It is India in the year 1924 or thereabouts. After a mysterious incident during a visit to the Marabar Caves, Dr Aziz is accused of assaulting Adele Quested, a young Englishwoman. As he’s brought to trial the fragile structure of Anglo-Indian relations collapses and the racism inherent to colonialism is exposed—a theme which still has powerful, dangerous realities today.
Dr Aziz is quite far from a likeable character. He is thoughtless, he has a high opinion of himself and definite opinions of others. He also copes with the English authority by the means of humour. He laughs at them and lets them laugh at him. Dr Aziz meets Mrs Moore in a mosque when he scolds her about keeping her shoes on. When it becomes clear that she’s not wearing any footwear, apologies are made and an honest dialogue begins. That discussion comes to an end when Dr Aziz has escorted Mrs Moore back to the Club into which Indians aren’t allowed.
Through Mrs Moore Dr Aziz meets Ms Quested—a newcomer to India like Mrs Moore—and ends up escorting them both to the Marabar Caves. It is at the caves where something happens.
Like so often in real life, even today, it’s never made perfectly clear what exactly happens at the caves. All that is known is that Ms Quested fled from the scene quite upset and that Dr Aziz is to blame. Or maybe not. He claims he’s innocent and Ms Quested isn’t quite sure herself what happened, but she’s the victim and beyond reproach. She’s a naïve young woman but more importantly she’s an Englishwoman and he’s an Indian.
Watching the events unfold was like watching a documentary from the year 2013. I’m serious, nothing’s changed in ninety years. When a white woman is attacked the dark man is to blame. He’s guilty until proven innocent and maybe not even then. The courts may let him go but that’s a failure on their part not evidence of his blamelessness.
It’s still true today that while individuals may bridge that gap between the races and become friends, society as a group almost never does. Old prejudices die hard.
While the legacy of colonialism is quite foreign to me, I could still identify with Adele Quested because she’s a woman. She’s someone who wants to see the best in people and ends up making a horrible mistake. She’s also the one whose word weighs least when it comes to the crime she’s the victim of. As soon as she’s uttered one accusatory word, the men take over. The Englishmen. They’ve arrested, put Dr Aziz on trial, and judged him before the first hit of the gavel. Dr Aziz is guilty and thus every Indian is. The English are better. Even the women but who listens to the women? Certainly not Dr Aziz who is furious to be accused by someone so ugly.
Contradictions. This book is full of contradictions, but so are people. I just wish we’d learned to know better by now.