E M Forster began writing A Passage to India after his first visit to India in October 1912. The impetus to write the novel came partly from something Forster had been told by Syed Ross Masood, a young Indian man whom he had tutored in Latin and fallen – unrequitedly – in love with: ‘You know my great wish is to get you to write a book on India, for I feel convinced from what I know of you that it will be a great book’.
Forster finished A Passage to India after returning to India for nine months in 1921, this time as private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas State. In the intervening period of between 1912 and 1921, the devastating losses of the First World War – a war to which Indian troops had made a substantial contribution – had permanently changed Britain’s relationship with its Empire. Adding to the turbulence, in April 1919, in what became known as the Amritsar Massacre, colonial troops shot and killed 379 unarmed Indians who were protesting for self-governance, and wounded a further 1,200.
Though Forster had begun the novel ‘as a little bridge of sympathy between East and West’, he later felt that this was no longer viable, writing that ‘most Indians, like most English people, are shits’. He wrote that he wanted the book to speak to ‘something wider than politics’, and to be ‘philosophic and poetic’, and indeed he has been praised for his ability to conjure the different aspects of British, Muslim and Hindu India.
The novel is structured in three parts: I, Mosque, II, Caves and III, Temple. Its main character, a Muslim doctor called Aziz, arranges a trip to the Marabar Caves. When he is sent to prison on the basis of a false accusation of sexual assault by the English traveller Adela Quested, he turns against British rule. The novel ends with him telling the character Fielding his prediction that they can only truly be friends when India is free; a point Forster illustrates with the image of horses galloping in different directions.
A Passage to India (1924) had sold 17,000 copies in Britain by the end of 1924 and 54,000 in the USA. By the time of Forster's death in 1970, it had sold 1 million; it subsequently became one of the foundational texts of post-colonial literary scholarship. Despite this success, however, it was Forster’s last work of fiction.