It’s funny how prejudice works against you. I’d always thought of E.M. Forster as a dry and fusty writer, whose period English preoccupations would make reading him prohibitively boring. All I can say is how foolish that was. I recently picked up A Passage to India, driven in large part by the praise found for it in the book on writing, The Sound on the Page, which I have myself praised here.
As billed, the book is extraordinary, as a treatment of hollow bigotry, of the ways in the which the powerful of the world convince themselves of their own nobility, and interestingly, as an aside, has one of the smartest dialogues about the merits of “soft power” I’ve read anywhere, and this of course well before the term was coined. An excerpt, depicting a lawn party at a colonial club to which select ‘colonials’ were convened.
“This isn’t a purdah party,” corrected Miss Quested.
“Oh, really,” was the haughty rejoinder.
“Do, kindly tell us who these ladies are,” asked Mrs. Moore.
“You’re superior to them, anyway. Don’t forget that. You’re superior to every one in India except one of two of the Ranis, and they’re on equality.”
Advancing, she shook hands with the group and said a few words of welcome in Urdu. She had leart the lingo, but only to speak to her servants, so she knew none of the politer formas and of the verbs, only the imperative mood. As soon as her speech was over, she inquired of her companions: “Is that what you wanted?”
“Please tell these ladies that I wish we could speak their language, but we have only just come to their country.”
“Perhaps we speak yours a little,” one of the ladies said.
“Why, fancy, she understands!” said Mrs. Turton.
“Eastbourne, Picadilly, High Park Corner,” said another of the ladies.
“Oh yes, they’re English speaking.”
“But now we can talk: how delightful! ” cried Adela, her face lighting up.
“She knows Paris also,” called one of the onlookers.
“They pass Paris on the way, no doubt,” said Mrs. Turton, as if she was describing the movements of migratory birds. Her manner had grown more distant since she had discovered that some of the group was Westernized, and might apply her own standards to her.