“Imagine, then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar gardens an idea of immensity, of distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of standing where a lane ended and cultivation began: a different landscape but also in the alluvial plain between the mountains of the north and the plateau of the south.”
The beginning of A Passage to India begins with an ironic statement about how little importance the Mirabar Caves are to the surrounding area. Here, a book in which A Passage to India looms large, begins with a comment about a place called the Bibghar gardens. In the Forster novel, there’s a real ambiguity about what happens in the caves, if anything, and how the people surrounding the event have to live with all possibilities. Here, we know what has happened, a rape, and to whom, but not who was involved (or rather, because multiple people were involved, whether a certain person was).
But like A Passage to India, while this is the central event in the story, it’s not actually the central plot point. What I mean by this is that it’s the heart of the novel, but so much more is happening here, and so much bigger things are happening, that the novels needs this focal point to balance the rest.
We are in the British Raj in the early 1940s and the fear of the colonial officials is that Gandhi is possibly agitating for Japanese support of India. This is vexing to the colonial figures for several reasons. One, pure resentment and a sense of foul play. Two, this would allow Japan to access to the west edges of British rule. Three, this would mean the British could not use India as a backstop and airfield if they have to fight Japan. Four, this would mean that India would certainly be free of Britain one way or the other immediately. This too is the backdrop of the novel, because we have several different narrative threads happening.
We have a triangle among Daphne Manners (who will be assaulted in the garden early in the novel), Ronald Merrick, a police official who thinks he’s in love with her, and Hari Kumar, who is friends with Ms Manners and was present (and later accused of) at the scene in the gardens. We also have Lady Chatterjee, an Indian/British woman who acts as a kind of liaison narratively to upper crust Indian society, Edwina Crane, a middle-aged teacher who narrowly avoids her own assault early in the novel, the writing of Kumar himself and his family history, and other figures that circle specifically around the Raj. This is one of those novels (series) that I will recommend to a willing person, but otherwise won’t because of how divisive it can be.