Courtesy: Sameer Pandya
"This Is Uncomfortable" Newsletter

Author Sameer Pandya on how race and class shape our stories

Hannah Harris Green and Tony Wagner May 31, 2024
Courtesy: Sameer Pandya

“A Passage to India,” the last novel E.M. Forster published during his lifetime, turns 100 years old this year.

If you’ve read the novel, which is in the public domain, you know how its depictions of India at the twilight of British rule can give you whiplash. At one moment, you’re surprised at how incisively Forster mocks his countrymen’s racism, commentary that feels relevant even today. Elsewhere, the book seems to reinforce stereotypes.

The friendship at the novel’s center is contradictory too. Aziz is an Indian doctor who resents the British Empire. And yet, he feels an instant connection to Cyril Fielding, the British principal of the government college. Aziz thinks he’s met his first true British friend. 

When a visitor from Britain mistakenly accuses Aziz of assaulting her, the British imperial court system is eager to believe its countrywoman. Fielding comes to Aziz’s defense, risking his own career and social life in the process.

The novel asks the question: Can a colonizer truly be friends with one of his subjects? Financial differences are a barrier to Aziz and Fielding’s friendship throughout the novel. We discussed those themes with Sameer Pandya, who wrote about his own complex relationship with “A Passage to India” in The Los Angeles Review of Books. Pandya, an author himself, explored race and class in his novel, “Members Only.

Here are edited excerpts of our conversation with Pandya. 

TIU: Thank you for taking the time to do this. I really enjoyed your essay. For folks who haven’t read it, could you briefly describe your relationship with “A Passage to India”?

Sameer Pandya: Thank you for inviting me, and I appreciate your thoughts about the essay. In the early ‘80s, my family just migrated to America, and I think the two earliest movies that we saw were “Gandhi” and “A Passage to India,” the David Lean adaptation, because we were just like, “Oh look, Indians on an American screen!” It’s a little bit of a wacky film, I hadn’t read the novel until I got to graduate school. Over the years, I had read the book, taught it, thought about it. As with anything, you read books over and over again and your relationship to them changes.

And so it happened to be that I was making this trip back to India, and I had this idea to kind of reengage with the book and rethink the book on my own. In the time between, I was trying to become a literary critic, and my career shifted. My primary writing now is as a novelist. And so when I reread it, I was reading it less as a critic and more as a writer in thinking about the kinds of things that Forster’s trying to do in the novel.

TIU: Do you feel like you’re more critical looking at it as a critic? Or as a writer?

Pandya: I think as a critic, I am far more critical of the book. As a writer, I am dazzled by what Forster does. The movement that he makes from one point of view to another, the ways in which he kind of constructs a novel in a particular kind of way. So there are things that I was taught to do as a critic that in some ways I’m trying to unteach myself, as I’m trying to appreciate the craft of what Forster’s accomplishing. Alas, I can’t really separate the two, right? So what is for me a dazzling reading experience is to know what is troubling about what Forster’s doing, and yet to be engaged in what he is doing at the same time. In some ways, for me, that’s the best kind of reading — that I can critique and be dazzled all at the same time.

TIU: That totally makes sense. I have similar feelings about that — not that I’m a novelist, but I think it’s an amazing read. At the same time, there’s lots of stuff in there that you’re just like, “What? Why do it like this?” I’m curious what you find troubling, though.

Pandya: So, you know, when the novel was published in 1924, the British Empire is beginning to show its cracks, right? Forster, as a particular kind of member of this empire, recognizes those cracks and tries to engage with them, tries to engage with a larger conversation about the limits of British presence in the Indian subcontinent. What has always troubled me about it the way Forster is engaging with Cyril Fielding, who is his kind of British protagonist. He has a certain kind of novelistic love of that character, the ways in which he gets into his interiority, gives us the complexity of what Fielding is thinking about trying to do. There’s a great distinction Forster makes between round characters and flat characters — round characters are characters who are capable of change from the beginning of a novel to the end of the novel. Fielding is exactly that. Aziz, on the other hand — I feel like he treats Aziz as kind of an ethnographer. Where he treats Fielding as a kind of a subject of a novel, he treats Aziz like he is a subject that he is trying to figure out, and it’s that distinction that I’ve always found interesting. 

📚 Our next Uncomfortable Book Club pick 📚

In two weeks, we’ll talk with Hilary Leichter about her novel, “Temporary,” which is available wherever you get books. Leichter’s hilarious, surreal debut follows an unnamed temp worker enduring a series of bizarre assignments, so we talked about how our identities get tied up in work … even if the job is pirating!

TIU: This idea comes up a few times throughout the book of “educated Indians” and how they’re distinct. What do you make of that?

Pandya: Yeah, I think that’s one of the more interesting points. Roughly 90 years before this novel comes out, there’s this very famous “Minute on Indian Education” by this guy Thomas Macaulay. He was originally a historian of ancient Rome who had been basically kind of brought in to think about setting up an education system in India. The “Minute,” in essence, created schools where Indians would be educated in Western values and intellect, as opposed to Eastern values and intellect. In some ways, the government college that Fielding runs is an example of this kind of system of education that gets set up in India.

The assumption with the “educated Indian” is that he or she, mostly he, is the intermediary between the small percentage of British that are in India and the millions of Indians that they rule. And the idea behind the colonial education system is that if you just educated a set of Indians in kind of proper British values and morals, it will trickle down to the rest of the country. So I think there’s such an obsession with this notion of “the educated Indian.” And so Aziz is that person, right? Aziz has been trained in a Western tradition of medicine.

TIU: That makes sense. It’s one of those things where I can’t really figure out what Forster’s view on that is, the idea that Indians need to be educated for their own good, partly so that they can communicate better with British people.

Pandya: I think that’s always kind of the Forster mystery. I do think ultimately, the novel is critiquing the structure of empire, but as Fielding says, “I like being here.” Meaning that he’s not completely asking for its immediate dismantling. Fielding likes the life that it has given him. I don’t think he’s comfortable being in England. He arrives in India in his early 40s and is quite happy to be there.

From the Uncomfortable archives: A very different conversation about a very different friendship!

The Comfort Zone

What our team is into this week.

This newsletter was written by Hannah Harris Green and Tony Wagner and edited by Virginia K. Smith and Zoë Saunders.

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