The Failure of Good Intentions: A Passage to India

May 29, 2015

It’s a phrase they teach  that makes no sense on its face.  How can the road to Hell be paved with Good Intentions?  If someone starts a course of action with benevolent goal in mind, the results should be good as well.  Well, history and nature say otherwise.  Sometimes the failure comes from lack of imagination: rabbits were sent to Australia as pets and a possible food source about the same time Kudzu was introduced to the U. S. as an anti-erosion measure.  Both brought the disasters of an invasive species: Australia was forced into biological warfare to keep the rabbit population in check and Kudzu is known as “The Vine that Ate the South.”  Sometimes the well-intentioned element fails because of lesser parts of human nature.  Prohibition was called “The Noble Experiment” with the idea that making booze illegal would make people stop drinking.  Instead, people bought and drank unregulated, untaxed hootch and created a market for organized crime.  Sometimes everyone starts out with the best of intentions and still end up in tragedy. Some people may look to Romeo and Juliet as their choice for this mess but for me, it’s E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

Forster was a student, a writer and something of a civil servant during the time he lived in India.  As an English citizen in a country controlled by Britain, he saw  how fellow Brits behaved o n a very different soil surrounded by people from very different cultures.  As the  private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas, he also got a glimpse of how the British were viewed by the native citizens of India.  Along with the growing issue of British sovereignty,  a monumental clash of language, values and culturescontinually threatened to destabilized Anglo-Indian relations and he put all of that into  A Passage to India.

Two English women, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore are in India to see Ronny Heaslop, a British civil servant stationed in India.  Both women are progressive thinkers who are more interested in learning more about the authentic country and people who live there than socializing with the ex-patriot Brits in the colony.  They make the acquaintance of Dr. Aziz, a warmhearted, Muslim physician who wants to develop real friendships with as many British people as possible.  In an effort to be hospitable, Dr. Aziz takes the ladies to see the comples Marabar Caves.  That visit changes all of their lives.

The atmosphere in the cave distresses Mrs. Moore and she leaves quickly.  Miss Quested asks an unintentionally rude question and Dr. Aziz steps away until he can get his temper under control.  When he returns, Miss Quested is gone and the Doctor searches until he sees her with another British woman, far outside the caves.  Miss Quested runs away and a few house later Dr. Aziz is arrested for sexually assaulting her.

Now remember, these three central characters and Dr. Aziz’s British friend, Mr. Fielding are basically, decent people.  The problem is, they don’t understand each other and many people around them are idiots.  Miss Quested’s initial inability to talk her experience in the caves make Ronnie Heaslop and the bigoted Brits assume something “too awful to talk about” happened there and that Dr. Aziz is the person to blame.  Mrs. Moore is sure of Dr. Aziz’s innocence but the spiritual experience she craved overwhelms her and she doesn’t become the champion he needs.  The remaining community divides by  racial lines with the British defending Miss Quested as a victim of Indian lust and Indian groups shouting that Dr. Aziz is the target of British prejudice.  Even after an act of bravery clears the doctor, the racial lines are drawn and Dr. Aziz realizes he and Mr. Fielding won’t ever really be friends until India achieves her independence.  The problem is not differing ideas or values as much as the lack of parity.  Friendship demands an acceptance of each other as equals and as long as Dr. Aziz remains an lesser citizen in his own country, he can’t enjoy the free exchange of equality available between British citizens.

Forster lived to see the India achieve her independence although he never returned to the country.   That’s surprising because it’s clear that Forster sympathized with the Indians who longed for self-government and predicted they would prevail.  I suppose he was far more “at home” in Britain and that is where he stayed, respectful and distant, for the rest of his life.

So, in the end, is it possible for people from different backgrounds to create a lasting friendship?  Perhaps, if it’s based in equality and built with appreciation and respect. If not, it may be better to  respect someone from a distance than to blunder in with a wealth of good intentions.

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