Racial discord and tolerance

NOT a day passes without us causing some form of aggression or injustice to another race not realising that at the unadorned level, we are all just humans. We all bleed just the same and we get hurt too just as much.

In the background of increasing tension and lack of tolerance towards other religions and races in our country, I see it relevant to discuss E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (1974) with emphasis on characterisation of Aziz and the role he plays in the novel. The novel essentially deals with discrimination of the highest order with a host of bigoted perceptions of people based on ethnicity.

A Passage to India is deeply fissured along racial lines, with white Europeans on one side, and everyone else on the other. Indians are referred to as "Orientals", an outdated racial term that was applied to everyone living east of Europe, from Turkey all the way out to China.

Orientals were stereotypically considered to be "exotic, sensual, passive, and backward, as opposed to the intellectual, civilised, progressive Western". Thus Orientals, such as the Indians in A Passage to India, were considered unable to rule themselves, essentially needing the British Empire to help them toward civilisation. This is despite the fact that India has the oldest known civilisation in all areas of human existence.

Even as the novel criticises this stereotyping of Orientals or "Orientalism", it is itself not entirely free of the Orientalist attitude. The narrator makes broad generalisations about Orientals, about their psychology and their sexuality, that shows how entrenched the Orientalist attitude is even in a novel and how it touches the raw nerve and yet empathises with the same.

For Forster, the interest in India was highly personal. He was a homosexual and it was his love affair with an Indian that opened his eyes to India.

The novel is said to be dedicated to his lover who died midway through the writing of the novel. Before we discuss Aziz's role in the novel it is imperative that we have an in-depth understanding of Aziz's character.

Dr Aziz appears to be an intelligent doctor who succumbs to extreme emotions and stands in contrast with himself at times. We read him as being proud, charming, emotional and at the same time fickle.

It is interesting that Forster begins the novel and ends the novel with a question: Can the English and Indians be friends? Aziz answers this question partly when he demonstrates that the gap could be bridged by not being a typical Indian but at the end of the novel there is no doubt that the conclusion is unfavourable.

If you read A Passage to India, it is divided into three distinct sections and in every one of these, Aziz is the key player. In the mosque Aziz gets to meet Mrs Moore, which is the first connection between East and West. In the caves, Aziz has an important role to play as the tour guide and again this connection and the separation between the East and West is exemplified.

While A Passage to India depicts discrimination that can lead to the downfall of one's judgment, it takes the human race to a shameful low where the existence of mankind and humanity are constantly threatened.

It can happen just about anywhere as we cannot have uniformity in us and the dissimilarities should be celebrated as diversity rather than one that creates tangles and cacophonies between and among us.

The magic word here is tolerance more than anything else and acceptance is another buzz word being bandied around, especially at festivals but with no specific even connotative meaning except that it creates a symphony of thoughts and feelings and that's where it ends.

When APJ Abdul Kalam said religion is a way of making friends for great men and is a fighting tool for small people, in a few succinctly crafted words, he challenges us to decide if we wish to be greatness personified with a perception and acceptance larger than all the oceans put together.

The writer believes that the Malaysian education system will reach greater heights with a strong antidote to revolutionise just about everything. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com