EM Forster’s novel A Passage to India was published a hundred years ago, in 1924. On the surface a critical exposé of the British Raj, it has a philosophical underlay, its characters stretched between two apparently opposing poles: the gross materialism of the Marabar Caves and the ravishing spiritual ecstasy of the Krishna festival at Mau. John Drew, author of India and the Romantic Imagination (Oxford India), celebrates the novel’s centenary by studying with (italicised) riffs and tropes from (mostly) Forster’s own writing an account of a journey he once made to Dewas, the princely state where Forster was private secretary to the Raja.

An unshaven policemen, uniform creased, was slouched dozing in one corner of the antique railway compartment, his badge of office, a lathi, askew between his legs. Other passengers had clearly decided to give the Law a wide berth: he had the compartment all to himself.

It was on the road to Dewas from Ujjain. That the carriage had seen better days – accommodating first-class passengers on the main line far away behind us – was evident from the metal rack above the policeman’s head. Once upon a time, this was designed to hold a block of ice while a punkah sent swirls of air through it to cool fevered brows, if not to winnow souls. This arrangement, however antiquated, would have been welcome just now in the Hot Weather.

My companion was the anglicised Maratha man of letters, JD Birje-Patil, Renaissance scholar and theatre director, yet to be transformed into the – dare I bellow – Forsterian novelist Jaysinh Birjé, chronicling successively the worlds of a boxwallah hotel in Mhow in the 1930s, the passage to America of a (loosely autobiographical) “Good Muslim” and, finally, the destruction of urbane life in an imagined Indian city, hybrid of Baroda and Hyderabad.

We were travelling to Dewas in search of echoes of EM Forster and his Indian novel. We were to stay with Birje’s aunts there, a haven of tranquillity from which to venture out and ascend the Hill of Devi. Though not intrepid, these literary pilgrims, looking for a quiet corner on the train, were undeterred by the presence of the Law and entered his precinct.

Ujjain, perhaps conscious of its status as the geomantic centre of the world, seemed reluctant to let us go. We were less reluctant to be gone: for us, only in books were any of Ujjain’s reputed Nine Gems likely to sparkle. The filth in its mean streets, the hot sun, cow dung and marigold flowers were enough to deter all but the invited guest and it was not Ujjain – or even heaven that was inviting us but Dewas.

The train, as half asleep as the slovenly policeman, was slow to assume special airs and had not progressed very far along the line before the policeman roused himself. Surprised to discover he was no longer alone, he enquired, not out of officiousness but curiosity, as to our purposes.

Birje informed him we were in search of an English literary gent called Morgan Forster. The policeman looked baffled. The name meant as little to him as it did to the branch line that, since Forster’s time, had sprung up like wheat on the Malwa plain. Our policeman evidently had no need of English or its literature.

That is not to say, as he was soon to show, that literature had been divorced from his civilisation. As Salman Rushdie was to find in Nicaragua, while the novel might not matter at all, poetry and song – as composed by (an accented) Tagoré – did. So it was with our Malwa policeman. A remark Birje made about the decay of language called out of him a poetic couplet turning upon the pretty conceit of the mutual caring for each other of mother and child.

Encouraged by our – very genuine – delight and applause, he began to recite couplets of Hindi poetry, mostly devotional and full of metaphysical conceits, some apparently his own, though none, we thought, by Tukaram. Once started, nothing could stop him.

As the short but interminable journey dragged on through the hot afternoon, what had initially been charming became cloying and palled. Like the owl in the Indian fable, the policeman became infatuated by his own echo. By the time we were engulfed by the clamour of arrival at Dewas, we were screaming at him under our breath to give it a miss. No more.

Having made our way out through the chaos of the seething crowds at the station, we secured a tonga that took us by way of the ceremonial gate into Dewas built in honour of King-Emperor George V, now more at home in its new avatar as the Jhansi ki Rani darwaza, to the house of the aunts just outside the walls of the Old Palace.

The tumbledown house was built around a central courtyard, ornate with lattice windows and carved beams and doors. Was it possible that the white chameli in the courtyard smelling so sweet and the vegetable vine climbing from a gourd as if it were grape might for a moment deceive a Hellenist that he was in the Mediterranean? To have regarded this Indian interior as if were Italian would not have been a fatal error but, if it were there when Forster taught its sirdar owner English at ten o’clock each morning, he makes no mention of it.

Inside the house were countless little emblems in the passages, fading pictures on the walls trying to remember noble ancestors in martial dress stretching back beyond the time of photography to that of miniatures, one depicting the “founder” of the family, though that well after his reputed descent from the Sun and the Moon.

Jumbled in with these portraits were colourful prints of Lord Krishna, always Krishna, only Krishna, sometimes toying with Radha but more often playing his tricks as a mischievous child. Toy clay models of rural Gokul, swathed in tinselly shawls, were deployed higgledy-piggledy on ledges, ranged anything but coldly on shelves.

Birje was a beloved nephew and special little dishes of sabji had been prepared for us. Having exchanged the usual courtesies with the aunts and rested a little, we hastened to climb the Hill in the cool of the evening. Ujjain may lay claim to being the Hindu meridian, but it is little hills such as the Devi’s that better approximate to the teeming world mountain of Meru.

The Devi’s mountain, dotted with devotees not only in scarlet but every colour under the sun, was pitted with little caves, more niches really, in which the goddess, perpetually covered with flowers, appeared as if in a sequence of ragas appropriate to her mood and the time of day. There was nothing, nothing at all on this profuse and colourful surface to suggest a miscreant cave of emptiness within predisposed to diss any such illusory images as might intrude into it.

As we looked down on the wheat fields of Malwa stretching away to flat-topped hills in the distance, a mint incongruously planted among them, it was no longer onto a kingdom serendipitously split into two as in Forster’s time, in fact now no kingdom at all except in the minds of some of its erstwhile loyal subjects.

Immediately below in the vicinity of the hill, we could see several notable landmarks. There was the wrestling ring like an amphitheatre, emptied of the naked bodies and savage cries that had once excited Forster’s attention. There were no contests now since it was feared that what might be excited these days were communal tensions.

Down below could also be seen the grave under the peepal tree that, on Forster’s first visit to Dewas, Malcolm Darling, his Cambridge friend responsible for his introduction to the tiny state, mistook for a shrine to Durga and was surprised to learn was Muslim.

One was always going to be wrong”, commented Forster, an apt epigraph perhaps for a novelist whose book on India that then began to germinate would frustrate him for a further dozen years, though possibly deriving as much flexible strength as flabby weakness from this readiness to admit to being baffled and confused?

Darling’s slip was more muddle than mystery since the old woman who kept the grave probably told him, and was misheard, that it was a dargah. Not that such confusion was material. The grave pointed west towards Mecca and on the next notable sacred mountain along the way, that of Pavagadh, is to be found – or was then – a dargah perched on top of a temple to Durga, propitiated by the Muslims who drew near, and by Hindus also.

The linguistic slip was uncharacteristic of Darling, an Urdu speaker, if not of Forster. On the eve of Indian Independence, Darling would take a rural ride on horseback from Peshawar to Jabalpur fielding the views of, particularly, the toiling ryot grading and drifting beyond the educated vision. At Freedom’s Door is as good an Englishman’s passage to (some say the real) India as any ever written.

Paradoxically, it could be precisely because his friend’s novel manifests the failure of its author no less than of his characters, even Fielding, to complete the passage to India, that it can be read as an aspiration to make a passage to more than India.

Not that Devi’s idols and her lumpy hill, it seemed to us, were having any of that. If your feringhi, they said, claimed to make a passage to more than India – whatever that clever trope might mean – it was via India and there’s nothing of us in his book. There’s nothing here to support a daft notion about some unopened cave of material non-being. What need have we for novels at all, let alone one with a lump that is said to stick out a little too much?

As we retreated back down to the distracted city below, did we suppose the words of Devi’s Hill were final? Were no traces of Forster to be found, upa or nichi, other than those scattered few we had brought with us and imposed on the place?

Gentle enquiries concerning Forster among the old aristocracy of Birje’s acquaintance elicited no more than a bemused stare. Birje concluded that the old Dewan, an unfabled Bidpai, was probably the last person in Dewas to have remembered Forster. Not as the author of A Passage to India, of course, that came after, but as someone with whom he went on long walks and discussed Gibbon’s perspective on the fate of an empire whose only peers had been those of Aśoka and Akbar.

For now, there was a great deal of hammering and drumming going on in the Old Palace on the other side of the walls. Preparations were afoot for the annual Janmashtami festival. This we would have to miss: our timing was unavoidably all wrong. We consoled ourselves with the thought that we had Forster’s wonderful evocation of it to go on, dramatically unplayable as he had (possibly just to be agreeable) agreed it to be in the (truncated) stage version of the novel.

In truth, the novel is nothing without the account of the Gokul Asthami festival down in the city, the whole narrative, it might be argued, seen to be simply a scaffold on which this ritual is dramatically recreated. Forster’s attempt to point in to the mystical heart of it is what causes the lump in his novel since it knocks the narrative right out of shape, actually puts a stop to it, brings it to a climax and a close – notwithstanding its narrative ending upon the sub-dominant.

The image of a lump – and, yes, my dear Devi, your strange flat-topped hills in central India may have given rise to this image – is rather paradoxical, language turned upside down, since it refers to an account of a festival that attempts to resolve by dissolving in the deep unconsciousness all the shapeless lumps of the universe, including the Marabar’s Kawa Dol. No definite image can survive.

In advance of Krishna’s birthday during our visit, the streets of the expectant city had to make do with a tinny polyphony of loudspeakers grinding out the playback duets of Lata and Mukesh voicing the timeless aspirations of young lovers. For those who, instead, sought shelter from the glare of the sun in the dark cave of the local film hall, finite love was taking the form of Ursula Andress in a state of undress.

Our literary quest to the Hill of Devi over, Birje and I made ready our bags to leave, having no wish to intrude further on the secluded life of his aunts, however welcoming they had been.

These aunts had a story all of their own to tell. One of the aunts, having failed to have a child by the Maratha sirdar she was married to, dutifully took it upon herself to find a second wife for her husband. The second wife, no doubt like any further wife that might have been found, failed to give him a child.

Not long after, the sirdar died and the two widows settled down together, becoming inseparable companions, never quarrelling and – as we found them - living happily ever after. Much of their day, as every day of the year, and not only every day but every night, having locked up all the other rooms for fear of burglary, they turned – or re-turned – to their puja room to care for and be cared for by the divine child Krishna.

It was just as we were about to take our leave of the aunts, as happens nowhere else so much as in India – except perhaps in a Forster novel – the unexpected happened. To Birje it had not happened on any previous visit nor had it occurred to him that it might or should. The aunts invited us to join them in their puja room.

Forster has said all that can be said about the mystical heart of the public festivities during Krishna’s birthday celebrations and what he said applies equally to the private devotions that, once the festival is over, continue to flicker throughout the year, quietly and secretly, in the hundreds of thousands of private puja rooms into which the child-god is then dispersed.

Even if no invitation had proceeded from the aunts to join them in their puja room, Birje and I, in spite of the caveat in Forster’s book concerning people of culture and intelligence reaching out in a spirit of goodwill, were tempted to conclude that their devotions, if anybody’s, were a constant rekindling of Infinite Love taking on the form of a playful child to save them – and maybe even us – and, who knows, the whole echoing, contradictory world.

What, if anything, India wants to make of what is made of it in Forster’s novel, some thousands of miles westward and five score years later in time, on another meridian on the other side of the earth, it may be a different story.

By some in contemporary, post-colonial Britain, Forster’s novel may be dismissed as a farrago of Orientalist bric-à-brac, for others serve as a historical record of the unimaginativeness of the British Raj, peppered as it is with wickedly shrewd observations on places and persons, if at times, unable to disentangle pun from philosophy, so facetious as to annoy a self-respecting chaudhuri no less than an indignant blimp.

But, oh dear yes, that is part of the story the novelist regrets the novel has to tell. Serendipitously and famously, this novel develops into a spiritual detective story that may encourage readers to go beyond asking what happened in the Marabar cave to considering what is a Marabar cave, then what, if anything, it contains, before finally, or intermittently, speculating what, if anything, can contain it?

It so happens I am writing this in Plataniste in Greece, another place known to Forster. From this perspective, it is the philosophical underpinning of the novel that is most distinct. Forster’s experience not of Dewas but of Bihar comes to the forefront.

Looked at from here, Forster’s initial suggestion that Buddha, passing that way, shunned the Marabar Caves, while some saddhus were smoked out by them, is turned inside out. Buddha’s disciples certainly did not shun them and that notable “crypto-Buddhist” Śankara re-entered them in spite of the smoke – and mirrors. The Buddhist concept of śūnyatā perfectly contains the notion of absolute material non-entity embodied – or rather disembodied – in an unopened Marabar cave, spiritual enlightenment consisting of total dis-illusionment.

Similarly, the bhakti of the Krishna devotees takes them on a merry way, if not up and down the same mountain, then all around the town, abstruse meditation now taking on the aspect of ecstasy in song and dance. A Passage to India is neither philosophy nor music but these are the main ingredients cured – not to say curried – by fine writing into what may pass, in a culture without one as such, as a sutra.

If A Passage to India is not to be blown from the canon, assuming the canon itself is not to be decommissioned, is it too much to suppose it is because Forster’s formal literary account of the Krishna festival can, in a place where dwarfs shake hands, best supply the absence of a ritual as ultimately formless as it is distant?

For this one-time visitor to Dewas, what transforms Forster’s prose narrative is this poetic little gem, more lamp than lump, his evocation of bhakti with its appeal to all the world to go free of the intransigent divisions of time and place and so dispel all the sadness that meets one on the face of the earth.

Now that, a hundred years on, India is made – or re-made in an England that has rishis and khans of its own presiding over its courts – besides hare krishnas dancing in its streets – perhaps the time may not be so far off when, the final splinters of racism dispelled, a London bobby will be encountered on – or off – his beat, perhaps on the Tube, singing bhajans. But not yet. Not there.

John Drew’s latest publication is a collection of essays, Bangla File (ULAB Press, Dhaka, 2024). Unlike Forster, he hopes god will not forbid the playing of cricket in heaven.