For hundreds of years people from every corner of the earth have questioned why social interaction has taken the complex form that it now has. If humans had a natural origin, then how, and more importantly, why is society such a nexus of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’? Rousseau, in his work Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, stated in that as societies grow and become more complex, simple one-on-one interactions become rarer and it is harder to ‘keep the peace’. As such specific codes of behavior, including concepts such as morals, ethics and good manners, came into existence in an effort to create stable societies. These are universal concepts and, though they may vary in their particulars, exist in every culture around the world.
Every culture creates its own set of norms and mores to govern behavior and define good manners. In the film A Passage to India, the major cultures seen are Indian and British, or more precisely, Colonial British and Indian. The kind of relations normally seen are very hierarchical – there are the ‘conquered’ people of India and the ‘conquerors’ who are British. Good manners in such situations are governed by a very strong sense of hierarchy – the British are at the top and the Indians must respect them. Hinduism created one of the world’s oldest ethical systems which stressed on a spiritual or trans-material base for good manners. According to Hindu doctrine, after passing a certain stage in life, material facts no longer play a role in governing good behavior. But Islamic and especially British culture had a strong influence on Indian codes of ethics at the time in which the film is set (1920s). This kind of ethical system is best explained through the works of Confucius and Plato. Confucius stated that – “There are few who, being filial and fraternal, are fond of offending against their superiors. This clearly fits the 1920s paradigm in India – the Indians are expected to honor the British and treat them with respect. On the other hand, Confucius goes on to say – “When our master comes to any country, he does not fail to learn all about its government.” (Confucius, 2009) This clearly means that it is the duty of the British to respect the Indians in return – something which is not done much at all in the film (or in real life at the time). Because of this break with the standard norms of good manners, there was a lot of discontent among the Indians which led to a very polarized society.
This polarized society spawned the friendship between Adela Quested and Mrs. More and Dr. Aziz Ahmed. Their friendship was not based on Confucius’s idea of a clearly stratified society, but on a clear understanding and mutual respect for one another. This subverted the usual moral standard so a different code of ethics needed to be followed amongst the three. This code is best explained through Aristotle and Plato. Plato did defend the idea of a clearly stratified society, but he also enabled people to break free of it. Towards the end of his famous cave analogy, he stated that it was not enough for people to free themselves of the shadows of truth (or lies) and ‘see the sun’, but that once this happened, he should return to the cave and help the others who are still inside to come out of it as well. He said – “When he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the cave and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?” (Plato, 2012) This is a truth which is available to everyone, not just to masters or slave. In the Indian context, it can be assumed that it was the British who had ‘seen the sun’ and it was their duty to lead the Indians to it as well. When looking at the relationship between the ladies and Dr. Aziz, it is clear that they are on an equal footing so the same rules of good behavior should apply to all three of them. Within their elite circle this was true but when trouble strikes and the racial tensions in India flare up, the division between Indians and Britons is made very apparent. The result is that their friendship is broken
up and each becomes more British or Indian than he/she was before. Dr. Aziz opened a clinic in Kashmir and the ladies returned to England.
Brabourne, J. and Goodwin, R.B. (Producers) & Lean, D. (Director). A Passage to India (Motion Picture). United States: Colombia Pictures.
Confucius. (2009) The Analects. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Confucius/analects.1.1.html.
Plato. (2012) The Allegory of the Cave. Retrieved from http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/allegory.html.
Rousseau, J. J. (1984). A discourse on inequality. New York: Penguin.