A Passage to India by E.M. Forster


"Professor Godbole had never mentioned an echo; it never impressed him, perhaps. There are some exquisite echoes in India; there is the whisper round the dome at Bijapur; there are the long, solid sentences that voyage through the air at Mandu, and return unbroken to their creator. The echo in Marabar cave is not like these, it is entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof" (147).

"The more she thought over it, the more disagreeable and frightening it became. She minded it much more now than at the time. The crush and smells she could forget, but the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur 'Pathos, piety, courage-they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.' If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same-'ou-boum.' If one had spoken with the tongues of angels and pleaded for all the unhappiness and misunderstanding in the world, past, present, and to come, for all the misery men must undergo whatever their opinion and position, and however much they dodge and bluff-it would amount to the same, the serpent would descend and return to the ceiling" (149-50).


One of the major themes of E. M. Forster's novel A Passage to India is cultural misunderstanding. Differing cultural ideas and expectations regarding hospitality, social proprieties, and the role of religion in daily life are responsible for misunderstandings between the English and the Muslim Indians, the English and the Hindu Indians, and between the Muslims and Hindus. Aziz tells Fielding at the end of the novel, "It is useless discussing Hindus with me. Living with them teaches me no more. When I think I annoy them, I do not. When I think I don't annoy them, I do" (319). Forster demonstrates how these repeated misunderstandings become hardened into cultural stereotypes and are often used to justify the uselessness of attempts to bridge cultural gulfs. When Aziz offers his collar stud to Fielding in an 'effusive' act of friendship, Heaslop later misinterprets Aziz's missing stud as an oversight and extends it as a general example: "...there you have the Indian all over: inattention to detail; the fundamental slackness that reveals the race" (82). Cultural misunderstanding culminates in the experience at the Marabar Caves and one thing this episode seems to reveal is how much cultural misunderstanding, especially of the Indian by the British, is deliberate, even necessary. If the British were to really try to understand the Indian, the cultural barriers might weaken and the British might begin to see their equal humanity and this of course would make the British role as conquering ruler more difficult.

This is why Mrs. Moore is so revered by Aziz and the other Indians. She is too new a visitor to have become hardened, not having been there the six months Aziz and his friends agree are required for English ladies, and she still treats the Indians as people. She never advocates British withdrawal but she doesn't understand why they can't be more 'pleasant' to the natives. Perhaps there is a clue to answering this question in the experience Mrs. Moore has at the Caves.

The Marabar Caves and their 'echo' are complex symbols that seem to work on a number of levels and some of these levels are revealed in the way they affect Mrs. Moore. The echo of the Caves essentially stays with her "and began...to undermine her hold on life" (149) and she eventually loses her idealism and her faith because the echo reveals their limitations. In representing the British colonialist at her best, even Mrs. Moore is dwarfed by the essential indifference of India, an indifference born of a history stretching back to antiquity. In the end, with all their best sentiments and illusions of superiority, India will remember the British as just another short-lived conqueror. The Caves are dark and empty, signifying nothing in themselves but impersonal eternity, yet the polished walls reflect the visitor's image and the echo becomes the echo of one's limitations. Perhaps this is why those British who have been in India for years cannot be pleasant, must keep the Indian at a distance, must stay clumped together like a "herd," why intimacy with the Indians always brings problems. Not only would it make the job of ruling more difficult, cultural and social intercourse might reveal the limitations of the British colonizers and thus the Empire. The British rule of India might ultimately be futile and simply echo back to Britain her illusions, her fears, and her smallness and leave India untouched.

© 1995 Shirley Galloway

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