With Alec Ash of Five Books, Buruma tagged five top books with Western perspectives of Asia, including:
Moving to India, will you introduce EM Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India for us?Read about the other books Buruma tagged at Five Books.
It’s about the friendship – in the end thwarted by the colonial situation – between an English teacher living in India and his Indian friend. Friendship is about relating to one another as equals, and as long as colonial rule existed, an Indian and an Englishman could not do that, so their friendship was impossible. That’s the underlying theme. Its description of India – not only of the landscape but of the relations between Indians and Europeans – makes it one of the great colonial novels. There are also subplots with ladies discovering their own sexuality, playing off the theme of the sensuousness of the East.
What portrait does it paint of Britain’s influence on India?
One of the novel’s strengths is that it’s not polemical. It’s very clear that Forster disapproved of colonial rule, but he doesn’t paint a caricature of brutal Brits and Indian victims. It’s much more subtle than that. The character of Cyril Fielding, the young Englishman full of goodwill, is true to life in that a lot of British people in India at the time did a lot of good – but in the end it was the system that was the problem.
Do you feel Britain still has a special connection to India today? Or is the star of Korea, Japan and China rising faster?
Yes, I think it is. Those other countries are much more plugged into a global youth culture than India is. I think people in their twenties have probably been much more exposed to Chinese, Japanese and Korean popular culture than to Indian culture. The closest most people in Britain get to India today is having a curry or watching the cricket. Japanese anime or Korean pop music is better known even than Bollywood films.
A Passage to India also appears among John Mullan's ten most memorable court scenes in literature and ten best caves in literature, and Antonya Nelson's five most essential books.