This is a horror novel that when it gets right down to it is pretty scary because of how subtle the actual terrifying moments of it are. It’s very much like being in a black room and a tiny amount of light slightly unveils the horrors in the room and even if your image of them are unclear and the immediate danger isn’t fully realized, it’s all the scarier. In addition, the mix of real world scary and fantasy scary intermix in convincing ways.
The novel involves an American poet in his late 30s or early 40s being sent a manuscript of a poem purportedly written by a long-dead Indian poet. He doesn’t have any particular expertise in this poet, but his wife is from India, and this seems to be the connection, at least early on. He turns this event into a magazine article and he is sent to Calcutta to investigate and receive the remaining papers (apparently some 500 pages of documents). He, his wife, and their infant daughter go to India. When he’s there, he’s passed around a group of intellectuals/social elite who give him bits of information, rumors, ideas, things to talk about it, and weird warnings. As he gets closer to receiving the document, weird stories and weird events start to darken the assignment. I won’t give any more of the plot.
So obviously a white American writer with no real ties to India that I can find writing about India is a little fraught. To his credit (I couldn’t ever say he nailed it), he does present his narrator in a complicated light who is horrified by Calcutta in particular, but definitely India in general, and at the same time, he gets called out on this later by an Indian official who says he’s merely showing one of the two ways people react to the realities of India who aren’t part of it — to fetishize it as exotic, or to be repulsed by it as barbaric. While this isn’t the final word on the matter, and certainly doesn’t speak to the novel as a whole, it provides a much more nuanced and curious approach to the idea of representation in the novel. In addition to this, Americans have a weird, almost entirely undefined relationship with India, especially pre-NAFTA — and for this novel, even pre-The Simpsons. The “Passage to India” in the novel by Forster partly involved a way of understanding that is simply, we clearly realize by the end, impossible because of the power dynamics and the cultural differences. Americans need a “Passage to Passage to India” in that we don’t have the same kind of history and relationship with India that Britain did, and while we might say we do have that in parts of the Middle East or Vietnam or Central America, we don’t here. In 1985, when this came out, Gandhi as a person and the movie, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are probably closest most Americans came to knowing ANYTHING about India, let alone it’s complicated history, social structure, the myriad of cultures and ethnicities and languages. So presenting a character who should be more able or more present does allow Americans a little access, but it’s so clear that our narrator cannot, can never understand where and how he has ended up in the situations he finds himself here. So while I think the portrayals of Indian are certainly not unproblematic (they are) they are partly fed through the lens of the narrator’s inability to make sense of what he’s looking at.