CBR14Bingo – Hot – I am calling this hot because of all the times the English characters complain about the heat. “Hot” being entirely relative of course, and the main thrust of the book about the English failure to recognize the interiority of the Indian characters. In addition, the heat plays an important role in the novel throughout leading to specific events that tell us about the different characters, but also acts as a kind of metaphor of how the British Raj specifically tried to colonialize even the weather.
The novel was first published in the mid 1920s, and occupies a space a little earlier than that, but not that much. This means that Forster is writing before Gandhi for the most part and certainly before the later thrust of the Indian nationalist movement. The novel begins with a discussion of the setting, Chandrapore, where nothing much happens. The novel has one of the best opening lines, not for pure power, for deceptive irony that truly colors the rest of the book: “Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.” The irony of course is that the Marabar caves provide the locus of the most important and consequential events in the whole novel.
We start with two scenes that paint the thematic motifs of the story. In one, Mrs Moore, an older woman whose son in a colonial official, walks into a mosque and is immediately scolded by Dr Aziz for wearing her shoes. She points out that she did actually take off her shoes and he apologizes for jumping to conclusions because most non-Muslims do not respect the rules. They talk and through sorting through the misunderstanding form the beginning of an important friendship. A second scene involves Aziz as mostly an observer as a group of Chandrapore locals discuss the impossibility of being friends with the English. Also at play in this scene is the significant differences of class, ethnicity, and religion among the men having the discussion and how these difference color their different attitudes.
From here the novel introduces the rest of the cast. The early part of the novel gives way to local politics and the local English social scene, and centers around the question of whether Ronnie Heaslop, Mrs Moore’s son (she has had two marriages) will become engaged with Adele Quested, a English woman visiting India to also settle this question. If you’re already starting to notice some careful naming, yes. This leads to the centerpiece of the whole novel, a trip to the Marabar Caves set up by Aziz where Adele and Mrs Moore and a few others will visit the caves and have a picnic. The caves are notable for being sacred to the locals, but also for being kind of consistently repetitive and unremarkable from one cave to the next. This expectation that the caves speak something important to the English, other than being of local interest, is one of the constant themes in the book. The idea that colonial spaces are meant to be exotic and entertaining, instead of simply places where people live and lives happen. In the caves, Adele becomes disoriented and in her confusion gets spun around and her field glasses break. She flees from the cave and crashed into a patch of cactuses, where she is injured. Dr Aziz finds her glasses and pockets them. In the aftermath, Adele tells Ronnie that she believes that Aziz attacked her in the cave (never touching her, but making some kind of sexual advance). She is believed and the glasses being in his possession form the basis for his arrest. The rest of the novel deals with the trial and aftermath. The novel is mostly ambiguous about the caves incident, but there’s not really much reason to think Dr Aziz attacked her. Dr Aziz also finds another friend in Fielding, an English schoolmaster, who is middle-aged but newly arrived to India. The idea here is that he is old enough to be wise, not too influenced one way or the other by having been in India too long, and becomes a kind of rational outsider.
The novel is not without its criticisms, but it’s one of those novels that I read when I was in college that just hit me as a kind of masterpiece that I loved and felt proud for having “got it” to whatever extent that I did.