A Most Health-Giving Flood: Spatial Promiscuity in E M Forster’s A Passage to India

Bassam Sidiki //

E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) may be one of the most important novels chronicling the spatial logics of segregation during the zenith of the British Raj. However, critical work on colonial space in the novel often ignores the centrality of health and disease in the narrative and how they mediate the characters’ experiences of space. This scholarly lacuna is particularly glaring given that one of the protagonists of the novel, Aziz, is a native physician in the colonial health services. Using discourses of health, social hygiene, and contagion – both in and contemporaneous with the novel – I argue that at the heart of A Passage to India lies an anxiety about racial border-crossing that is at once spatial, sexual, and infectious, what Priscilla Wald in another context has termed “spatial promiscuity.” This spatial promiscuity was especially resonant in the discourses of venereal and nonvenereal infectious disease. The writing and publication of Passage were contemporaneous with these discourses, which included a growing international movement against “White Slavery,” i.e. the traffic in European women. This gives new valences to the ultimate border-crossing in the novel: Adela Quested’s imagined sexual assault by the Muslim physician Dr. Aziz. This is of immense significance for the argument being made here: that in addition to the novel’s representations of spatial segregation and of Anglo-Indian “exile,” the preponderance of sanitary thinking, social hygiene, and the rise of germ theory make Passage an important text on the spatializing and, indeed, sexualizing logics of health in the interwar British Raj.

            As numerous critics have noted, the novel begins with a detailed description of the civil station in Chandrapore, immediately setting the residences of the colonials against the rest of the city. On the one hand “though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest” (7), and on the other: “Houses belonging to Eurasians stand on the high ground by the railway station… On the second rise is laid out the little civil station, and viewed hence Chandrapore appears to be a totally different place. It is a city of gardens” (8). This kind of segregation in hill stations – what scholar Carl Nightingale (2012) has called “white archipelagos” – was common throughout the British Empire, influenced by theories of miasma and the emergent discourses of sanitation in the metropole. In the eighth chapter of the novel, as the landowner Nawab Bahadur drives Adela Quested and her fiancé Ronny Heaslop in his car, he points to the civil station on the hill as an example of British ingenuity. He bemoans “the superstition of the Indian character” and the fact that the Hindu princely states have not “been as successful as British India, where we see reason and orderliness spreading in every direction, like a most health-giving flood!” (93) In the Nawab’s enthusiastic speech and the narrator’s commentary, health and reason come to stand metonymically for each other, as over and against the sickness and superstition of the “real India.” The civil station thus paradoxically represents both an insular entity barricading itself against disease but also, as an example of “orderly” British infrastructure, an expansive “health-giving flood.”

            Dane Kennedy, in The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj (1996), has comprehensively recorded the history of such hill stations and the rationale behind their development, and the title of his book is even more apt for the historical context of Forster’s novel. Passage was published in June 1924, and it was followed soon after in November of that year with German novelist Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, one of the greatest meditations on disease and death in the Western canon, following the daily lives of tubercular patients in a sanatorium in the Alps. This suggests the extent to which discourses of acquiring health through horizontal and vertical segregation were circulating in different imperial contexts at the time that Forster published his novel. In fact, literary texts like Passage and The Magic Mountain were composed during the period of the International Sanitary Conferences, the first of which was held in 1851 in Paris in response to the first pandemic of “Asiatic cholera” emerging from India (Howard-Jones 9). The many references to cholera in Passage attest to the fact that the sixth cholera pandemic (1899-1923) was still raging at the time when Forster was working on the novel (Dasgupta 104).

In Chapter IX, Dr. Aziz falls ill after attending a tea party held by his friend, Cyril Fielding. Dr. Aziz’s friends visit to inquire about his health and, after learning that their mutual friend Professor Godbole has also fallen ill, facetiously wonder if Fielding tried to poison them. Rafi, the nephew of one of Aziz’s friends, avers that Godbole has cholera. However, it is later revealed that it is just hemorrhoids. Everyone chides Rafi for spreading rumors, and Aziz says: “I hear cholera, I hear bubonic plague, I hear every species of lie. Where will it end, I ask myself sometimes. This city is full of misstatements, and the originators of them ought to be discovered and punished authoritatively” (109). This “species of lie” around an infectious disease foreshadows the more malignant lie that Aziz himself will face: that he sexually assaulted Adela Quested in the Marabar Caves. Moreover, Aziz’s ruminations during his illness point to another network of contagion that had great importance at the time of the novel’s writing: prostitution and venereal disease.

            As he is in bed convalescing, Aziz “continued to think about beautiful women” (102). He concocts a plan in his mind to go to the brothels in Calcutta without anyone – specially his superior Major Callender – knowing about his intentions. “If Major Callender had been an Indian, he would have remembered what young men are, and granted two or three days’ leave to Calcutta without asking questions. But the Major assumed either that his subordinates were made of ice, or that they repaired to the Chandrapore bazaars – disgusting ideas both” (101). It is worthwhile to explore why the latter option is so “disgusting” to Aziz and why he would rather travel to Calcutta for his sexual needs rather than “repair to the Chandrapore bazaars.”

In 1923, a year before the publication of the novel, the first Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act was passed in Calcutta to show the League of Nations that the British colonial government was doing something to curb the trafficking of European women (Legg 2012, 1505). Fischer-Tiné (2003), Tambe (2005), and Legg (2014) have demonstrated how Bombay, and to a lesser extent Calcutta, were nodes in a sex trafficking network that came to be known as “the white slave trade.” From the 1880s on, organizations like the National Vigilance Association sought to curb this trafficking of white women and girls in the colonial peripheries, while appropriating the language of the abolition of chattel slavery in the early nineteenth century. It so happens that this movement achieved a significant milestone in 1912, the same year that Forster was visiting India and during which time he was writing Passage. That year saw the ratification of the second Criminal Law Amendment Act, otherwise known as the “White Slave Traffic Act,” and an attempt was made to pass a similar law in India, showing that the paranoia around white slavery was ubiquitous during the time that Forster was visiting the colony.

Brothels and bazaars of ill-repute in India were segregated through the Indian Contagious Diseases Act and the Cantonment Regulations that followed, adding a further layer of division in the colonial urban space. In fact, European prostitutes were often tolerated in India so that British men would not, abiding by the emergent racialization of germ theory, consort with Indian prostitutes lest they expose themselves to particular diseases. Furthermore, the first Imperial Social Hygiene Congress was held in Wembley as part of the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, the same year that Passage was published, demonstrating the increased anxieties around the transmission of venereal disease at the time. Historian Stephen Legg observes that “prostitution proved, more clearly than any other form of contagion, that interaction between British and Indian populations was impossible to stymie by spatial segregation… The transition from miasmatic to germ theory in the 1890s further cemented the belief in the inseparable nature of troop and native health and sanitation” (2014, 102). Thus, even as imperial hill stations and private clubs sought to discriminate between British and Indian people, the specter of prostitution with its paranoias of the white slave trade and venereal disease loomed dangerously to disrupt these segregations.

            Was Dr. Aziz thinking of Calcutta’s European prostitutes? That is an open question, but it creates possibilities for our interpretation of the sexual assault scene in the Marabar Caves. It is useful, also, to juxtapose the flow of European prostitution with the contemporaneous migrations of what historian Dirk Hoerder (2002) calls “‘surplus women’, those who would not find husbands in England and who could not contribute to national wealth at home” (427). Adela Quested is a surplus woman: she has come to India to decide if she is going to marry Ronny Heaslop, a colonial administrator. For Hoerder, “chaste homemaking, national character, and imperial expansion merged – in housework and in bed” (ibid), and in reflecting these ideals Adela ostensibly presents a foil to the European prostitutes of India. But when Adela’s accusation is considered together with Aziz’s possible designs at procuring the services of European prostitutes, the figure of Adela comes to inhabit a spatial promiscuity that is anathema to white prestige. In the incident at the Marabar Caves and the courtroom drama that follows, the putatively neat borders of the imperial status quo, adumbrated by space and sex, seem to have been crossed irreversibly.


Dasgupta, R. “Chapter 3: Time Trends of Cholera in India: An Overview.” pp. 99-147. Retrieved 3/31/19.

Fischer-Tiné, Harald. “‘White women degrading themselves to the lowest depths’: European networks of prostitution and colonial anxieties in British India and Ceylon ca. 1880-1940.” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, vol. 40, no. 2, 2003, pp. 163-190.

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1924. 1962.

Hoerder, Dirk. Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium. Duke UP, 2002.

Howard-Jones, Norman. The Scientific Background of the International Sanitary Conferences, 1851-1938. World Health Organization, 1975.

Kennedy, Dane. The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj. UC Press, 1996.

Legg, Stephen. Prostitution and the Ends of Empire: Scale, Governmentalities, and Interwar India. Duke UP, 2014.

— “Stimulation, Segregation and Scandal: Geographies of Prostitution Regulation in British India, between Registration (1888) and Suppression (1923)” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 46, no. 6, 2012, pp. 1459-1505.

Nightingale, Carl. Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

També, Ashwini. “The Elusive Ingénue: A Transnational Feminist Analysis of European Prostitution in Colonial Bombay.” Gender and Society, vol. 19, no. 2, 2005, pp. 160-179.

Wald, Priscilla. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Duke UP, 2008.

Note: A version of this paper was presented on the panel “Literary Spaces” at the 2021 CHCI Medical and Health Humanities Summer Institute, hosted by the University of Southern Denmark.

Cover Image: White Slave Trade by Joaquin Sorolla, 1895. Source: Sorolla Museum, Madrid, Spain.

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