Book Review: A Passage To India

A Passage To India, a play by Martin Sherman

It should be noted that what I read and am reviewing here is a play that is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by E.M. Forster that I have not read.  I am going to assume that the plot is basically the same, but this is a play, and it is a book that I managed to find in the stacks of my local library but that was not in the book’s database.  I chose to read the book because I guessed it had something to say about imperialism, and though the story does not appear to be all that compelling when viewed on its own apart from the somewhat heavily freighted, it is easy to see how the story has become a classic because of the influence of anti-imperialism in contemporary studies.  This book is a clear example of what happens with politics trumps the essential elements of a story, and where a book becomes famous and viewed as a classic without really deserving the honor on its own merits.  As much as I am intrigued by India [1], subject matter alone does not make for a classic work.

This play is a two-act drama of about 100 pages in length, and it is mercifully short, because the plot is wafer thin.  When one is used to reading great plays, reading a play like this one of such mediocre content is more than a bit disappointing.  The plot itself is pretty basic–an idealistic young woman from England goes to India to see if she is going to marry a local Anglo-Indian magistrate there.  She finds herself charmed by her potential future mother-in-law, who wants to escape from conflict and who finds the troubles of British imperialism in India too difficult to honestly face, and is taken on a cave expedition that leads her to think herself attacked by her Indian host, Dr. Aziz, only to realize that she had made a dreadful mistake by falsely accusing him, when the case becomes massively and sensationally political.  A great deal of the discussion is tiresome, focusing on the fact that Adela, or Miss Quested, is supposedly some sort of great prig, as if it mattered, and discussing the snobbery among the British population and their hauteur towards their subjects, as if that made a book more interesting to read.

It would be a great disservice if Forster’s work happened to be a good one, since this play is not a very compelling one to read.  If you do not happen to share the author’s worldview, there is not much to enjoy here, since this play is exceptionally heavy-handed in its approach to imperialism.  Most of the English here are not particularly sympathetic, but that is largely because most of them appeared to have worshiped power and not been very good Christians.  Of all the characters in the play, I think I resemble the somewhat gauche but also sympathetic Adela the most, and the fact that the writer is rather harsh towards her makes me less sympathetic towards him and to his work as a whole.  Dr. Aziz and Mrs. Moore are viewed as somewhat sympathetic characters as well, but for the most part this book is strongly lacking in people worth caring about who behave in ways that are worth giving credit to.  The big points in the book are heavily signposted, and amount to bromides about imperialism being bad and honesty being good and all that.  This is a play that was barely worth reading and would not be worth paying for in a theater.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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