Sunday, July 9, 2023

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's new novel is Lunatic Carnival, the tenth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India:
When E.M.Forster was writing A Passage To India he read T.E.Lawrence’s Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, one of the greatest books written in the twentieth century. Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia as he was known to the world - described what it was like to live among those of another race and religion:
…the effort for those years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only. Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith. I had dropped one form and not taken on the other…with a resultant feeling of intense loneliness in life, and a contempt, not for other men, but for all they do.
The story of a European who finds himself forced to live among an alien race had been told before Lawrence led the revolt in the desert in the First World War and before E.M. Forster made his first trip to India. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad described what happened when a European, sent into the heart of Africa to help bring civilization, but freed of civilization’s restraints, became more savage than any native had ever been. That was the infamous Kurtz, but near the beginning there is a description of another European that shows a different effect on someone part of a colonial enterprise:
When near the buildings I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of setup that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision. I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand. He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear.
He was the company’s chief accountant. He had been there nearly three years. The meaning is clear: “His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser’s dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up appearances. That’s backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt fronts were achievements of character.”

Character. The discipline of a way of life, everything that is acquired without conscious thought living among others, natives of the same time and place, the habitual customs that for those exiled by their profession or their duty to some foreign, different place, become a conscious, and therewith an artificial, necessity, the rigid formality by which they cling to their own identity. It was the way the British in India tried to remember who they were and what they were there to do.

A Passage To India is set in Chandrapore, a place where, “Houses do fall, people are drowned and left rotting, but the general outline of the town persists, swelling here, shrinking there, like some low but indestructible form of life.” The English colonists inhabit higher ground, and newcomers refuse to believe Chandrapore is as squalid as reported until they are “driven down to acquire disillusionment.” The roads are named after British generals. The social life of the British officials and their wives centers around a club where, when the amateur orchestra plays the National Anthem, “Conversations and billiards stopped, faces stiffened. It was the anthem of the Army of Occupation. It reminded every member of the club that he or she was British and an exile.”

Two British women have come to Chandrapore on a visit, Mrs. Moore, whose son, Ronny, is the British official in charge of the local system of justice, and Adela Quested, a plain looking and plain minded young woman with whom Ronny is engaged. They have only just arrived when Ronny explains to his mother what the British are there to do. “We’re not out here for the purpose of behaving pleasantly,” he insists, dismissing any notion she may have had about making friends. “We’re out here to do justice and keep the peace.” But then Mrs Moore wanders into a mosque and everything changes.

Dr. Aziz, an Indian physician who has been forced to walk home after a couple of English women had taken the carriage he had ordered, has stopped there as well. Aziz, like nearly all the Indians in Forster’s novel, is a Moslem. The mosque is “his own country, more than a Faith, more than a battle-cry, more, much more…. Islam, an attitude toward life both exquisite and durable, where his body and his thoughts found their home.” When he discovers that an elderly English lady is there, he is “ferociously angry.” But when he learns that, unlike most English women, Mrs. Moore has taken off her shoes, he changes his mind, and when she excuses what those other thoughtless women had done with the remark - “That makes no difference. God is here.” - Dr. Aziz thinks he has found a friend.

With the assistance of Mr. Fielding, a teacher and the only British citizen with any independence of mind, Dr. Aziz invites Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested to tea. Adela, who wants to see the “real India,” takes everything Aziz says as true. She regards him as “India,” and “never surmised that his outlook was limited and his method inaccurate.” If the British have their own set of unquestioned and unquestionable beliefs, Aziz and the other Moslems have their own, especially when it comes to the Hindus. Aziz looks down on them because “they have no idea of society.” One of his friends is even convinced that “all illness proceeds from Hindus.” Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs and other Indians get along, “as long as someone abused the English.” Everyone - British and Indians both - agree that “if the British were to leave their cooperation will vanish.” Mrs. Moore’s son, the officious Ronny, thought that if the British left there would be “bloodshed.”

Though it will cost him money he does not have, Dr. Aziz agrees to take Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested on an expedition to the Malabar caves. The teacher, Mr. Fielding, will go with them, a kind of European chaperon. It will take most of one day, starting early in the morning by train. Through no fault of his own, Fielding misses the train. This does not bother Mrs. Moore, who tells Aziz, “We shall all be Moslems together now. As you promised.” Aziz is overcome with gratitude for her understanding and the great generosity of her unbiased heart. Aziz believes what his religion teaches, the possibility of love for everyone everywhere. “There was nothing he would not do for her.”

The Malabar caves are not a long deep shaft with ample room for exploration, but a series of circular chambers, each of them twenty feet in diameter with walls like polished glass, connected by tunnels eight feet long, five feet high and only three feet wide. One of them, still unsealed, “is rumoured within the boulder that swings on the summit of the highest of the hills; a bubble-shaped cave that has neither ceiling nor floor, and mirrors its own darkness in every direction infinitely.” This rumor, with its suggestion of the repetition of mirrors, gives a sense of foreboding, the fear that the universe has no meaning, that there is no difference between existence and non-existence, that everything is ephemeral, that nothing lasts. It introduces, and helps define, what happens next.

Mrs. Moore enters one of the caves and nearly faints. The crush, the stench, the terrifying echo in that small, tightly enclosed place had been horrifying. She won’t go into any of the others. When, a few minutes later, Adela Quested goes into a cave, her mind is on her marriage. The engagement had been broken off and then resumed, neither decision made with any great passion. She had asked Aziz if he had many wives. Aziz, a widower, had been offended at the suggestion, but Adela’s curiosity suggested her own apprehension about what she felt, or did not feel. She is not certain what she should do.

Aziz goes to join her in the cave, but she has already left the cave and descended the hill. He sees her, far below, going off with a woman in a motor car. Her binoculars had fallen on the ground and the strap was broken. He picks them up and puts them in his pocket. When he gets back to Chandrapore he is arrested and taken into custody, charged with assault. The glasses in his pocket are all the proof the authorities need.

The result of the arrest is immediate, and catastrophic. “All over Chandrapore that day the Europeans were putting aside their normal personalities and sinking themselves in their community. Pity, wrath, heroism, filled them, but the power of putting two and two together was annihilated.” Adela Quested had not been much liked by the British women when she first arrived. She was too opinionated, too liberal in her views, but now, a British woman, the victim of an outrage, everyone was as devoted to her as if there had never been any doubt she belonged. She was not as important, however, as the issue raised by her assault, and “people inevitably forgot her.”

The trial of Dr. Aziz becomes, in a way, a conflict between British prejudice and British justice. Unlike the Belgians who ruled the Congo with an iron hand and treated the natives as slaves, the British had done what they could to make India more like Britain. The lawyer for Dr. Aziz is an Indian, a Moslem “with the dignified manner and Cambridge degree,” and the leading barrister of Chandrapore. The presiding judge is also an Indian, though this is resented. That “he should be judge over an English girl had convulsed the station with wrath.”

Everything hangs on what Adela Quested will say, and she herself is not quite sure. In her initial account, she stated that the encounter could not have lasted more than thirty seconds. She saw a shadow. “I hit at him with the glasses, he pulled me round the cave by the strap, it broke, I escaped, that’s all. He never actually touched me.” Later, alone with her fiancĂ©, she insists she has made “an awful mistake,” and that Aziz is innocent. Ronny, the strict, narrow minded civil servant, asks her, “Have you any evidence in the prisoner’s favor?” She may think Aziz innocent, but she is still certain that he followed her into the cave. The case must proceed, “the machinery has started.”

The temperature the day of the trial is 112. The courtroom is packed. The English, who have come to support Adela Quested, have all the best seats. Adela sits there, wondering if she really loves Ronny. “The question was somehow draggled up with the Malabar. It had been in her mind when she entered the fatal cave. Was she capable of loving anyone?” While she is thinking about this, the prosecution is telling the court that the darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but never the other way round. Adela supposes Aziz must be guilty, “but wonders if she could have made a mistake.’ Then, when she is finally called to testify, she realizes that she has. “I’m afraid I have made a mistake…. Dr. Aziz never followed me into the cave.”

There is jubilation among the Indians, rage and derision among the British women. The case is over, and so is Adela’s engagement. Ronny cannot marry her now; it would mean the end of his career. Adela goes back to England, but before she leaves Fielding tells her that, “Indians know whether they are liked or not - they cannot be fooled here. Justice never satisfies them, and that is why the British Empire rests on sand.” Fielding also leaves India and Aziz, whom he has supported through everything, tells him he should, and all the other English as well.

“Clear out, clear out, I say. Why are we put to so much suffering? We used to blame you, now we blame ourselves, we grow wiser. Until England is in difficulties we keep silent, but in the next European war - aha, aha! Then is our time.” Aziz believes he knows what will happen. “India shall be one nation! No foreigners of any sort! Hindu and Moslem and Sikh and all shall be one!”

A Passage To India was published in 1924. When the British left, a generation later, Hindu and Moslem went to war, more than a million Hindus and Moslems died, and, with Pakistan a new nation for Moslems, India became two instead of one. E.M. Forster had written this ending a dozen years before he wrote A Passage To India, in his novel The Longest Journey: “…if you herd together human beings before they can understand each other the great god Pan is angry, and will in the end evade your regulations and drive them mad.”

Only Mrs. Moore had come to understand this, and then only at the end, just before she died, on her last, unfinished, passage to England.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

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Third reading: Lord Jim.

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Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

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Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

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Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

Third Reading: To Each His Own.

--Marshal Zeringue