A Passage to India: Novel Summary: Chapters 20-23
Adela is confined to a sickroom, and all the English are very solicitous of her welfare. That night there is a meeting at the club. It is decided that in view of the explosive situation in the town, the English women and children should be sent away to a settlement in the hills. The Collector tells the men that they must not carry arms; everyone should behave as if the situation is normal.
Major Callendar reports that Miss Quested is feeling better. Callendar is upset that he allowed Aziz some leave from his job to go on the expedition to the caves, and he tries to pick a quarrel with Fielding. He also relates the burgeoning case against Aziz. The English now believe that Aziz bribed his servant Antony to stay behind; he bribed Godbole to ensure that Fielding missed the train; and he arranged for natives to suffocate Mrs. Moore in one of the caves so that he could go on with Miss Quested alone. Fielding, who does not believe a word of any of this, realizes that evil is spreading in every direction. When Ronny enters, Fielding remains seated while everyone else stands. The Collector asks him why, and Fielding responds with a statement that he believes Aziz is innocent. If Aziz should be found guilty, Fielding says he will leave India, and he resigns from the club on the spot. The Collector demands that Fielding apologize to Ronny, but Fielding side-steps the demand. The Collector orders him to leave the room.
Fielding spends the evening with Nawab Bahadur, Hamidullah, and Mahmoud Ali. The news is that Amritrao has agreed to defend Aziz, and another application for bail is to be presented.
Adela stays for several days in the McBryde bungalow. She recounts what she believes happened in the cave, how she was pulled around the cave by the strap of the glasses, but the man had never actually touched her. She oscillates between common sense and hysteria, and is often sunk in depression. She is told she will have to testify at the trial, and be cross-examined by an Indian lawyer. The judge in the case will be Das, Ronny's Indian assistant.
McBryde delivers a letter to Miss Quested from Fielding. He has already opened it. In the letter, Fielding suggests that she has made a mistake in accusing Aziz, but Miss Quested dismisses the idea. Ronny takes her to see his mother, but Mrs. Moore is not sympathetic to her. She has taken no interest in Adela's plight or the accusation against Aziz. She just wants to be left in peace, and she refuses to testify at the trial. Ronny tells her she ought to, since her testimony is important. But still Mrs. Moore refuses. After she leaves the room, Adela suddenly says that Aziz is innocent, and that she has made a mistake. She believes she heard Mrs. Moore say that Aziz was innocent, but Ronny assures her that this is not the case. She is suffering from an illusion, and is mixing Mrs. Moore up with the contents of Fielding's letter. Adela accepts his explanation, and admits that she is neurotic. When Mrs. Moore returns to the room, she confirms that she thinks Aziz is innocent. She is testy and disagreeable to Ronny, who thinks she ought to leave India at once.
Mrs. Moore returns to England in comfort. Lady Mellanby, wife of the Lieutenant -Governor of the Province, offers her accommodation in her reserved cabin on an ocean liner.
Chapter 20, set in the English club, provides a devastating insight into the psychology of the people who wield imperial power. It would be hard to better the description Forster provides of how the English react to the perceived threat from the "natives," as the tensions in the city build up. Although the English pride themselves on remaining rational and in control, they in fact give way to a group emotion. They exaggerate the danger and talk of evacuating women and children. The use of the phrase "women and children" summons up some subterranean martial spirit in these men: "that phrase that exempts the male from sanity when it has been repeated a few times." In other words, a dangerous spirit of irrationality has already taken them over. The passage continues: "Each felt that all he loved best in the world was at stake, demanded revenge, and was filled with a not unpleasing glow, in which the chilly and half-known features of Miss Quested vanished, and were replaced by all that is sweetest and warmest in the private life.
Here is a collection of the primal, even primitive group emotions that unscrupulous politicians and demagogues have exploited for centuries. In one deft paragraph, Forster analyzes the psychology of how rational people ready themselves to do irrational things in what they believe is the defense of their group, culture or nation, in the name of which (as history shows) they will do almost anything.
The idiocy of the judgments the English make about the Indians is revealed in a fine piece of irony. At the club, the English subaltern says that the "natives" are fine if they are alone. He remembers an Indian he played polo with a while back. "Any native who plays polo is all right," he says. The Indian in question is of course Aziz, the very man whose name the English cannot now even bear to utter.