Amardeep Singh

November 2001

Lecture on E.M Forster's Passage to India


Crowds and Passages


Literary representations of crowds in modernism are usually negative. Especially in Yeats and T.S. Eliot, there is a strong aversion to the idea of too much humanity, hordes of people pressing in on one. An aversion to rabble. Teeming masses threaten individuality; crowds tear down the walls between people, and dissolve them into a kind of unknowable human macro-organism. The modernists are widely known as misanthropes (Sartre: Hell is other people), but it might be more accurate to think of them as in fact agoraphobic, panicking at the thought of a future full of illiterate, uncultured people running amok.


Historically, this fixation on the uncontrollability of crowds makes perfect sense. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the populations of major western European cities exploded, fed largely by an exodus from the countryside. New agricultural methods meant that fewer hands were needed, while new industrial jobs in cities created a new class of unskilled laborers who owned nothing -- the working class. By 1918, at the end of the War and in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, cities were becoming increasingly dangerous, urban crowds increasingly volatile.


Many of the writers we have read find themselves responding, usually with a great deal of anxiety, to this new phenomenon. E.M Forster is generally no exception. As an upper class liberal in England, Forster sympathized with the plight of the working classes, but not too much -- he had no desire to put them in power, and novels of his that are set in England itself, including Howard's End, do foreground the dangers of mixing classes. Forster's image of crowds in India is in some sense no better, although the complexity of Forster's image of India is something worth pausing pausing on. India is not merely full of uncultured and illiterate working classes; it is a wholly different spatial universe (topos), with its own rules. Forster's India seems to be a setting where the rules of "reality" may be held in suspension, or even reversed. Moreover, if we read Forster's images of Indian crowds in the vein of Elias Canetti, a more complex reading of the novel may be available to us. First, India is a crowd, a place where ordinary English rules for privacy and individual identity are either irrelevant or actively counterproductive. Second, crowds are dangerously erotic -- intoxicatingly beautiful, but potentially violent. An erotic crowd is a space where one's understanding of his/her individual identity -- what Freud would call the ego -- is undone. Abandoning the ego also enables us to possibly abandon the prohibitions that come with the ego. The crowd, in Canetti as well as Forster, is something (quoting Cyril Fielding, describing himself) "absolutely devoid of morals." And finally, as Canetti shows, the crowd is not merely a place where all boundaries are undone, and there is therefore nothing further to say. There are different kinds of crowds, different crowd behaviors and dynamics. Crowds, though they consist of masses of people, still have an identifiable texture and shape. Though some of Forster's images of crowds are mystical, the image of crowds in Forster's book overall bear a strong resemblance to those in Canetti.


In Canetti, the first thing we learn about crowds is that they are environments where our ordinary aversion to being touched by strangers is inverted. Being touched in a crowd is reassuring, part of the "natural" experience of density of life in this alternate reality. This in itself should ring a bell, as A Passage to India is a novel where people touch one another very rarely.

In fact, I can think of only three moments where touching is especially important to the development of the plot. The first might be the scene in the Nawab's carriage, where Ronny and Adela's hands are touching [they decide to marry]. The second would be the scene at the Marabar caves. Something definitely does touch Mrs. Moore (and perhaps touches Adela). And finally, the scene at the very end of the novel, where Aziz and Fielding hold hands for a moment, before letting go, presumably, for good.

In fact, all three instances seem to suggest the dangers, or the impropriety, of touching. Forster, we might say, is himself afraid of touching, not just strangers, but anyone at all.

Is this an English quality or an Indian one? Is this tragic or somehow a desirable state of being?


Some of the basic qualities of Forster's India are:

1--Forster's India has no interiors or exteriors (Mrs. Moore's encounter with the wasp).

2--"Nothing is private in India" (Ronny, 32). This is a variation on the theme of the confusion of inside and outside, except here it specifically referring to personal space. In Ronny's idea of India, everyone can see you and know what there is to know about you -- including your secrets, weaknesses, failures.

In part, the idea of omniscience is merely a strategy of colonial authority; it is precisely Ronny's job job to make sure there is no privacy, at least amongst the Indians in his jurisdiction. The mission of Ronny, and the Anglo-Indian establishment more generally, is to produce a relationship of power where it is the Indians who are the looked-at, while the English are the spectators, the inspectors, the people who have total knowledge. 

However, it is important to keep in mind that the absence of privacy in India is an axiom that the Indians also follow. Aziz, for instance, has no qualms about rifling through his friend's personal letters. Perhaps the absence of privacy is an intrinsic characteristic of the place, and the English have learned the absence of privacy not as a necessity for survival, but as an unconscious adaptation to the personality of the place. This theme leads directly to:

3--India is hungry. India eventually turns everyone who comes there into something resembling itself. Earlier visitors and rulers eventually adapted themselves to the environment. The English are fighting it, but perhaps it will happen to them as well. The violence and the corruption of the English presence in India may, in this way of reading the novel, merely be a sign that they themselves are

4--India is desirous. There is a definite link between Adela's experience of certain events in the Indian landscape (including, at times the physicality of Indian men) and her realization that she does not love Ronny. It is possible to argue that she turns away from Ronny not simply because she does not love him, but because she becomes aware of an idea of love that is more honest and pure than what she has with him.

Desire (in Godbole's song): "It was a religious song. I placed myself in the position of a milkmaiden. I say to Shri Krishna, "Come! Come to me only.' The God refuses to come. I grew humble and say: 'Do not come to me only. Multiply yourself into a hundred Krishnas, and let one go to each of my hundred companions, but one, O Lord of the Universe, come to me.' . . . [H]e refuses to come . . . I say to him, Come, come, come, come, come, come. He neglects to come" (85)


This emphasis on the image India as desirous refers to more than the awakening of desire in its inhabitants and visitors. This awakening within individuals is of course important, as it transforms both Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested in fundamental ways. But what the centrality of desire really points to is a sense of longing intrinsic to the place itself. Forster sometimes magnifies this into near-incoherency by anthropomorphizing India -- defining it not as a space but a person. "Come, come, come" then becomes omnipresent, an utterance from the voice of India herself, not Indians; the presence of individual people becomes irrelevant. But I read the centrality of desire in India in the novel as a whole not so much as omnipresent but as anonymous. We see a hint of this in a description of the effect of an Urdu poem recited by Aziz. The effect of the poem is compared to that of Godbole's song to Krishna:


Desire (in a poem): "Less explicit than the call to Krishna, it voiced our loneliness nevertheless, our isolation, our need for the Friend who never comes yet is not entirely disproved" (114)


            [Anonymous, unnamed "Friend." Not a personal relation, not necessarily a religious figure at all. Some kind of unattached, nearly abstract figure -- the Friend is defined by the fact that he is the person who comes when we call.

            Indian poetry has this affect on its hearers (one assumes he's referring entirely to Indians here -- those who understand Urdu). Poetry is especially important, we understand, for Aziz.]


And nearly all of the attributes Forster assigns to India are alluded to in the following passage (p. 150):


How can the mind take hold of such a country? Generations of invaders have tried, but they remain in exile. The important towns they build are only retreats, their quarrels the malaise of men who cannot find their way home. India knows of their trouble. She knows of the whole world's trouble, to its uttermost depth. She calls "Come" through her hundred mouths, through objects ridiculous and august. But come to what? She has never defined. She is not a promise, only an appeal. (150)


Especially important in this passage is the link between India's tendency to convert or absorb its invaders -- India's hunger -- and the rhetoric of desire: "come." But note the role of multiplicity here. India has not one but a hundred mouths. Forster continues to identify the country as a singular being, a "she," but nevertheless splits up the image of that being into a hundred mouths all speaking.

            To put it another way, India is a babble of voices. This emphasis on the voice will be important below, as I work through the references to the "echo" in the scene in the Marabar Caves.

And there are many other associations of the idea of India to that of the crowd. Canetti's crowds also can be said to have each of the four attributes Forster assigns India. (1) Crowds, like Forster's India, have no interiors or exteriors; (2) crowds erase the sense of privacy, of individual property and the separation of bodies; (3) crowds are hungry. They exhibit the animal characteristic of hunger: they desires to grow, to absorb into themselves more bodies, and to consume everything that comes in their path; and (4) crowds are desirous.

            But the strongest link between India and the idea of the crowd probably comes in the actual crowd scenes in the novel, one of them at the Marabar Caves, and the other at (and outside) the trial of Aziz back in Chandrapore. On the one hand the latter (the crowd at the trial scene) is certainly important: it reminds the reader that there are in fact millions of Indians 'outside' whose willingness to participate in the British Raj can evaporate -- the Indian crowd can become, and indeed nearly does become, a mob. The trial also mocks the feeble attempts by the British to form a kind of herd -- a closed crowd bent on punishing an outsider (Aziz) who has come too near and an 'insider' (Fielding) who strayed, leaving "a gap in the line" (192).

So the trial is important. But the scene at the caves is much more directly relevant to my argument here, as the figurative language that describes the caves (especially the echo) is more highly developed.

            The first thing note is that caves are enclosed spaces (like rooms, like houses) that are nevertheless exterior, public spaces. Caves can, for that reason be thought of as spaces that collapse inside/outside and private/public dualities. In these particular caves the absence of signs of human presence is particularly acute: there are no paintings or other decorations or other traces of people (the polish, one speculates, is natural). Unlike interior spaces constructed by people, there is no furniture, no sign of life. When people go to visit the caves, it's as if they're visiting abandoned rooms, ghost rooms, if you will.

            The echo also collapses a duality. On the one hand, it is a distinctly alien effect, a sign that human beings don't belong in the caves. Importantly, the echo is nothing like a mirroring. It does not have structure and it can't be thought of as a response. If anything, the echo in the Marabar caves is more like feeback from an electric amplifier, a distorted and harsh sound that bears little resemblance to the effect that triggers it. The echo no longer has a human shape; it has become a crowd of voices. To use Canetti's language, this crowd of voices that is the echo is an open crowd, in that it seems to multiply itself and feed upon itself as it grows ("[I]f several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which writhe independently" [163]). 

            Given the effect the echo has on Mrs. Moore in particular [165], it may even be more precise to think of the echo as specifically the voices of ghosts inhabiting the caves. It's not only that what people say or do bounces back to them, robbed in this case of any specificity or individuality. More than that, the echo seems to have actively spoken to Mrs. Moore in a way that changes her personality fundamentally: "[T]he echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life" (165). Mrs. Moore is shaken, but not because she merely understands herself better after her experience in the cave. There is also some knowledge that seems to be coming from beyond her own cultural horizon.

            The echo also enters Adela Quested. Unlike Mrs. Moore, whose experience in the cave seems to be largely one of the loss of control in a crowd, Adela enters a cave herself, and even initiates the echo that then begins to create havoc:


'I went into this detestable cave . . . and I remember scratching the wall with my finger-nail, to start the usual echo, and then as I was saying there was this shadow, or sort of shadow, down the entrance tunnel, bottling me up." (214)


Adela's initial experience of the echo is primarily visual rather than aural -- she sees the shadow. Questions that arise from it: is it actually a shadow of a person or is it simply a flickering of light? Could it be her own shadow perhaps? Is it a ghost?

Adela's language is also important here. She describes the "sort of shadow" as "bottling me up." One assumes she's referring to a person blocking the exit to the cave -- but the natural phrasing there would be something more like: bottling up the cave. This particular phrasing of "bottling me up" leads one to think that the shadow in the cave is present in response to none other than Adela herself. Perhaps, to use a Freudian idiom, it is a sign from her unconscious, the return of some traumatic repressed.


            Of course, the primary experience that is repressed in Freud is that of desire itself. It seems relatively safe to say that the caves can be read as signs of sexual desire. And Adela's experience of the Marabar cave certainly seems to follow from a triggering of desire. But how might this relate to crowds? To what extent are Canetti's crowds enable the liberation of desire? Canetti rarely addresses sexuality in his writing.


A speculation on an crowds and eroticism (by way of a conclusion):


The majority of the crowds Canetti describes in his book are dangerous (except perhaps the "domesticated" crowds of modern religions). They have the urgency and volatility of what we, after 1977 would call a mosh-pit. The mosh-pit, where teenagers dance aggressively in close physical contact, may be the closest one has come to the experience of "discharge" Canetti talks about -- complete physical absorption into a mass of bodies. Though it is a desired state, it is generally anti-erotic because it's primary aim is so often violence. [There are of course different kinds of mosh-pits, as many kinds as there are crowds…]

A dance floor (as in night-club, disco, house music) has certain things in common with a mosh-pit, but it is fundamentally different in the respect that its primary aim is, in a broad sense, erotic. This idea of the dancing crowd, or to coin my own term, the "erotic crowd," is one Canetti never mentions (he mentions dancing corn, but never dancing people). Perhaps the reason Canetti doesn't think about dancing as a crowd is the change in the nature of dancing after disco: the increase in tempo, as well as the abandonment of dancing partners (partner dancing has always seemed to me to be a kind of heterosexual absolutism).

Dancing, like slamdancing requires a critical mass of people. Dancing only works if there is a group, preferably a large one, and the lights are low. Smaller groups may also work, but five people dancing is really more exhibitionism than it is a bona fide scene of dancing.