I took a course on Postcolonial Drama when I was an undergrad, and as part of the course I had to present with one of my best friends on Gayatri Spivak’s essay, “Can the subaltern speak?” It’s a dense, highly theoretical article which I don’t pretend to understand entirely, but the main gist of it as I follow is to set up a hierarchy of the subaltern, with women with low social standing from postcolonial society as the absolute most subaltern. (Even writing this now I’m worried I’m screwing it up. I would need to reread it to be sure I’m saying this right.) The point of her essay is to determine whether these people can still speak for themselves, and she determined that no, they cannot. Other people can pretend to speak for them, but they themselves are voiceless because of the constraints of society.
I thought of Spivak a lot while I was reading E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I love Forster. He’s the kind of a writer I not just admire, I also want to have over for lunch. The book came out in 1924 but it feels way ahead of its time in dealing with colonial India. It even at one point predicts that India will be a nation of its own one day. What I admired most about it was that the Indian characters were treated as regular characters. Dr. Aziz, the main protagonist, is equal parts admirable and flawed like any good character should be. It’s the kind of characterization you just wouldn’t expect from a book so old, and it strengthened my literary crush on Forster.
What’s hard about this though is that Dr. Aziz is a Muslim man, so he already is a monotheistic male, making him less subaltern than what Spivak would be writing about. He’s already more accessible to a Western audience, than other characters like the Hindu Professor Godbole, who’s less fleshed out and more mystical in his understanding of the world. Is it just that Forster is saying he’s incapable of understanding, or we the reader are incapable of understanding, characters whose worldviews are so far different to our own? I don’t think so.
And then there’s this other huge element, which troubled me: There are no Indian women in the novel. Aziz’s wife is dead, and Indian women are only mentioned in the collective. This is probably because of the law of the purdah, which is mentioned many times, meaning Indian women had to be on the other side of the veil in the home. Aziz says at one point that India will never be free as long as the purdah exists. So these women are not just subaltern in the way Spivak talks about where they can’t speak for themselves, but they’re excluded from being spoken about by others like Forster. I don’t know if I’m okay with this. I adore E.M. I really do, but I don’t know if I feel comfortable with him leaving Indian women out of the narrative so much. He’s clearly grappling with it, and it’s clearly a conscious choice, but I don’t know whether the novel wouldn’t be improved by at least one passage involved an Indian woman. It’s troubling to me that in a book so progressive they’re still left out.
All in all, it was a great read but I maybe loved Howard’s End and A Room with a View a little better. That may just be because I read them first. A Passage to India is more ambitious, and a bit more melancholy. In the end, just read all of Forster. It’s worth it.