Passage to India is fundamentally a book about power. The illustrative dynamic here lies between Doctor Aziz and Cyril Fielding, whose relationship defines much of the novel. Aziz is an Indian physician, while Fielding is a teacher and Englishman. Through their interactions, Forster explores the relationship between the Indians and the English under the British Raj. Their differences are immediately apparent; when Aziz mentions the possibility of Fielding losing his job, Fielding fails to show much concern, concluding that he will find some way to survive it. Aziz marvels. “So this was why Mr. Fielding and a few others were so fearless! They had nothing to lose” (121). This is phrase is more significant than Aziz understands at the time. Fielding and the English can afford to be laissez-faire, can afford to be careless, precisely because they are in a situation of significant advantage over the Indians. They have more power in the legal system, they have more wealth, they have more social advantage. And so, in the first pages of the novel, Forster sets up the question to which he will dedicate the rest to answering: can an Indian person and an English person be friends?
The question begs a prior one. What is friendship, between oppressor and oppressed? The very idea seems to imply that both participants are on somewhat even social ground. A relationship where one feels indebted to or maligned by the other, even indirectly, does not a healthy friendship make. One would not consider the relationship between an employer and employee “friendship,” although one could characterize it as “friendly.” The question of free will arises in any situation where the social positions are unequal. It becomes nearly impossible to separate the power that one person holds over the other from the way they interact with each other, and the degree of influence that both exercise over each other. But the conclusion of that line of thought seems to be that people of different social stations, be those stations defined by race or class or gender, can never be friends.
This would not seem a satisfactory answer, in a multicultural society, and indeed it is not. Putting aside the natural consequences of such kinds of segregation (which has always, historically, served the interests of the privileged group, not the oppressed), it does not reflect the reality of how structural power works. Oppression is not itself a linear organization of power structures. Oppression is a matrix of interlocking forces, both social and institutional, which define the privileges and disadvantages of people in society. The suffering of Indian people under British colonial rule stemmed from a plethora of factors, including legally instituted restrictions on Indian rights, economic disadvantages, and, of course, the social prejudices of the day, including both the caste system and the blanket racism of white colonizers. How does one organize these factors in a neat, tidy hierarchy? How, for example, does a wealthy Indian person compare to an impoverished one? What of the relationships between white women and white men, a distinct relationship that — while invoking no question of racism — invokes one instead of misogyny? As we expand our grasp of what constitutes a structural imbalance between two people, the number of individuals with whom one can interact without creating some kind of imbalanced relationship becomes increasingly small. Further, racism and sexism tend to be incomparable because their impacts are only similar when understood through the broadest, most abstract of strokes. White women experience drastically different forms of discrimination than do Indian men, and Indian women experience a unique interstice of both kinds of prejudice. Oppression defies linear understanding.
Power dynamics exist in everything. Wealth, race, gender, nationality, religion; all define our relationships to each other in intricate and innumerable ways. The argument presented by Forster appears, at first glance, to be that the size of the power imbalance between Aziz and Fielding (and, insofar as they illustrate a broader social concept, the Indian population and the English) prevents them from ever being real comrades. This is is not precisely accurate. The reason that Aziz and Fielding cannot be friends is not, in fact, that Aziz is Indian and Fielding is English. Nor is it the shadow of British colonialism hanging over their relationship, although that arguably presents the foundation of the real problem. The reason is that Fielding refuses to acknowledge the consequences of their respective positions.
Granted, he is aware that they are not the same race. He is even aware of the extent to which their respective races affect their treatment under the British Raj. But despite understanding that, Fielding does not reach Aziz’s conclusion: that the British ought to be ousted from India. In fact, Fielding’s attitude towards India’s state as a nation can be most charitably described as benign passivity. “Fielding had ‘no further use for politeness,’ he said,” Forster notes, “meaning that the British Empire really can’t be abolished because it’s rude” (320). When Aziz enthuses about the idea of a free India, Fielding mocks him: “‘Who do you want instead of the English? The Japanese?’ jeered Fielding, drawing rein” (321). This is Fielding’s vice. Pacifism in the face of injustice, a willingness to allow malignant structures of power to remain in the name of maintaining the status quo, prevents him from ever really being a friend to Aziz, and Aziz recognizes this. Friends want what is good for each other. Fielding’s prejudice prevents him from understanding what is good for Aziz, and what is good for India. That he cannot and will not respect the right of Indian people to political self-determination means he cannot be a friend to any Indian person, nor can any other English person who shares his beliefs. Fielding believes in justice, abstractly — he believes in fair treatment for Aziz, abstractly — but he is unwilling to do anything that might actually disrupt the institutional power of people like him over people like Aziz. And as long as that institution exists, Fielding’s refusal to disavow it makes his relationship to Aziz necessarily unequal, as he refuses to relinquish the power he holds.
Fielding could not be anything except what he was: a British man in India, granted the life he had by dent of British colonial rule. He could not himself dissolve the British Raj, or make himself not an Englishman, or do anything else that would substantially rid himself of the power he wields over Aziz. But he could use it as an instrument of aid. He could join Aziz in condemning British colonialism, or better still, attempt to help alleviate some of the institutional structures, like an unfair legal system, which had resulted in Aziz’s unfair treatment in the first place. His refusal to do so plants the irremovable wedge between himself and Aziz, and his naïve misunderstanding of this fact — “‘Why can’t we be friends now?’ said [Fielding], holding him affectionately. ‘It’s what I want. It’s what you want'” (322) — condemns any chance their friendship had. Fielding, like many, refuses to engage with the unspoken rules that govern his society, and thus damns himself and others to suffer from them.
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