Forster begins A Passage to India with a short description of Chandrapore, a city along that Ganges that is not notable except for the nearby Marabar caves. Chandrapore is a city of gardens with few fine houses from the imperial period of Upper India; it is primarily a “forest sparsely scattered with huts.”
The first chapter of A Passage to India describes the setting of the novel. Forster establishes Chandrapore as a prototypical Indian town, neither distinguished nor exceptionally troubled. This town can therefore be taken to be symbolic of the rest of India rather than an exceptional case. This allows the actions that occur in the following chapters to be representative of the Anglo-Indian colonial relations that will dominate the events of the novel. By beginning the novel with a mention of the Marabar Caves, Forster foreshadows later events that will occur concerning the Marabar Caves and that will provide the narrative turning point of A Passage to India. It is significant that Forster does not begin the novel with the description of any particular character. This places the story in context of the town of Chandrapore in particular and the nation of India in general.
Dr. Aziz arrives by bicycle at the house of Hamidullah, where Hamidullah and Mr.Mahmoud Ali are smoking hookah and arguing about whether it is possible to be friends with an Englishman. Hamidullah, educated at Cambridge, claims that it is possibly only in England, and the three gossip about English elites in India. Hamidullah Begum, a distant aunt of Aziz, asks him when he will be married, but he responds that once is enough. A servant arrives, bearing a note from the Civil Surgeon; Callendar wishes to see Aziz at his bungalow about a medical case. Aziz leaves, traveling down the various streets named after victorious English generals, to reach Major Callendar’s compound. The servant at the compound snubs Aziz, telling him the major has no message. Two English ladies, Mrs. Callendar and Mrs. Lesley, take Aziz’s tonga (carriage), thinking that his ride is their own. Aziz then leaves to go to the nearly mosque paved with broken slabs. The Islamic temple awakens Aziz’s sense of beauty; for Aziz, Islam is more than a mere Faith, but an attitude towards life. Suddenly, an elderly Englishwoman arrives at the mosque. He reprimands her, telling her that she has no right to be there and that she should have taken off her shoes, but she tells him that she did remember to take them off. Aziz then apologizes for assuming that she would have forgotten. She introduces herself as Mrs. Moore, and tells Aziz that she is newly arrived in India and has come from the club. He warns her about walking alone at night, because of poisonous snakes and insects. Mrs. Moore is visiting her son, Mr. Heaslop, who is the City Magistrate. They find that they have much in common: both were married twice and have two sons and a daughter. He escorts Mrs. Moore back to the club, but tells her that Indians are not allowed into the Chandrapore Club, even as guests.
In this chapter, Forster establishes several of the major themes that will predominate A Passage to India. Most important among these is the vast difference between the English colonial elite and the native population of India. Forster makes it clear that the British elite treat the Indians with disrespect, as demonstrated by Major Callendar’s summons to Aziz and his wife’s oblivious attitude toward Aziz when she takes his tonga. However, Aziz is too polite to confront the women on their slight. He values behaving politely to these English elites over asserting his own sense of self-respect. This event therefore provides a contrast to later events of the novel in which Aziz becomes less accommodating and more focused on his rights and dignity. Forster harbors a particular distrust for English women in India, finding that they are more likely to treat Indians with disrespect. The Indians, in turn, are preoccupied with the English treatment of them. The Indians are aware of the degrees of English treatment toward them, as shown when Hamidullah notes that the English in India are less kind than the English in England. This evokes broader themes of colonialism that permeate the novel; Forster will indicate that the position of the English as rulers changes the social dynamic between them and the Indians at the expense of normal, cordial behavior that would otherwise occur. Dr. Aziz emerges in this chapter as an easily excitable man who is conscious of any slight against him by the English elite, having been trained by experience to notice these snubs. He automatically assumes the worst when dealing with the English, as shown with his premature reprimand of Mrs. Moore, who defies all of his expectations of English women. Yet if Aziz is extremely sensitive to others behavior and initially distrustful of Mrs. Moore, his reserve soon melts around Mrs. Moore after she shows respect for him and his culture. This relates to a major theme in the novel, the interaction between eastern and western culture. Mrs. Moore is to a large extent an idealized character in A Passage to India; this elderly woman is sensitive, intelligent and kind to Dr. Aziz. She is a symbol of all that is decent in western culture: she takes liberal views and adheres to Christian ideals of behavior. It is not at all surprising that he so quickly takes a liking to her.