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Old 08-17-2011, 09:17 PM   #1
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The MobileRead Literary Book Club August 2011 Discussion: A Passage To India

It is now time to discuss our August selection, A Passage To India by E.M. Forster. beppe has volunteered to lead the discussion, and any of you may post your thoughts at any time you like. Anyone is free to join in the discussion. Let us begin!

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Old 08-18-2011, 03:51 AM   #2
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Hi everybody.
This is the first time that I lead a discussion in a Book Club, and all that. A friend suggested me to find some instruction and so I did. The net is indeed the source of knowledge.

To help and facilitate the discussion, I post here some questions for study and discussion that I copied from this site.

But please comment in whichever way you want. Of course. the points below are just possible suggestions.
I put behind a bracket those that I find far from my personal interest, but that could be useful to someone else.

(* What is important about the title?)
* What are the conflicts in A Passage to India? What types of conflict (physical, moral, intellectual, or emotional) are in this novel?
(* How does E.M. Forster reveal character in A Passage to India?
* What are some themes in the story? How do they relate to the plot and characters?
* What are some symbols in A Passage to India? How do they relate to the plot and characters?
( * Is Dr. Aziz consistent in his actions? Is he a fully developed character? How? Why?
* Do you find the characters likable? Would you want to meet the characters?
* Does the story end the way you expected? How? Why?
* What is the central/primary purpose of the story? Is the purpose important or meaningful?
(* How does this novel relate to other modern literature? Is Dr. Aziz a strong character?
(* How essential is the setting to the story? Could the story have taken place anywhere else? In any other time?
* What is the role of women in the text? Is love relevant? Are relationships meaningful?
* How does A Passage to India relate to current politics/society/etc.?
( * Would you recommend this novel to a friend?


I put here my first personal comment on the book.
Introducing The Caves, Forster describes their origin. He wrote in the early twenties, just when the ideas of Plate Tectonics were starting to be developed. Forster description is admirable, both in presition and in evocative power: he gives me the poetic intuition of the giaint subcontinent bound to "muddledom". But mostly I recognize the depth of his thought and the care that he put in writing his last work. Is the Cave origin and destiny a basic symbol?
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Old 08-18-2011, 07:58 AM   #3
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So this is what I had to say as of my write up done last night. I may have additional comments later based on beppe's suggestions.

I loved the quality of writing in this book. How well described the weather (the heat, the humidity, the rain), the landscape and buildings (both the beautiful and the ugly), and the character development.

I also liked the story the author developed, in an attempt to explain and justify the very existence of the British administration in India and the unbridgeable gulf between the native Indians and the Anglo-Indian imports.

The author forces even the most sympathetic British character, Fielding, to admit that he really has no answer to the questions: Why are you British here? What right do you have to be here?

Quote:
“Then excuse me again—is it fair an Englishman should occupy one when Indians are available? Of course I mean nothing personally. Personally we are delighted you should be here, and we benefit greatly by this frank talk.”

There is only one answer to a conversation of this type: “England holds India for her good.” Yet Fielding was disinclined to give it. The zeal for honesty had eaten him up. He said, “I’m delighted to be here too—that’s my answer, there’s my only excuse. I can’t tell you anything about fairness. It mayn’t have been fair I should have been born. I take up some other fellow’s air, don’t I, whenever I breathe? Still, I’m glad it’s happened, and I’m glad I’m out here.

However big a badmash one is—if one’s happy in consequence, that is some justification.”
Then there is the central event of the story, the mystery of just what happened to Miss Quested in the cave. Forster informs us that Aziz was guilty of nothing, and that is all we really need to know. It does no matter if she was assaulted by Aziz's servant, some unknown person, or not at all. The important thing is that she was so ready to believe in Aziz's guilt, and everyone in the Anglo-Indian community, with the exception of Fielding, was immediately eager to believe it as well―what else could you expect from a “nigger.” This Anglo-Indian community immediately turns on her when she admits the truth. The pure racism of the trial actually put me in mind of the trial in To Kill a Mocking Bird.

Even though Fielding never believes in Aziz's guilt in the end he even remains loyal to his kind in at the end of the trial first rushing to support Miss Quested, and later using every trick he can think of to convince Aziz not to seek the compensation he is justly due. As for Miss Quested, she is glad it is over but feels no real guilt for what she has done.


Quote:
She never repined at getting the worst of both worlds; she regarded it as the due punishment of her stupidity. When he hinted to her that a personal apology to Aziz might be seemly, she said sadly: “Of course. I ought to have thought of it myself, my instincts never help me. Why didn’t I rush up to him after the trial? Yes, of course I will write him an apology, but please will you dictate it?” Between them they concocted a letter, sincere, and full of moving phrases, but it was not moving as a letter. “Shall I write another?” she enquired. “Nothing matters if I can undo the harm I have caused. I can do this right, and that right; but when the two are put together they come wrong. That’s the defect of my character. I have never realized it until now. I thought that if I was just and asked questions I would come through every difficulty.” He replied: “Our letter is a failure for a simple reason which we had better face: you have no real affection for Aziz, or Indians generally.” She assented. “The first time I saw you, you were wanting to see India, not Indians, and it occurred to me: Ah, that won’t take us far. Indians know whether they are liked or not—they cannot be fooled here. Justice never satisfies them, and that is why the British Empire rests on sand.”
Finally I consider it rather remarkable prescience that Forster was able to write this in 1924:

Quote:
Aziz grew more excited. He rose in his stirrups and pulled at his horse’s head in the hope it would rear. Then he should feel in a battle. He cried: “Clear out, all you Turtons and Burtons. We wanted to know you ten years back—now it’s too late. If we see you and sit on your committees, it’s for political reasons, don’t you make any mistake.” His horse did rear. “Clear out, clear out, I say. Why are we put to so much suffering? We used to blame you, now we blame ourselves, we grow wiser. Until England is in difficulties we keep silent, but in the next European war—aha, aha! Then is our time.” He paused, and the scenery, though it smiled, fell like a gravestone on any human hope. They cantered past a temple to Hanuman—God so loved the world that he took monkey’s flesh upon him—and past a Saivite temple, which invited to lust, but under the semblance of eternity, its obscenities bearing no relation to those of our flesh and blood. They splashed through butterflies and frogs; great trees with leaves like plates rose among the brushwood. The divisions of daily life were returning, the shrine had almost shut.

“Who do you want instead of the English? The Japanese?” jeered Fielding, drawing rein.
It was in fact WWII and the threat of the Indian independence movement siding with the Japanese that forced Britain to promise independence at the end of the war.

I would also like to mention another book about much the same subject, The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. There is even a similar plot line, an Indian is falsely accused on sexual assault of a Anglo-Indian woman, and this is used to reveal the divide. I found Forster's writing superior to Scott's, but I found The Raj Quartet more informative about the actual history.
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Old 08-18-2011, 08:26 AM   #4
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Briefly, the whole work interfering with my posting life schtick:

Beppe singles out the issue that I find rather offputting from the start, the character of Dr. Aziz. The man is a skilled surgeon, better, we are explicitly told, than his English overlord. And yet when introduced, his character is rather childish and even buffoonish. I cringed at the description of his response to the Major's summons.

Adela, even as we dislike her, doesn't fair much better. Vaporish females are irritating to modern sensibilities. As Hamlet points out, we don't know and it doesn't matter what happened in the cave. However, it's annoying that crux of the book is an unattractive virgin's inability to cope with sensuality/sexuality, to the extent of hallucinating about it.

That said, and I'll have more to say further on, the most salient aspect of the book is the gorgeous prose. It's impossible to read this and not be swept away by the beauty of the descriptions and the nuances of character and conversation. Forster, however open-minded, was still a product of his times, and we see his limitations in the character of Fielding, who clearly is Forster. Tolerant and just and willing to take a stand, he still can't quite transcend his origins.
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Old 08-18-2011, 09:24 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by issybird View Post
the character of Dr. Aziz. The man is a skilled surgeon, better, we are explicitly told, than his English overlord. And yet when introduced, his character is rather childish and even buffoonish. I cringed at the description of his response to the Major's summons.
I think that what annoys a Northener about Aziz character is his emotionality. All Indians are shown as extremely emotional, by Forster. They might be good surgeons, good barristers, good land owners, but they are moved by their emotions and feelings. Of those and of those of their friends, they discuss, in name of those they get involved in cervellotic enterprises. Uncountable episodes in the book. In first place the disaster of the picnic, with all those exaggerations. Kindness is what is often invoked, as the principal remedy to all injustice. Love is next.

Personally, I am rather emotional, although by orders of magnitudes less emotional then Aziz. Most Italians are, maybe a bit less than me. From what I know of British they are much cooler than me, and Scandinavians in comparison icy. I see the over decorated melodrama in the India of Forester and I compare it with Italian melodrama and with the lean lines of Scandinvian design.
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Old 08-18-2011, 09:28 AM   #6
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I have not read this! Looks like I just going to delete it LOL
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Old 08-18-2011, 05:56 PM   #7
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To address some of beppe's points after some time to think them over and put something in writing.

“What is important about the title?”

The idea of a passage (for the English) from the European world they are familiar with (in culture, religion, and race) to the alien world of India is a central theme. In fact twice during the novel this is actually addressed as a physical transition occurring at the Suez Canal.

“What are some themes in the story? How do they relate to the plot and characters?”

A central theme is that the Anglo-English, even though the enjoy being in India, wish to keep themselves apart from the people of India. They look down on them and maintain themselves in a separate club literally and figuratively. The plot implications seem obvious. The same with all the Anglo-English characters except Fielding.

“Do you find the characters likable? Would you want to meet the characters?”

The major Indian characters yes. The Anglo-English characters, with the exception of Fielding, no.

“Does the story end the way you expected? How? Why?”

Yes, except I was surprised at the return of Fielding and his seeming reconciliation with Aziz.

“How essential is the setting to the story? Could the story have taken place anywhere else? In any other time?”

The story could have taken place in any other British colony where an Anglo-English ruling class was imposed on a people that the English considered inferior. I feel the timing between WWI and WWII was important.

“What is the role of women in the text? Is love relevant? Are relationships meaningful?”

Women are important because it is here that the separation is the greatest. The Anglo-English look on their women as genteel 'hot house flowers' that must be shielded from contact with Indians, especially the presumed primitive and rapacious characters of Indian men. Love and relationships are remarkably unimportant by and large if the meaning is between man and woman. Even the relationship between Miss Quested and Mr. Heaslop is weak and easily abandoned.


“Would you recommend this novel to a friend?”

Absolutely.
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Old 08-18-2011, 06:02 PM   #8
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WARNING: if you have not finished the book, there are some spoilers here!

I'm also starting with my first reaction, before thinking a bit more carefully about Beppe's opening questions.

Quote:
Originally Posted by issybird View Post
Briefly, the whole work interfering with my posting life schtick:

Beppe singles out the issue that I find rather offputting from the start, the character of Dr. Aziz. The man is a skilled surgeon, better, we are explicitly told, than his English overlord. And yet when introduced, his character is rather childish and even buffoonish. I cringed at the description of his response to the Major's summons.

Adela, even as we dislike her, doesn't fair much better. Vaporish females are irritating to modern sensibilities. As Hamlet points out, we don't know and it doesn't matter what happened in the cave. However, it's annoying that crux of the book is an unattractive virgin's inability to cope with sensuality/sexuality, to the extent of hallucinating about it.

That said, and I'll have more to say further on, the most salient aspect of the book is the gorgeous prose. It's impossible to read this and not be swept away by the beauty of the descriptions and the nuances of character and conversation. Forster, however open-minded, was still a product of his times, and we see his limitations in the character of Fielding, who clearly is Forster. Tolerant and just and willing to take a stand, he still can't quite transcend his origins.
issybird, I agree with the entirety of your second and third pargraph, and you've said it so well!

More in general the women here felt often more like a narration device than proper character - perhaps I am exagerating, but Adela is almost forgotten of after the trial, and both the change of personality in Mrs Moore as well as her death are rather sudden. These women needed to fade in the background, and in the background they disappear fast.

On Aziz, though, while I personally did not particularly like the character, he did remind me of many personality traits quite common in my native country. The aspect that struck me most is not his being emotional or his propensity to act on instinct - but his relationship with facts and reality. For instance, how Aziz "fills in the details" of Adela's departure from the caves in his conversation with Fielding as if this was a statement of fact reminded so much of my dad that it made me smile: not because there was any intention to deceive, or any hidden agenda, but this was simply a reasoning that made sense, sounded plausible and appeared harmless. It provided a coherent way of filling the uncomfortable gaps in Adela's sudden and rude disappearance, and in the end this became reality in Aziz's mind. And in normal circumstances I am sure Aziz would have accepted an alternative if this had been provided later e.g. by Adela, not thinking for another second about having provided Fielding with a load of made up rubbish! (by the way, this type of attitude is precisely what drives me crazy when I visit Italy

Though as a non native speaker I found the prose at time very challenging, it was really beautiful.

For me the plot lost some steam (and coherence) after the climax of the trial's collapse, but in a sense the plot was really secondary to the arguments on colonialism, and I really enjoied this book!


p.s.
The "Turtons and Burtons" quoted above by Hamlet reminded me of Dickens Moodle and Boodle!
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Old 08-18-2011, 06:32 PM   #9
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I would like to offer a general comment on the theme. It isn't original with me but is a comment on Forster in general by the brilliant {but rather tendentious} Cambridge literary critic F.R.Leavis. He focuses on a specific conflict in Forster which seems to make a great deal of sense in the novel. Here is what he says:

"Pre-eminently a novelist of civilized personal relations, he has at the same time a radical dissatisfaction with civilization--"

Don't we see this in Passage to India? Both the Indians and the British have what they think is a deeply civilized behaviour pattern. Yet, there is a nearly unbridgeable gap of communication between them. And IMO I think that Forster is consciously rejecting the Imperialistic tradition, "civilization", of the latter for the deeper humanity and "civilized personal relations" of Aziz.
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Old 08-18-2011, 08:22 PM   #10
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I'm afraid my comments are going to continue to be scattershot and not organized.

Beppe's and paola's comfort with Aziz has me examining my reaction to him. Is my discomfort with him a product of Forster's prejudices or my own? I don't have the answer to this. To what extent are ethnic differences innate and to what extent learned? These are questions of particular interest to an American. As Americans, we (as James Baldwin among others have said) have much more in common with each other than any other nationality. And yet, many Americans feel influenced by their ethnic background--even though, as we become increasingly mongrelized, it becomes almost a matter of choice. Which strain do we choose?

OK, trying to get back on track here. It occurs to me that Aziz also has a "passage to India" when he chooses to leave British India to live in a native state, and in the process abandons science for more traditional medicine, which might be more in tune with his personality. The irony is that as a Muslim, he is also an outsider in a native state, while in Chandrapore he lived among a community of his co-religionists. Moreover, with hindsight (vouchsafed to Forster when he wrote the novel), we know he most likely has another passage ahead of him in roughly 25 years--a passage to Pakistan, at the time of partition.

I got sidetracked there.
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Old 08-18-2011, 09:30 PM   #11
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Originally Posted by issybird View Post

OK, trying to get back on track here. It occurs to me that Aziz also has a "passage to India" when he chooses to leave British India to live in a native state, and in the process abandons science for more traditional medicine, which might be more in tune with his personality. The irony is that as a Muslim, he is also an outsider in a native state, while in Chandrapore he lived among a community of his co-religionists. Moreover, with hindsight (vouchsafed to Forster when he wrote the novel), we know he most likely has another passage ahead of him in roughly 25 years--a passage to Pakistan, at the time of partition.
Interesting point. Especially given Aziz's own prejudice against Hindu Indians. That and through out the novel Aziz's idea for independence is not just the departure of the British but the restoration of the Mughal Empire. It is not just the British rule that Aziz feels must be removed in order to restore his India, but the Mughal/Islamic domination must be restored.
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Old 08-19-2011, 04:07 AM   #12
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Beautiful comment, all of them.
At this point I want to add my little own on the women issue, as Paola and Hamle53 both touch this point.

paola
More in general the women here felt often more like a narration device than proper character - perhaps I am exagerating, but Adela is almost forgotten of after the trial, and both the change of personality in Mrs Moore as well as her death are rather sudden. These women needed to fade in the background, and in the background they disappear fast.

Hamlet53
Women are important because it is here that the separation is the greatest. The Anglo-English look on their women as genteel 'hot house flowers' that must be shielded from contact with Indians, especially the presumed primitive and rapacious characters of Indian men. Love and relationships are remarkably unimportant by and large if the meaning is between man and woman. Even the relationship between Miss Quested and Mr. Heaslop is weak and easily abandoned.


Forster has 4.5 characters well developed in the book. Mrs Moore, Adela, Aziz and Fielding. The half one is the Hindu singer, professor and chief mystic Prof Godbole, that merits a space by himself and on whom I'll return.So let's forget him for the moment and think of 4 well developed character.

The 4 characters have an intense spiritual life, at difference from the others, that are heavy with "business", like Rodney.

Mrs Moore is one of the pillars of the book's drama. maybe I should say flow rather than pillar. Many critical events turn around her. She is even made into a goddess. She, in the mind of Aziz, is the true friend, total and unconditioned, instinctive, that has never failed his expectations. She is the one more touched by the passage to India, her change is to me one of the most significant meaning of the book. The passage to nothingness.

Adela is a paradigm of honesty, together with Fielding. It is searching the true truth in herself that weakens her defences and makes her resonate with the voice of nothingness, the worm, in the cave. She, like Fielding, travels light, and is ready to put everything in discussion, to be true. Very admirable character. I would like to have a friend like that. I actually have. Her final talk with Fielding in the college, when they recognize that they like each other, quietly, simply, is one of the marvelous pages of the book. (modest and personal opinion)

So I think that women share at least half of the high characters in the book.
An other little thought on the title. I think that it also refers to Forster himself that was much touched by his personal experience there.
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Old 08-19-2011, 11:53 AM   #13
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I really enjoyed reading this book. I haven't posted till now because I am still mulling it over in my head.

One of my main problems with the book is that I was so angry with Fielding for standing by Adela after the trial and making Aziz give up the compenstaion. It felt like such a betrayal of his friendship with Aziz. After letting that sit in my hed for a while I came to the conclusion that he couldn't do otherwise. Fielding lives outside of the mainstream society and has a sympathy/empathy for others who are outside the norm and a little lost. He doesn't and can't limit this empathy to just one person. The same strain in his character that enables him to truly like and defend Aziz enables him to see Adela as honest if flawed person and defend her as well. From Aziz's point of view it is a betrayal, but as a reader I can see how it is the only reaction Fielding can have.
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Old 08-19-2011, 05:33 PM   #14
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I would like to offer a general comment on the theme. It isn't original with me but is a comment on Forster in general by the brilliant {but rather tendentious} Cambridge literary critic F.R.Leavis. He focuses on a specific conflict in Forster which seems to make a great deal of sense in the novel. Here is what he says:

"Pre-eminently a novelist of civilized personal relations, he has at the same time a radical dissatisfaction with civilization--"

Don't we see this in Passage to India? Both the Indians and the British have what they think is a deeply civilized behaviour pattern. Yet, there is a nearly unbridgeable gap of communication between them. And IMO I think that Forster is consciously rejecting the Imperialistic tradition, "civilization", of the latter for the deeper humanity and "civilized personal relations" of Aziz.
A very interesting and stimulating point.

There is no doubt that the general mood of the book that we are discussing is pessimistic about who populates it, maybe with the exception of the Professor and the "god" that moves the fan in the court, both lost in their own world, at the opposite ends of consciousness.

It is my impression that Forster "rejects" both the British and the Indians. That is, he makes fun of them. He exposes the British in their rigid and stern defense of an adventageous position and of the appearances they mantain. He also exposes the intricacies of the Indians' personal relations, affected as they are, by caste, religion and origins, with an emotional tint that borders on hysterics.

He does not spend much words about the British, treating them as charicatures: the intended readers knew everything about themselves.He spend most of his words with the Indians, with pieces of conversation that are as hylarious as the British skits.

Actually the characters that more attract me are British. I find Aziz pathetic in his self centered generosity that at the first disappointment becomes delirious jelousy and forces him to reject his friend, to mantain the high opinion of himself. The original sin of Fielding is to take care of the safety of Adela instead of accompanying him in his triumph.Fielding is ready to die there. Aziz, so keen in pleasing and so attentive to the most subtle nuances, he does not understand nothing, except his glorious victory and the vengeance.

He wants women to be free, oh yes, in his poems, but not in his house and not around him. An hipocrite, that is how Forster describes Aziz, slave of his passions, that become high only for a brief instant when he tries to remember is wife. But immediately he uses that bitter sweet emotion for self indulgence. Later he sacrifies her memory for a jest, when he shows the picture to Fielding. I think he is a miserable.

The gap that you mention is very interesting and important. I have comments for it but I will post them further on in the discussion.
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Old 08-20-2011, 05:04 AM   #15
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A very interesting and stimulating point.

There is no doubt that the general mood of the book that we are discussing is pessimistic about who populates it, maybe with the exception of the Professor and the "god" that moves the fan in the court, both lost in their own world, at the opposite ends of consciousness.

It is my impression that Forster "rejects" both the British and the Indians. That is, he makes fun of them. He exposes the British in their rigid and stern defense of an adventageous position and of the appearances they mantain. He also exposes the intricacies of the Indians' personal relations, affected as they are, by caste, religion and origins, with an emotional tint that borders on hysterics.

He does not spend much words about the British, treating them as charicatures: the intended readers knew everything about themselves.He spend most of his words with the Indians, with pieces of conversation that are as hylarious as the British skits.

Actually the characters that more attract me are British. I find Aziz pathetic in his self centered generosity that at the first disappointment becomes delirious jelousy and forces him to reject his friend, to mantain the high opinion of himself. The original sin of Fielding is to take care of the safety of Adela instead of accompanying him in his triumph.Fielding is ready to die there. Aziz, so keen in pleasing and so attentive to the most subtle nuances, he does not understand nothing, except his glorious victory and the vengeance.

He wants women to be free, oh yes, in his poems, but not in his house and not around him. An hipocrite, that is how Forster describes Aziz, slave of his passions, that become high only for a brief instant when he tries to remember is wife. But immediately he uses that bitter sweet emotion for self indulgence. Later he sacrifies her memory for a jest, when he shows the picture to Fielding. I think he is a miserable.

The gap that you mention is very interesting and important. I have comments for it but I will post them further on in the discussion.
You make a good argument for the view that Forster really satirizes both the British and the Indian systems. I hadn't quite thought about it that way--primarily because of the racism shown by some of the British. Thus, early on, I quickly developed an empathy for Aziz because he was undervalued and dismissed as inferior by racist, stupid bureaucrats to whom he was clearly superior intellectually and professionally. I was moved by his love for his dead wife and the value he put on friendship. At the same time, the comments you make indicate that perhaps I need to look at his character {and it is a very complex one} more objectively.
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