never the British. Still, he believes in the legacy of Babur and Alamgir and that make him an outside in a society dominated by Hindus.
Mrs Moore’s character also demonstrates some irony in her brief appearance. She dies during the first half of the novel but is remembered as a noble soul who loved India unlike the poor Adela who cannot create the same trust. Instead of trying to persuade Ronny to make a better impression on Adela, Mrs Moore ends up dissuading him and cannot withstand the gimmicks he and the other people at the club throw. Her story concludes abruptly and she too does not achieve what she wanted to in India. When she tries to see real India, she sees a reflection of the monstrous British Raaj that leaves her feeling a part of some very sick species that controls and rules those by brute force who are not as developed and educated. Her return from India ironically results in her death and she dies without having seen her two other children Ralph and Stella before her death. Even Fielding starts looking like a wolf in the guise of a friend in the aftermath of the caves incident. Aziz loses trust in him which is retained to slight extent after the situation is clarified near the end. Aziz thinks he has married Adela in England and cheated him of the fine she would otherwise have paid. It turns out that Fielding has married Stella and Aziz is left feeling foolish to learn the truth. He cannot return to the point where he stood and so finds an excuse in the comic attitude of the British and that they will be punished for having treated him so poorly. He seems to be treating Fielding the same way while the guy had tried his best to save him during the court drama. Forster again highlights the irony that Indian culture keeps people locked in separate compartments. In this way the entire novel is filled with ironies of different sorts but the most ironic is the British rule and the fate of India. India has always seen guests as Gods and that’s the real irony that it was always cheated by them.