19 September 2015


Locus Focus: Take One Hundred Twenty-Five

We started Sightseeing in September with a totally fictional tourist attraction and followed that up immediately with a very real place. Today's setting is halfway between its predecessors, being both totally fictional and very obviously based on a real place.

The Marabar Caves
A Passage to India
by E.M. Forster

The caves are readily described. A tunnel eight feet long, five feet high, three feet wide, leads to a circular chamber about twenty feet in diameter. This arrangement occurs again and again throughout the group of hills, and this is all, this is a Marabar Cave. Having seen one such cave, having seen two, having seen three, four, fourteen, twenty-four, the visitor returns to Chandrapore uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull one or any experience at all. He finds it difficult to discuss the caves, or to keep them apart in his mind, for the pattern never varies, and no carving, not even a bees'-nest or a bat distinguishes one from another. Nothing, nothing attaches to them, and their reputation--for they have one--does not depend upon human speech. It is as if the surrounding plain or the passing birds have taken upon themselves to exclaim "extraordinary," and the word has taken root in the air, and been inhaled by mankind.

When Englishwoman Adela Quested travels to India, she is extremely disappointed to end up in the nineteenth-century equivalent of an expat gated community. When you've crossed the Mediterranean Sea of the classics and the Egypt of the ancients, you expect something a little different from what you left behind in your modern home. (Unless, perhaps, your name is Innocent Smith?) And it's just short of stultifying to find that you're just in time for your fellow expats' amateur theatre production of a typical British romantic comedy. How is that Indian???

Adela is determined to see "the real India" while she is there--and she soon makes an Indian friend, Dr. Aziz, who obliges her with a tour of some ancient caves that have been totally untouched by any foreign influence. So far, so good: I mean, the reader wants to see "the real India," too, right?

Well, as I mentioned in the introduction, the Marabar caves cannot be "the real India" inasmuch as E.M. Forster completely made them up. Yes, he based them on the Barabar caves, which are a minor holy site in Buddhism . . . but this only begs the question of why he didn't go with the Barabar caves in the first place. I'm no Forster scholar, of course, but I'd like to share my two hypotheses anyway. The first and older one is that "the real India" was itself not sensational enough for Forster's purposes (Ah, irony, my old friend!), so he created the Marabar caves to sex it up a bit. The second one, which is a newly-plucked fruit of this Sightseeing in September challenge, is that he didn't want to turn the Barabar caves into a tourist trap for Westerners. Respecting what the caves have meant to the people who carved them out and meditated in them for centuries, he declined to turn them into a mere sideshow in a vapid Englishwoman's Indian adventure postcard . . . and in those of all other Western tourists who might read his novel and miss the point. For the point is that if you come as a tourist--as someone who only cares about seeing something different from what is at home--then you won't see anything real anyway.

Those who have read A Passage to India know that Adela has an odd, ambiguous experience in one of the caves that blows up the already-strained British-Indian relations like a bomb. Forster himself doesn't describe it to us, as you'd think a good omniscient narrator would; we have to hear about it from the other characters, and of course everyone brings his own biases. It's very disorientating . . . and incredibly sharp. For just as Adela wanted only "the real India," we readers want only what really happened. And this just may be Forster's way of pointing out that in real life, we often never find out "what really happened," but must piece together bits and pieces gathered from different sources and impressions. That they fail to satisfy is beside the point. Since when is the measure of what is real our level of satisfaction with it?

"I have not seen the right places," [Adela] thought, as she saw embayed in the platforms of the Victoria terminus the end of the rails that had carried her over a continent and could never carry her back. She would never visit Asirgarh or the other untouched places; neither Delhi nor Agra nor the Rajputana cities nor Kashmir, nor the obscurer marvels that had sometimes shone through men's speech: the bilingual rock of Girnar, the statue of Shri Belgola, the ruins of Mandu and Hampi, temples of Khajuraho, gardens of Shalimar. As she drove through the huge city which the West has built and abandoned with a gesture of despair, she longed to stop, though it was only Bombay, and disentangle the hundred Indias that passed each other in its streets. The feet of the horses moved her on, and presently the boat sailed and thousands of cocoanut palms appeared all round the anchorage and climbed the hills to bid her farewell. "So you thought an echo was India; you took the Marabar Caves as final?" they laughed. "What have we in common with them, or they with Asirgah? Goodbye!"

Adela's believing that she just didn't get to go to the right places is like our thinking that we just didn't get the right clues. Sometimes we don't see what's right there in front of us, because we don't want to see what is right there in front of us . . . because it doesn't match our ideas of what is "real."

(Long-time lurkers may recall the heroine of another Forster novel, Lucy Honeychurch of A Room with a View--the very first "Two or Three" Book Club pick--longing to see "the true Italy.")

Question of the Week: Have you ever been totally bowled over by culture shock?

Image Source: A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

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