A young British schoolmistress, Adela Quested, and her elderly friend, Mrs. Moore, visit the fictional city of Chandrapore, British India. Adela is to decide if she wants to marry Mrs. Moore's son, Ronny Heaslop, the city magistrate.
Meanwhile, Dr. Aziz, a young Indian Muslim physician, is dining with two of his Indian friends and conversing about whether it is possible to be a friend of an Englishman. During the meal, a summons arrives from Major Callendar, Aziz's unpleasant superior at the hospital. Aziz hastens to Callendar's bungalow as ordered but is delayed by a flat tyre and difficulty in finding a tonga and the major has already left in a huff.
Disconsolate, Aziz walks down the road toward the railway station. When he sees his favourite mosque, he enters on impulse. He sees a strange Englishwoman there and yells at her not to profane this sacred place. The woman, Mrs Moore, has respect for native customs. This disarms Aziz, and the two chat and part as friends.
Mrs. Moore returns to the British club down the road and relates her experience at the mosque. Ronny Heaslop, her son, initially thinks she is talking about an Englishman and becomes indignant when he learns the facts. Adela, however, is intrigued.
Because the newcomers had expressed a desire to see Indians, Mr. Turton, the city tax collector, invites numerous Indian gentlemen to a party at his house. The party turns out to be an awkward business, thanks to the Indians' timidity and the Britons' bigotry, but Adela meets Cyril Fielding, principal of Chandrapore's government-run college for Indians. Fielding invites Adela and Mrs. Moore to a tea party with him and a Hindu-Brahmin professor named Narayan Godbole. At Adela's request, he extends his invitation to Dr. Aziz.
At Fielding's tea party, everyone has a good time conversing about India, and Fielding and Aziz become friends. Aziz promises to take Mrs. Moore and Adela to see the Marabar Caves, a distant cave complex. Ronny Heaslop arrives and rudely breaks up the party.
Aziz mistakenly believes that the women are offended that he has not followed through on his promise and arranges an outing to the caves at great expense to himself. Fielding and Godbole were supposed to accompany the expedition, but they miss the train.
Aziz and the women explore the caves. In the first cave, Mrs. Moore is overcome with claustrophobia. But worse than the claustrophobia is the echo. Disturbed by the sound, Mrs. Moore declines to continue exploring. Adela and Aziz, accompanied by a guide, climb to the next caves.
As Aziz helps Adela up the hill, she asks whether he has more than one wife. Disconcerted by the bluntness of the remark, he ducks into a cave to compose himself. When he comes out, he finds the guide alone outside the caves. The guide says Adela has gone into a cave by herself. Aziz looks for her in vain. Deciding she is lost, he strikes the guide, who runs away. Aziz looks around and discovers Adela's field glasses lying broken on the ground. He puts them in his pocket.
Then Aziz looks down the hill and sees Adela speaking to another young Englishwoman, Miss Derek, who has arrived with Fielding in a car. Aziz runs down the hill and greets Fielding, but Miss Derek and Adela drive off without explanation. Fielding, Mrs. Moore, and Aziz return to Chandrapore on the train.
At the train station, Aziz is arrested and charged with sexually assaulting Adela in a cave. The run-up to his trial releases the racial tensions between the British and the Indians. Adela says that Aziz followed her into the cave and tried to grab her, and that she fended him off by swinging her field glasses at him. The only evidence the British have is the field glasses in the possession of Aziz. Despite this, the British colonists believe that Aziz is guilty. They are stunned when Fielding proclaims his belief in Aziz's innocence. Fielding is ostracised and condemned as a blood-traitor. But the Indians, who consider the assault allegation a fraud, welcome him.
During the weeks before the trial, Mrs. Moore is apathetic and irritable. Although she professes her belief in Aziz's innocence, she does nothing to help him. Ronny, alarmed by his mother's assertion that Aziz is innocent, arranges for her return by ship to England before she can testify at the trial. Mrs. Moore dies during the voyage. Her absence from India becomes a major issue at the trial, where Aziz's legal defenders assert that her testimony would have proven the accused's innocence.
Adela becomes confused as to Aziz's guilt. At the trial, she is asked whether Aziz sexually assaulted her. She has a vision of the cave, and it turns out that Adela had, while in the cave, received a shock similar to Mrs. Moore's. The echo had disconcerted her so much that she became unhinged. At the time, Adela mistakenly interpreted her shock as an assault by Aziz. She admits that she was mistaken, and the case is dismissed. (Note: In the 1913 draft of the novel, EM Forster had Aziz guilty of the assault and found guilty in the court but changed this in the 1924 draft to create a more ambiguous ending.)
Ronny Heaslop breaks off their engagement. Adela stays at Fielding's house until her passage on a boat to England is arranged. After explaining to Fielding that the echo was the cause of the whole business, she departs India, never to return.
Although he is vindicated, Aziz is angry that Fielding befriended Adela after she nearly ruined his life. Believing it to be the gentlemanly thing to do, Fielding convinces Aziz not to seek monetary redress from her. The men's friendship suffers, and Fielding departs for England. Aziz believes that he is leaving to marry Adela for her money. Bitter at his friend's perceived betrayal, he vows never again to befriend a white person. Aziz moves to the Hindu-ruled state of Mau and begins a new life.
Two years later, Fielding returns to India. His wife is Stella, Mrs. Moore's daughter from a second marriage. Aziz, now the Raja's chief physician, comes to respect and love Fielding again. However, he does not give up his dream of a free and united India. In the novel's last sentences, he explains that he and Fielding cannot be friends until India is free of the British Raj.
Significant criticism of the novel has been performed by Benita Parry in Delusions and Discoveries: India in the British Imagination, Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism and Sara Suleri in The Rhetoric of the English in India.Dr. Aziz
A young Muslim Indian physician who works at the British hospital in Chandrapore, which is said to have been based on the city of Bankipur, a suburb of Patna in the state of Bihar. He relies heavily on intuition over logic, and he is more emotional than his best friend, Fielding. He makes friends easily and seems quite garrulous at times. His chief drawback is an inability to view a situation without emotion, which Forster suggests is a typical Indian difficulty. Aziz seems to possess a profound love for his late wife but only thinks of her intermittently. Initially he is somewhat indifferent to the British colonists, but comes to resent them after his treatment during the trial.
The 45-year-old, unmarried British headmaster of the small government-run college for Indians. Fielding's logical Western mind cannot comprehend the muddle (or mystery) of India, but he is highly tolerant and respectful toward Indians. He befriends Dr. Aziz, but cultural and racial differences, and personal misunderstandings, separate them.
A young British schoolmistress who is visiting India with the vague intention of marrying Ronny Heaslop. Intelligent, brave, honest, but slightly prudish, she is what Fielding calls a "prig." She arrives with the intention of seeing the real India. But after a frightening trip to the Marabar Caves, she falsely accuses Aziz of sexually assaulting her.
The elderly, thoughtful mother of Ronny Heaslop. She is visiting Chandrapore to oversee her son's engagement to Adela Quested. She respects Indians and their customs, and the Indians in the novel appreciate her more than they do any other Briton. After undergoing an experience similar to Adela's, she becomes apathetic and bitter.
The British city magistrate of Chandrapore. Though not a bad man, he shares many of his colonial colleagues' racist view of Indians. He breaks off his engagement to Adela after she retracts her accusation against Aziz. He considers her retraction to be a betrayal of their race. Adela also states in open court that she doesn't love him anymore.
Professor Narayan Godbole
An elderly, courteous, contemplative Brahmin who views the world with equanimity. He remains totally aloof from the novel's conflicts. He remains a mystery to the end, when he rehabilitates the friendship of Fielding and Aziz.
The British city collector of Chandrapore. He does not hate Indians, for that would be to negate his life's work. Nevertheless, he is fiercely loyal to his race, reviles less bigoted people like Fielding, and regards natives with thinly veiled contempt.
Mr. Turton's wife. Openly racist, snobbish, and rude toward Indians and those Europeans who are different, she screams at Adela in the courtroom when the latter retracts her accusation against Aziz.
The British head doctor and Aziz's superior at the hospital. He is more openly racist than any other male character. Rumors circulate among Indians that Callendar actually tortured an injured Indian by putting pepper instead of antiseptic on his wounds.
The British superintendent of police in Chandrapore. Like Mr. Turton, he considers dark-skinned races inferior to light-skinned ones. During Aziz's trial, he publicly asserts that it is a scientific fact that dark men lust after white women. Nevertheless, he is more tolerant of Indians than most Britons, and he is on friendly terms with Fielding.
An Englishwoman employed by a Hindu royal family. She frequently borrows their car—and does not trouble to ask their permission or return it in time. She is too boisterous and easygoing for most of her compatriots' tastes. She has an affair with McBryde.
The chief Indian gentleman in Chandrapore, a Muslim. Wealthy (he owns a car) and generous, he is loyal to the British (he lends his car to Ronny Heaslop). But after the trial, he gives up his title of "nawab," which the British bestowed on him, in favour of plain "Mr. Zulfiqar."
Aziz's uncle and friend. Educated in law at Cambridge University, he declares at the beginning of the novel that it is easier to be a friend of an Englishman in England than in India. Aziz comes to agree with him.
A prominent Indian lawyer from Calcutta, called in to defend Aziz. He is known for his strong anti-British sentiment. He takes the case for political reasons and becomes disgusted when the case evaporates in court.
A Muslim Indian barrister who openly hates the British.
Dr. Panna Lal
A low-born Hindu doctor and Aziz's rival at the hospital.
A timid, sensitive and discerning youth, the second son of Mrs. Moore.
Mrs. Moore's daughter and, later, Fielding's beautiful younger wife.
1924 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.
1925 Femina Vie Heureuse
A Passage to India (play), A Broadway play written by Santha Rama Rau based on the novel that ran on the West End in 1960, and on Broadway in 1962.
The Indian parallel Bengali film director Satyajit Ray intended to direct a theatrical adaptation of the novel, but the project was never realised.
The 1984 film version directed by David Lean, and starring Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, James Fox, Peggy Ashcroft and Alec Guinness, won two Oscars and numerous other awards.
Martin Sherman wrote an additional version for the stage, that premiered at the Shared Experience in Richmond in 2002. It has toured the UK and played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theater in November 2004.
In 1960 the manuscript of A Passage to India was donated to Rupert Hart-Davis by Forster and sold to raise money for the London Library; selling for the then record sum of £6,500 for a modern English manuscript.