In Foster’s A passage to India, many characters appear throughout the novel. Some of them may have a more important part to play in the story than others, but one minor character catches our attention: he is the punkah wallah or the fan boy. Even though he appears for a brief period, he serves a higher purpose which we will analyze and study closely. First, we will observe how the punkah wallah creates some sort of sexual image for Adela. Second, we will talk about the clashes between social classes and races. Third, we will treat his divine aspect. Fourth, we will study the impervious aspect that the punkah carries. Finally, we will analyze how the punkah serves as eye opener for Adela and her desires.
As we know through the story many incidents occur; one noticeable is the incident in the Marabar caves. Indeed this incident was triggered when Dr.Aziz and Adela were together in the caves; Nobody actually knows what really happened inside but after they got out, Adela accused Aziz of sexual abuse and rape. Prior to this accusation, Adela and Aziz seemed to be in love as we can observe on page 66 “he sputtered, and let go of her hand” showing that they were holding hands like a couple. Now the punkah wallah doesn’t appear in this passage but he creates a sexual image. Through the of the fan boy, and as we know no description is innocent, we can relate to Adela and her desires.
Indeed now we know that something definitely happened in the caves but we can’t tell what. There are many theories but the fact that Aziz lit a cigarette after getting out the caves indicates to a sexual intercourse. Adela noticed the punkah wallah, as minor as he seems, between all of the people that were present in the room. This can be attributed to the fact that the punkah wallah had some similarities with Aziz as they were both Indians. Furthermore, the fan boy was naked and was performing movements that were similar to a man having sex, “rhythmically to agitate the clouds” (p101). This Indian naked figure, agitating back and forth, caught Adela’s attention as if she was dreaming of what happened in the caves with Aziz creating sexual images in her mind.
In this paragraph, we will see how the punkah wallah ignites a clash between classes and races. Indeed this small figure is in the middle of a room where a process is being held, a process about the incident between Aziz and Adela. Now this incident as we might know is between a white English woman and a native Indian, in the form of Adela and Aziz respectively. Adela accuses Aziz not of rape but rather of an insult even though he denies it and is eventually put in jail for what he might or might not have done. If it were the other way around and Adela was a native Indian and Aziz an Englishman this would not have taken such importance.
Indeed, this goes to show that there is a difference between the Indians and the English both socially and racially. As we can see in Brenda Silver’s essay, “Adela’s accusation carries the weight it does because she is a white woman, a member of the colonizing group, or that a more accurate representation of rape in the colonial experience would depict the rape of and Indian woman”(Silver,1988, p88). This quote furthermore accentuates the fact that the British feel superior to the Indians. While the punkah wllah might not to be part of this clash between races and social groups he still is in the room where there is a trial representing this never ending debate about races.
Even though the punkah wallah had no part to play in the trial he was still present; between all the people he was noticeable. Indeed, this small yet important character had some sort of aura allowing him to shine, to be visible like no other person in the room. He had a divine aspect; he was a god-like figure. “He had the strength and beauty that sometimes come to flower in Indians of low birth. When the strange race reaches the dust and is condemned as untouchable, the nature remembers the physical perfection that she accomplished elsewhere, throws out a god”(p 95). He seems “apart from human destinies a male fate, a winnower of souls”(p95).
Here winnower of souls has a double meaning one is to blow with the fan the people the other is to separate the souls which is some sort a divine power. Through this description by Foster we can draw, like in Price’s essay, comparison between the punkah wallah and the servitor in Gokul: “naked, broad-shouldered, thin waisted_ the Indian body again triumphant. This comparison and similarity between these two characters shows that there is a divine entity which is present, not doing much to help but is still there. As Martin Price says in his essay “two minor characters who catch supremely well the puzzles of incarnation which lie at the center of the book” (Price, 1975,p621). This quote goes to show that there is an ambiguity looming which is the idea of deities incarnated in those two character.
Even though the punkah wallah was at the center of all the process and trial that was ongoing, he seems not to take any interest or actions regarding what was happening around him, he continued to do what he is required to do “unaware that unusual had occurred, he continued to pull” (p101). This goes to show that the fan boy is impervious to what is occurring; He can’t be affected by nothing at all, just like the Marabar caves. Indeed a similarity between the fan boy and the caves is the fact that they are unaffected , unfazed by all the events that occur in front of them. For example in the caves there is omnipresence of an echo showing that whatever the characters said in the caves came back to them untouched, unchanged. This goes to prove that they are both unaffected by their surroundings.
Finally we observe that the punkah wallah draws Adela’s attention amidst all the people that were present. The fan boy seems to make Adela realize that she is attracted to the Indians. Indeed, after her incident with Aziz the reader is confused about her attractions, but after witnessing the fan boy both the reader and Adela realize that she is attracted to the other race and as said in the first paragraph is open to idea of having sexual intercourses with the Indians. At the beginning of chapter 25 “the faint, indescribable smell of the bazaars invaded her, sweeter than a London slum” (p101), this quote goes to show that she enjoys the smell of Indians as if it reminded her of Aziz proving an attraction toward them, thus the fan boy serves as an eye opener.
To wrap things up in a nutshell we can say that the punakah walla as minor as he seems, plays a role far more important that the way it seems. Indeed he represents the sexual image of what happened in the caves, he is in the middle of a clash between the Indians and British race, he is an incarnation of a god-like figure but he is impervious to all.
Forster, E. M. _A Passage to India,_. New York: Harcourt, Brace and, 1924.
Price, M. _Character in Foster’s_ _”A Passage to India”._ The University of Chicago Press, 2975.
Silver, R. B. _Power, and Rape_ _in “A Passage to India”._ Duke University Press, 1988.