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The Cosmopolitan and the Colonial

Pukka English and the Language of the Other in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India

Du mot de passe « pukka » à la voix de l’ailleurs : l’inscription du langage de l’autre dans A Passage to India
Catherine Lanone


A Passage to India s’écarte à la fois de la stratégie de Conrad, qui fait du mot étranger un point névralgique du texte suggérant le malaise éthique, et de celle de Kipling qui tisse avec délice les signifiants indiens au sein de son texte. Se défiant des emprunts, Forster préfère mettre en lumière la façon dont les Anglais du Raj s’emparent de signifiants-clé pour les détourner et en faire un gage de supériorité. La voix sourde des grottes vient faire basculer le texte vers l’ailleurs et le néant, miner les certitudes et propager l’erreur. C’est alors que le signifiant étranger vient faire retour dans le texte par le biais de chants et d’incantations qui sont autant de manières d’inscrire dans le texte la parole et la culture de l’Autre. Le mot étranger fonctionne alors comme cellule rythmique et poche de résistance, échappant à la doxa pour s’ouvrir à la polyphonie.

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1In his early novels, Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View, E. M. Forster plays on the contrast between Italy and England. Modeled on San Gimignano with its myriad of towers, Forster’s Monteriano is first described by an entry in the Baedeker, a pastiche which duly includes an Italian motto: ‘Poggibonizzi, fatti in là, che Monteriano si fa città!’ (Forster 1976, 37). Beyond the occasional allusion to Renaissance culture, such as Dante or Leonardo Da Vinci, Italian signifiers function as the melodious echoes of a land which breeds beauty and freedom, the very opposite of cold normative England. The writer, here, retains the guilty pleasure of a tourist dabbling with the music of elsewhere. But this metonymic word-dropping differs from the experience of India in A Passage to India. Although there was, as we shall see, a literary tradition of hybrid texts (epitomized by Kipling’s Kim, for instance) that Forster might have chosen to abide by, there are a limited number of Indian words in a novel that denies the kind of textual passage the title might herald. The text refuses to mimic Indian languages, to speak in tongues, as it were; instead, it seeks to explore cultural differences, views of the world that fail to coincide and that require a true passage towards the Other. Straying from the mirage of acculturation, leading from cultural mistakes to ontological error, the text uses foreign words to challenge Anglo-Indian assumptions. The meeting between East and West demands sympathy; such a process may include the echoes of many languages, but always points beyond language.

2In A Passage to India, language is not indigenized. Forster thus departs from the tradition established by Anglo-Indian fiction, most notably by Rudyard Kipling. Published in 1901, Kim offers an archetypal example of Kipling’s experimentation with linguistic and cultural hybridity. Kipling has been described by Salman Rushdie as a two-sided man, a kind of open-minded yet prejudiced Janus who comes close to being both black and white, torn as he is by his double allegiance to English education and to the lusciousness of Indian life. Kipling’s experience casts light on Kim, the child who can switch from vernacular to English seamlessly. Kipling too spent his childhood slipping between languages, as was customary for Anglo-Indian children. Before he was five, he spoke to his ayah in vernacular, and only ventured into English when pressed to address his parents, so that at first Hindustani estranged the ‘mother tongue’ in which he was to, much later, write his novels: ‘So one spoke “English,” haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in’ (Kipling 1990, 4). While Hindustani remains, literally, the idiom of dreams, for the first five years of his life, English remained for Rudyard Kipling a kind of foreign language. For the sake of education, India, the land of orality, was soon replaced by exile in England, in a house ‘smelling of aridity and emptiness’ (Kipling 1990, 5). Tracing his creativity as a writer, Kipling posits the departure from India as a linguistic uprooting that cuts off the illicit surrogate mother tongue and replaces it (except for occasional holidays at the house of Burne-Jones) with cold cruelty. The link with the English tongue remains utterly ambivalent. Spoken English was used to enforce violent domination (the child was regularly beaten), yet Kipling read English avidly and sought relief in the luscious land of fiction, from Robinson Crusoe (in the unpleasant, cruel house) to Tennyson or Swinburne (when he was sent to Westward Ho!, a school designed to prepare boys for the British Army).

3When Kipling was nearly seventeen years old, he returned to India to work in Lahore as the assistant editor of the Civil and Military Gazette. When he stepped off the boat, he was amazed to find out that his knowledge of the vernacular had not been blotted out, but had remained like some enigmatic undercurrent, ready to flow though its meaning was lost: ‘I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not’ (Kipling 1990, 25). Exile becomes a question of language: ‘Other Indian-born boys have told me how the same thing happened to them’ (Kipling 1990, 25). A revenant haunted by his former self, it seems that the young Kipling is spoken by language, rather than speaks it. Sensory awakening tinges the return with a sense of elation at breaking the pattern of linguistic repression, not to say with a sense of rebirth, instantly, instinctively expressed by the fountain of (un)known words (he is delivering sentences indeed).

4And the joyful vitality of Kim owes much to this moment, this unconscious mingling of languages that took hold of Kipling when he returned to Bombay. Kim is the work of a writer who came home to the vernacular he had lost. The novel seeks to make the multiple linguistic traditions of India visible, if not audible. Therefore the text seeks to slip between languages effortlessly. The text is peppered with metonymies of cultural difference, from echoing toponyms like Bhotiyal or Kapilavastu to recurrent signifiers like ‘chela’ (the lama’s disciple), or food terms like ‘ghi’: such words pepper or spice up the text, as Salman Rushdie suggests: ‘the Hindi/Urdu words are simply sprinkled over the text, like curry’ (Rushdie 77). But the text also engages with transpositions and translations from one language to another. There is a systematic use of archaisms such as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’; structures may be odd or twisted: ‘It must be the pedigree of that made-up horse-lie’ (Kipling 1989, 73). Words, such as the syncopated ‘te-rain’ for train (‘I will beg a tikkut for the te-rain’. Kipling 1989, 245), for instance, become onomatopoeic to make the reader ‘hear’ accents. There may be embedded layers of estrangement, as when the lama addresses Kim in Urdu, that is to say a foreign tongue for him, since he comes from Tibet and occasionally lapses into Chinese (Kipling 1989, 80). Foreign words may or may not be translated, building up the reader’s visual competence but creating an erratic system of reference; for instance, while ‘Om mane padme hum’ remains untranslated (Kipling 1989, 81), other phrases are clarified between brackets, using signifiers connoting Englishness, such as ‘chap’: ‘He is a chabuk sawai [a sharp chap]’ (Kipling 1989, 156). The text also mimics proverbs, playing on the idiosyncratic nature of images that must remain slightly baffling for English readers: ‘Thy mother was married under a basket!’ (Kipling 1989, 148). For Emilienne Baneth-Nouailhetas, the narrator is the magician creating the illusion that the reader has access to Hindustani: ‘La “traduction” participe alors d’une stratégie de séduction du destinataire par la narration, qui lui transmet l’illusion de partager le polylinguisme du narrateur’ (Baneth-Nouailhetas 170). Emilienne Baneth-Nouailhetas draws attention to the use of pronouns, as in ‘almond-curd sweetmeats [balushai we call it]’ (Kipling 1989, 145). The pronoun ‘we’, here, tends to include the narrator within the sphere of linguistic knowledge, but not the reader (Baneth-Nouailhetas 169). Through transliteralisation, translation, contextual explanation or textual co-presence, the text creates strategies that coax the reader into reading and absorbing alien words.

5Mimicking linguistic competence, the text allows the reader’s fluid projection so that he may believe that he is indeed listening to what Forster calls ‘the hundred voices of India’. Kim’s India is mapped by those metonymic traces of enunciation which open up the space of otherness within dialogues. In a way, the novel is haunted by the logic of other languages; to transpose Julian Wolfreys’ definition of the spectral, the text ‘registers the disturbance in the field of vision by something invisible which, though invisible, nonetheless has a material effect, and which one “sees”. We see the invisible within the visible’ (Wolfreys 77). Kipling borrows foreign signifiers but also mimics a different syntax, playing upon both emprunt and empreinte, to prompt linguistic circulation. Thus the Babu’s style is hampered by his use of stiff, ready-made phrases that mimic idiosyncracy while failing to capture it, as when he voices his ‘opeenion’ and the italics mark his accent (the extra emphasis on the first syllable of complete) as well as the use of Indian words: ‘“Oho! That is inconspicuous dress of chela attached to service of lamaistic lama. Complete in every particular,” said Hurree Babu’ (Kipling 1989, 229). Like him, the main characters are capable of switching languages, especially Kim and his lama. Kim’s hybrid identity is steeped in Hindi yet part of the ruling race: ‘though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white’ (Kipling 1989, 49). The vernacular comes naturally to him, while his English is both musical and hesitant. Indeed, the ‘clipped’ sing-song may suggest a constrained body. Recalling Kipling’s traumatic experience of his childhood return to England, the image ties the song of language with potential castration, as if the child were a parrot with clipped wings or tongue. Thus Kipling seeks to hybridize language, in order to suggest Kim’s delight in belonging to both cultures, but the child must remain within the construct of imperial identity. Such uncertainty is a trace of split identity; it lingers yet never prevents communication, as Kim is granted the ability to switch languages at will, and hoodwink his listeners. The Babu makes systematic mistakes, Kim never does. Thus his white superiority is established by his bilingual fluidity, whereas such is not the case of Hurree Babu, the clumsy imitator who can never blend in.

6But Forster cannot but be indebted to another major legacy, as far as the treatment of hybridity and linguistic error are concerned. In Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad also relies on local colour but in a fundamentally different way, creating a rich web of voices but in order to radically decenter colonial certainties. There is, in Conrad’s Lord Jim, a play on multiple languages, as the reader is meant to listen to French, German or Malay as much as English. This reflects of course Conrad’s own engagement with language, as a man who switched from Poland to France, then to England where he reinvented himself, no longer as a sailor but as a writer, as Claude Maisonnat shows in this volume. To characterize the language of Stein, the wise man who attempts to save Jim, Conrad uses German words and/or a contorted syntax, to make the reader ‘hear’ a foreign language: ‘One thing alone can us from being ourselves cure!’ (Conrad 128). Stein’s German structures are also tinged with the authority of Latin: ‘To follow the dream, and again to follow the dream—and so—ewigusque ad finem’ (Conrad 130). Once again, the inclusion of the language of the Other cuts through window-dressing to engage with the hermeneutic search for meaning. Stein gropes for words as he is called upon to diagnose Jim as a specimen of lapsed humanity. German comes with the weight of philosophy, while the Lieutenant’s French only bespeaks shallow rigidity. The imprint of foreign languages suggests the manifestation of something other that cannot quite be defined, leading to question veracity and the structure of visibility as a whole. As Marlow seeks to assess Jim’s problematic jump from the Patna, his gallery of witnesses can only give partial and inadequate testimonies. Contrary to the sing-song of Kipling’s display, language is problematized by the emphasis laid upon malapropism and error. Linguistic error tends to connote psychological flaw and mental error. The French Lieutenant’s speeches are full of Gallicisms, since he is supposed to be speaking in French, as when ‘I have rolled my hump’ accompanies and literally translates ‘roulé ma bosse’ (Conrad 89). Michael Greaney insists on this stunning play on a ‘“bilingual” text, written in English but interspersed with parenthetical French’: ‘What is remarkable about Marlow’s recollection of the conversation is the very strong residue of French it contains. Rarely is the encounter between two languages quite so extensively marked in Conrad’s prose’ (Greaney 84). Beyond comical local colour, such literal translation may also suggest a sense of inadequacy, some fundamental limitation of judgment, some inability to truly speak the language of the Other, to shift to a different mind-set. Even more significant, perhaps, are the macaronic images of the half-caste captain, boisterously uttered on the deck of the boat that is about to take Jim to Patusan. The captain twists expressions endlessly, from the laughable hyaena (Conrad 144) to ‘Plenty too much enough of Patusan’ (Conrad 145). Above all, the shady captain describes someone who is ‘falser than “the weapons of a crocodile”’ (Conrad 144). Macaronic English retains here the ghostly trace of French, to force the reader to twist the French saying, ‘larmes de crocodiles’, into a baffling ‘armes de crocodiles’, turned by the literal though nonsensical translation (the weapons of a crocodile) into the glimmer of an echo, as if pointing to lost meaning. Once again, beyond the comical effect, the multi-lingual mistake or pun may herald ethical error, pointing to dubious pathos (Jim’s self-pity as he ignores the pilgrims’ fate may be challenged as crocodile tears) or, more convincingly, to forthcoming evil. Crocodile tears may well foreshadow Jim’s second downfall, and his failure to perceive the malevolent powers of deception of the likes of Gentleman Brown. By asking Jim what he too has done wrong in order to find himself in Patusan, by appealing to compassion and drawing a parallelism between their fates, the villain leads Jim astray, seducing him with his weapons of a crocodile, his cynical use of pathos and intuitive insight. A master of words, Brown wreaks havoc in Patusan and ends the process of potential redemption.

7Thus, from Kipling to Conrad, the embedding of foreign words or traces of borrowed expressions has shifted from a longing for hybridity (and a stable sense of the white man’s superiority) to a symptom of elusiveness and doubt. With such linguistic fragments of otherness adrift in the text, what is at stake is not so much the signifier (the riddle may be easily solved and the pun enjoyed) as a guilty process of misreading, problematic cultural appropriation, and ethical challenge.

  • 1 ‘The narrator admonishes us not to exaggerate the importance of this new “rearrangement”: the incid (...)

8The superb weight of this dual tradition may account in part for Forster’s difficulty when writing A Passage to India, a novel inspired by his first trip to India in 1912, but which was only published in 1924, thus creating a curious time lag. Forster never mentions Gandhi, though there are elements of rejection, such as the strike of toilet cleaners during Aziz’s trial,1 not to mention Aziz’s call for Independence at the very end of the novel. Forster chooses to engage with ethics and History in a metaphorical way, casting doubt on the legitimacy of British presence in India. Therefore this may explain in part the time it took for the novel to be written, since finding the right linguistic balance was a challenge. There is little in A Passage to India that might correspond to Kipling’s magic hybridity and Conrad’s creativity, not to mention Rushdie’s later chutneyfication of language. Forster’s Raj is almost void of local colour, as shown by the superb negative opening of the novel, where the description of Chandrapore is blocked by systematic negations which deny exotic clichés and thwart the reader’s expectations (as first pointed out by Gillian Beer). When an Indian term appears (such as ‘maidan’ for esplanade) it is replaced by the English settlement up on the hill, the ‘tropical pleasance’ or topographical construct that mimics England in India. The absence of Indian signifiers suggests that Forster had come to see the inclusion of Indian words as problematic, inauthentic and deeply questionable.

9For token-language is the characteristic of Anglo-Indians. Peppering discourses of appropriation, words like topi, tongat, izzat, sahib or pukka function as white lies or myths in Barthes’ sense of the word, a circulation of signifiers which in fact borrows and displaces, steals and stiffens, freezes in a kind of arrest: ‘It is this brief act of larceny, this moment taken for a surreptitious faking, which gives mythical speech its benumbed look’ (Barthes 1972, 125). In French, Barthes uses a specific semantic field to refer to this process of displacement, this sleight of hand (‘ce moment furtif d’un truquage’): ‘Car cette parole interpellative est en même temps une parole figée . . . elle se transit, elle se blanchit, elle s’innocente’ (Barthes 1957, 211). Such a language is always second-hand and devalued, the vehicle of ideology. Ronny is spoken by, rather than speaks, such token signifiers:

When he said ‘of course there are exceptions’ he was quoting Mr. Turton, while ‘increasing the izzat’ was Major Callendar's own. The phrases worked and were in current use at the club, but she was rather clever at detecting the first- from the second-hand, and might press him for definite examples. (Forster 1987, 49)

10Mrs Moore’s dismay makes Ronny aware that his words are part of the common code. The expression ‘in current use’ suggests an economy of language which corresponds to what Jean-Joseph Goux calls ‘counterfeit language’:

Just as in the economic sphere there arises the question of convertibility, that is, the existence or not of a deposit serving to back the tokens in circulation, likewise in the domain of signification the truth value of language will become a crucial concern. (Goux 17)

11To gold-language, a language which is full, expressive, adequate, Goux opposes ‘token-language’, in which second-hand signifiers are exchanged like worn-out coins, no longer to mean something but to disguise something.

  • 2 British food (like barley water) signals the desire to rebuild a mock Britain in India. A Passage t (...)
  • 3 The image is ironically picked by the narrative voice: the ladies fly away like ‘exquisitely colour (...)

12Token-language signals that one belongs to the colonial community. Therefore it is significant that Adela’s desire to see the ‘real India’ should instantly lead her to be labelled ‘not pukka’, not in the sense of not good enough, but rather not orthodox or ‘genuine’ enough for the Turtons: ‘Mrs. Turton closed her eyes at this name and remarked that Mr. Fielding wasn't pukka, and had better marry Miss Quested, for she wasn't pukka’ (Forster 1987, 45). The casual statement hints at a politics of language. Deeming Adela, and Fielding, not pukka, Mrs Turton casts doubt on their ability to toe the line. Ironically, the narrative voice instantly strips the Turtons of their own authenticity; as they withdraw from the party, drink barley water2 and go to bed, the text mocks their sense of superiority, portrays them as local idols soon to dwindle back to suburban mediocrity: ‘At Chandrapore the Turtons were little gods; soon they would retire to some suburban villa, and die exiled from glory’ (Forster 1987, 45). Further irony is added during the misnamed ‘Bridge Party’, where Adela is made to face a display of segregation aiming to enforce British superiority, rather than prompt cultural exchange and sharing. The narrative voice stresses the inauthenticity of Mrs Turton’s brief welcome address in Urdu: ‘She had learned the lingo, but only to speak to her servants, so she knew none of the politer forms, and of the verbs only the imperative mood’ (Forster 1987, 56). ‘Imperative mood’ is only fitting for a woman who answers Mrs Moore’s desire to know who the Indian ladies are with: ‘You’re superior to them, anyway’ (Forster 1987, 56). But the scene undermines her superior stance; the ladies may not quite speak back in a post-colonial sense, but they can displace alienation by producing English signifiers, which drip into the text as a kind of reverse insertion of mots étrangers. With a touch of accent (‘High Park’ for ‘Hyde Park’) one of the ladies suddenly conjures up the landmarks of London (‘“Eastbourne, Piccadilly, High Park Corner” said another of the ladies’ Forster 1987, 56) mapping her ability to slip across boundaries and achieve a reverse journey. There is no discussion of London, however, since Mrs Turton seeks to dismiss token-language when it slips from the mouths of the subalterns. The threat to appropriation is enhanced as one lady seems to offer a command of English far superior to Mrs Turton’s Urdu: ‘“Perhaps we speak yours a little”, one of the ladies said’ (Forster 1987, 56). When Paris is mentioned, Mrs Turton counters the hint of a knowledge superior to hers: ‘“They pass Paris on the way, no doubt,” said Mrs Turton, as if she was describing the movements of migratory birds’ (Forster 1987, 57). The simile connotes the contempt in her voice, as it belittles the journey which dwindles into animal instinct rather than cultural equality.3 Unlike the British journey towards India (seen by the British as undertaken for the sake of civilization), the reverse journey is deemed, implicitly, not pukka.

13The term ‘pukka’ later slips into the text to refer to the roads the British have built, supposedly a concrete sign that the British can map progress in India. Ronny confesses that he told the driver to choose that direction when the Nawab fell asleep: ‘I told him to come this way because the road’s better. Mr. Lesley has made it pukka right up to the hills’ (Forster 1987, 95). Ironically enough, the smooth circulation on the brand new road comes to a sudden stop when irrational forces erupt from the past and the car hits some undefinable animal, which can only be, for the Nawab, the ghost of a man that was once killed on this road. Progress and British order are thus belied by some strangely lingering trace of a spectral presence. This road, which leads all the way to the Marabar hills, later falls short when Adela runs away and enters Miss Derek’s car precisely where the ‘pukka road’ turns into a nondescript path. The rational British grid thus fails to make its self-reflexive ‘pukka’ performance performative. Ultimately, ‘pukka’ comes to represent the failed performance of Anglo-India, especially when Adela is turned into an allegory of Britishness: Mrs Turton’s remorse and display of sudden affection for her ‘darling girl’ is all ‘armes de crocodile’. Her tears (she has shed none before) are meant to erase previous dislike and wash Adela in sudden approval (note the hyperbolic irony, the ennobling (un)selfish sorrow, and the ventriloquizing Free Indirect Style which rounds off her thoughts in mawkish clichés). Her tears cement the cohesiveness of the group, in a politics of sympathy that integrates Adela as ‘pukka’, now that her body may be used as a weapon against the Other, the Oriental:

Mrs. Turton was the only visitor admitted to the sick-room. She came out ennobled by an unselfish sorrow. ‘She is my own darling girl,’ were the words she spoke, and then, remembering that she had called her ‘not pukka’ and resented her engagement to young Heaslop, she began to cry. No one had ever seen the Collector’s wife cry. Capable of tears—yes, but always reserving them for some adequate occasion, and now it had come. Ah, why had they not all been kinder to the stranger, more patient, given her not only hospitality but their hearts? (Forster 1987, 171)

14It is tempting to contrast Mrs Turton’s narrow-mindedness with Adela’s initial desire to see ‘the real India’ (Forster 1987, 43), which triggered the older woman’s instant suspicion. But, ironically enough, Adela’s expression is problematic too, recalling tourist posters and ads for the P&O company. She may genuinely wish to see something more than the club’s ‘pukka’ version of India, but this desire itself is manufactured and partial. Significantly, Maria M. Davidis reads Adela’s yearning to break the bounds of Anglo-Indian conformity in terms of Imperial romance, as a parody of male journals of exploration: her very name (Quested rather than questing) connotes a failed Romantic quest. Indeed, ironic details pave the way for the breakdown in the caves. For instance, on the train, Adela longs to see a glorious sunrise, but as dawn breaks and ‘they [await] the miracle’ (Forster 1987, 136), nothing happens. The scene is compared to a bridegroom failing to enter a bride's chamber when the trumpets have sounded, a simile that debunks the erotic appeal of exotic scenery, as if foreshadowing Said’s definition of Orientalism.

  • 4 Forster adamantly strips Aziz’s language of babuisms. Indeed, the only words that sound remotely li (...)
  • 5 One may also think of Sara Suleri’s interpretation of the collar stud as a near-transparent metapho (...)
  • 6 See Philippe Jockey and Charlotte Ribeyrol’s interpretations of white marble as a mythic construct.

15Thus the text problematizes the ability to slip beyond boundaries, even should one wish to do so. A Passage to India reveals how difficult it is for Indians and English to speak; and the estrangement of language no longer functions as local colour, but as a symptom of cultural alienation that sympathy may only partially breach. Drawing upon Spivak, McBratney points out that speech is a ‘transaction’ in which the speaker must be ‘heard’ by the listener, ‘heard, moreover, not simply along conventional hegemonic lines but along lines that deviate from the hegemonic into the counter-hegemonic’ (McBratney 114). In the novel, scenes of first encounter seek to bridge the gap and evade constructs. For instance, in the Mosque, Aziz makes a slight mistake: he repeatedly tells Mrs Moore that, because they both have children and have lost their spouses, they are in the same ‘box’ (Forster 1987, 40), rather than the same boat. The slip of the tongue betrays the fact that English is not his mother tongue, but it does not preclude instinctive sympathy and the ‘secret understanding of the heart’ (Forster 1987, 38). On the contrary, when he meets Fielding, his English is so perfect that the latter is impressed;4 when asked to correct his guest, the schoolmaster thinks that phrases like ‘everything ranged coldly on shelves’ (Forster 1987, 76) cannot be improved. Yet this perfect English whitewashes language, as pointed out, perhaps, by a significant detail. Aziz first meets Fielding when the latter has taken a bath and is dressing up for the tea-party. The scene suggests a blurring of boundaries, since the ritual of formal dress is belied by spontaneous informality (Aziz steps into Fielding’s bedroom to give him his own collar stud and help him dress). Transparency (and the possibility therefore of meeting on an equal footing as potential friends) is signalled by the fact that Fielding may catch a glimpse of Aziz through the ground glass of the bedroom door and thus surmise his height. This scene between the enthusiastic Aziz and the freshly cleaned Fielding, caught in a state of relative undress, implies homoerotic appeal, as David Lean spelt it out in the film version,5 where Fielding is glimpsed naked in a shower through the glass door, singing about the beauty of bright sunshine. There may be more than seductive appeal in this expanded image. Like the bath, the shower image brings to mind the ethos of cleanliness, with all its ethnocentric implications,6 as embodied for instance in the archetypal Pears Soap Victorian advertisement, harping on the ‘white man’s burden’ and the essential cleanliness of white settlers.

16Aziz may criticize the English when he is with his Moslem friends, but he longs to speak spotless English and be friends with Fielding and Mrs Moore. Glimpses of his own culture are given as he recites Urdu and Persian poetry with his friends; he writes Moslem poems which the Hindu Godbole calls ‘bakhti’, very good. But he is drawn to acculturation, as shown by his allusion to Post-Impressionism, which Fielding dismisses as over the top. Thus the novel does not simply draw attention to slips and slippages between languages, but to the difficulty of reaching out beyond words and grasping a relevant frame of cultural reference. This is emblematized by the ritual of invitation, which is uttered for the sake of the moment by Indians, but which the English take too seriously. Adela and Mrs Moore are dismayed not to find the Bhattacharyas at home when they go and visit them, as agreed at the Bridge Party; Aziz explains this away as an oversight, or suggests that they felt ashamed of their home; unless, we may add, this is to be read as a snub intended to pay the British back for the routine humiliation of the so-called Bridge Party. The muddle is not cleared up, the words exchanged between the stern husband and the charming wife in vernacular are never translated. Aziz’s own explanation is that they grew ashamed of their house and fled, which is what instantly happens to him as he extends the courtesy of invitation to make up for the Battacharias’ incivility, but only for the sake of poetic licence. He is horrified when Adela accepts, knowing full well that his fly-ridden bungalow is no place for English ladies. Words are not simply words, they are laden with invisible meaning, an underlying palimpsest of hidden rules or routine implications. Thus language is a trap, setting up its pitfalls of conflicting cultural interpretations and expectations, as opposed to the moonlit magic of instant sympathy that ‘secret understanding of the heart’ that springs unbidden between Aziz and Mrs Moore at the Mosque. Aziz’s fluency cannot prevent misinterpretation, as he throws himself into grand preparations and seeks to offer Adela exotic India on a platter, wishing to rise up to her expectations and turn himself into an emperor of a host, the spiritual descendant of Babur and Akbar, complete with painted elephant and breakfast every five minutes, including eggs poached in the train’s toilets. Sweeping away such dreams of grandeur, the echo in the Marabar Caves arguably stands as the most alien sound in the novel, the true foreign utterance or ‘mot étranger’ swallowing up and undoing all forms of language and belief, reverberating its booming toneless tune to expose a life that seems hollow at the core. The caves’ utterance, such as it may be, could only be evoked by Godbole through silence and negativity, a refusal to answer Aziz’s questions at Fielding’s tea-party that simply points to the unspeakable nature of the drums of doom, the unquenchable ‘Ou-Boum’ that undermines Mrs Moore’s Christian warmth (Forster 1987, 146) and unleashes sexual violence in Adela’s imploding self.

17The text then sets up a system of echoes acting as small but significant counterpoints that ripple into the text to undo the evil of the Marabars. Forster seeks to preserve the illegibility of the foreign words he thus inscribes in the text, to challenge the logic of Western appropriation. This is no longer a question of peppering discourse with local colour, in Burton or Turton fashion; but of opening up the text to the glimmering intensity of sheer otherness, of a culture that is not given but glimpsed, in its complexity, in its orality.

  • 7 For McBratney, such archives constituted ‘an empire of signs’: ‘As Bernard Cohn and others have poi (...)

18Orality goes against the very logic of the Empire. McBryde tells Fielding that he should study the Mutiny records as his Bible,7 a tell-tale injunction that reveals that his own view of the investigation he is conducting is warped by ready-made models of the violation of white women, in itself a screen for the crushing of the rebellion of the conquered, violated land. Adela is prompted to denounce Aziz, because such is the construct expected, almost demanded by the community unawares, with its hysterical need for self-justification and mistrust of the Other. But Forster creates an opposition between this ready-made discourse and baffling but tantalizing alien signifiers. McBratney locates three such instances of blooming otherness, Godbole’s song, the ‘syllables of salvation’ that turn Mrs Moore’s name into an Indian echo, Esmiss Esmoor, at the trial, and Godbole’s mantra during the Hindu festival which is the crux of the third section of the novel: ‘The novel also suggests that, taken together, these oral performances make up an emergent subaltern counter-discourse to the dominant British discourse—a dynamic, indigenous oral tradition that constitutes a cultural and political alternative to a literate tradition of imperial rule’ (McBratney 120). Godbole’s raga, when he finally sings at the end of Fielding’s tea-party, blooms into an intensity which cannot be grasped, baffling the Western ear, stopping in mid-air, upon the subdominant (in The Hill of Devi, Forster compares Indian music to the broken reflections of moonlight in water, an image which might apply here). Whereas the Europeans fail to understand either the topic (a call to Krishna that does not come) or the music, the delight of the half naked servant gathering water chestnuts suggests that the song speaks to him, as if he in turn embodied its beauty, its holy appeal, in a homoerotic moment of subtle connection, mingling flesh and spirit, secular and sacred. For McBratney, the song demonstrates ‘the capacity of Indian oral performance to unsettle English literate forms—the types, categories, binary hierarchies, and other literate structures that compose the British archive about India’ (McBratney 120). In the third part, the mantra mingles with a cacophony of sounds (from cymbals to guns), and Godbole’s singing voice cannot be dissociated from his sweating, dancing entranced body, reinscribing the voice with a physical economy that stands in sharp contrast with the British stiffness. This time, the song is partially translated, but the saint’s name still functions as a ‘mot étranger’, just like the endless iteration of the mantra, its monotonous ostinato, like a dull melodic line upon which are grafted the bursts of joyous surrounding sounds:

Tukaram, Tukaram,
Thou art my father and mother and everybody.
Tukaram, Tukaram,
Thou art my father and mother and everybody.
Tukaram, Tukaram… (Forster 1987, 258)

19The saint, who was also a poet, is a fitting figure allowing to pick up the dangling threads; the texts drops hints which the reader must gather and read as leitmotifs: Godbole recalls Mrs Moore and a wasp in his trance, an element which points back to the discussion of missionaries, Mrs Moore’s spontaneous address to a pretty wasp in her room, and forward to the reconciliation between Aziz and Fielding through Ralph and the bees. Though once more only the Hindus may understand the mantra (it is equally alien to Aziz and Europeans, including the narrative voice), partial access is given to the reader to meaning through the web of images. Thus the name of the saint rings out, carving within the text the space of another language, or rather, another song, which undermines the written logic of narrow-minded approaches.

  • 8 Giora Hon opposes mistakes, which might be prevented, to errors, which spring from a historical mis (...)

20To conclude, the novel leads us from the exposure of whitewashed language, borrowing snippets of language like tokens or shards meant to assert ‘pukka’ legitimacy, to the unleashing of anti-sound and the weaving of a new web of echoes, in which leitmotifs are stitched into the text to give partial access to foreign signifiers, while respecting their reverberating sense of otherness. Chanted or sung words bloom into syllables of acceptance and keys to potential linguistic and existential reconciliation. Adela’s recantation, as she quietly but bravely comes to undo the wicked web of hallucinatory accusation, setting herself beyond the pale of both communities, comes as McBryde’s voice literally takes her back to the ascent, as she proceeds along the rock or, as syllepsis would have it, ‘along the paths of truth’ (Forster 1987, 209). The crisis comes when the alien signifier which echoed at the end of the prelude describing the Marabar Hills and caves, the untranslated Kawa Dol, the rock that sways on its pedestal, reappears. As she feels the heat and recreates ‘the niches up the curves of the stone’ (Forster 1987, 209) of the Kawa Dol, Adela is also sensing the gaps in language, the niches offered by the signifiers of otherness, like the hovering Kawa Dol. The confusion which she confesses in a surprisingly soft voice (‘I have made a mistake’ Forster 1987, 210) must be read in terms of Giora Horn’s distinction between mistake and error:8 rather than a mere mistake, she has fallen into error, articulated by cultural constructs and colonial fantasies.

21The novel ends with the ‘hundred voices’ of India (Forster 1987, 289), welcoming Aziz and Fielding’s retrieved friendship. Error (‘God si Love’, Forster 1987, 258) is now inscribed in language, as a multi-lingual pun calling for reconciliation. But celebration also prompts separation, since only India’s Independence may make friendship possible on equal terms. The novel remains open-ended, seeking musical echoes: ‘Not completion. Not rounding off, but opening out’ (Forster 1927, 169).

22Thus, ultimately, multiple echoes weave a musical score of sounds that seeks to be not pukka, but inclusive, as if seeking to obey the Deleuzian imperative, not imitiation or inscription, but the hybrid encounter of text and music or orality, reaching out towards the otherness of language itself:

Un style, c’est arriver à bégayer dans sa propre langue. C’est difficile parce qu’il faut qu’il y ait nécessité d’un tel bégaiement. Non pas être bègue dans sa parole, mais être bègue du langage lui-même. Être comme un étranger dans sa propre langue. Faire une ligne de fuite. (Deleuze 10)

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1 ‘The narrator admonishes us not to exaggerate the importance of this new “rearrangement”: the incident of the Marabar caves “did not break up a continent or even dislocate a district” (Forster 1987, 237). However, the details of the novel’s depiction of Indian protest—especially the hartals, or work stoppages—closely parallel those associated with Gandhi’s Non-cooperation Movement of the early 1920s, of which Forster was able to catch a glimpse when he was in India.’ (McBratney 124) See also Forster’s preface to Mulk Raj Anand’s novel, Untouchable.

2 British food (like barley water) signals the desire to rebuild a mock Britain in India. A Passage to India stresses the way in which the English in India refuse to absorb foreign food: ethnic purity seems equated with ‘the menu of Anglo-India’, sardines, ‘bullety bottled peas, pseudo-cottage bread, fish full of branching bones, pretending to be plaice’ (Forster 1987, 67); the pseudo-pla(i)ce or the bullety peas connote sham and symbolic violence, in Bourdieu’s sense of the word. As opposed to the more tasty food offered by Fielding or Hamidullah to their respective guests, such menus are artificial, all habitus, engrained habits connoting racial prejudices, according to Bourdieu’s definition. The ‘bottled’ peas and the pseudo bread are pukka in the Anglo-Indian sense, metonymies of Britain, but clearly not part of the genuine food found in India.

3 The image is ironically picked by the narrative voice: the ladies fly away like ‘exquisitely coloured swallows’ (Forster 1987, 58).

4 Forster adamantly strips Aziz’s language of babuisms. Indeed, the only words that sound remotely like mots étrangers in the dialogue are Fielding’s ‘I hae ma doots’, uttered when he has the collar stud in his mouth while lifting his collar, the sentence that prompts Aziz’s baffled ‘What’s that last sentence, please? Will you teach me some new words and so improve my English?’ (Forster 1987, 76).

5 One may also think of Sara Suleri’s interpretation of the collar stud as a near-transparent metaphor for sexual intercourse.

6 See Philippe Jockey and Charlotte Ribeyrol’s interpretations of white marble as a mythic construct.

7 For McBratney, such archives constituted ‘an empire of signs’: ‘As Bernard Cohn and others have pointed out, from the early days of the British East India Company to the departure of the Raj from India in 1947, the British built up an enormous archive about India comprising a wide range of textual forms of knowledge—legal, linguistic, cartographical, historical, archaeological, ethnological, and demographic. The accumulation of this archive reflected many aims, but chief among them was the desire to master India discursively as a way of ruling it economically, politically, and culturally.’ (McBratney 116-117).

8 Giora Hon opposes mistakes, which might be prevented, to errors, which spring from a historical misinterpretation that could only be avoided with an awareness of the full picture that is unreachable at the time when events take place.

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Catherine Lanone, « Pukka English and the Language of the Other in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 78 Automne | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2014, consulté le 14 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Lanone

Catherine Lanone is Professor of English Literature at the University of Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her monograph entitled E. M. Forster: Odyssée d’une écriture was published by the Presses de l’Université du Mirail, in Toulouse, in 1998. Her book on Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights, d'Emily Brontë: un vent de sorcière) was published by Ellipses in 1999. She has published extensively on 19th and 20th century British literature, including among others Mary Shelley, Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Ben Okri and Thomas Hardy.

Catherine Lanone est professeur de littérature britannique à l’Université de Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle. Elle est l'auteur d'un ouvrage sur E.M. Forster (E.M. Forster: Odyssée d’une écriture, Presses de l’Université du Mirail, 1998) et d'un livre sur Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights, d'Emily Brontë: un vent de sorcière, Ellipses, 1999). Elle a publié de nombreux articles dans le domaine de la littérature britannique des xixe et xxe siècles, entre autres sur Mary Shelley, Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Ben Okri et Thomas Hardy.

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