Regarding A Passage to India…I love book lists, and I have noticed that only six books are included on all of the top 20th century book lists that I have found: A Catcher in the Rye, 1984, Lolita, On the Road, The Great Gatsby, and A Passage to India. I can see the importance of the other novels, and I liked A Passage to India, but is it really one of the top 6 books of the 20th century? I'm not sure. But looking at the list, what isn't in those six that should be? Faulkner? What about To Kill A Mockingbird (which still baffles me as to how it was left off of the Modern Library list...)? Is TKaM better or more important than A Passage to India? Better, yes. More important? I really don't know...
The essential plot line behind APtI is that Aziz, an Indian Muslim doctor is falsely accused of sexually assaulting Miss Quested, a British woman who has come to India to get engaged to Heasop, a British official in imperial India. I really still don't understand why Miss Quested accused Aziz... it certainly wasn't out of malice. But when she realizes that he was not actually in the cave with her (on the witness stand she realizes this), she admits that she was wrong, and Aziz is freed. There is a lot that happens behind that story, and after that matter is cleared up, but that's the gist of it.
It's also a book about racism - the racism of the British towards the Indians (both Muslims and Hindus) but also the prejudices of the "natives" towards the British (for good reason in some cases). There are discussions about whether or not an Indian can really be friends with a Brit, and the answer ends up being that in England, Indians and the English can be friends, but not in India. I suppose what perhaps makes it so important - as in the top 6 of a century important - is that it told the story without prejudice against the Indians. It treated them as on par with the English...he is able to speak about both sides with fairness. I don't know how prevalent that particular point of view was towards native peoples under British rule in the early 20th century, but I imagine that most people were less cosmopolitan in their views.
The statement that struck me most in the novel was when it was stated that Miss Quested wanted to know India, but not Indians. Don't we do that everywhere we go? We want to see a country, and experience the natural beauty, the food, the human improvements to the natural beauty...but do people really go to France to get to know the French? That is a deep statement about our nature, and the nature of our travel. Afterall, who could feel comfortable visiting the Dominican Republic or Jamaica (like people I know have) and enjoying their resort if they really knew about the people of Jamaica or the DR and the conditions that exist outside of the neatly contructed universe of the resort? To get to know the country is vastly different from getting to know the people.
I really don't get why this book was so important. Maybe in time I will come to see it's merits beyond just being a good book (but not too good...not Gatsby good, or Lolita or 1984 or On the Road good) with a unique perspective for the time.