A Passage to India begins with a description of Chandrapore, the city where most of the story takes place, during the time of British rule in India. Chandrapore is an undistinguished city, except for the Marabar caves that are twenty miles away.
In chapter 2, an Indian Moslem, Dr. Aziz, arrives for dinner at the home of his uncle, Hamidullah. Mahmoud Ali, a lawyer, is also present. They are discussing whether it is possible to be friends with an Englishman, and there is some bitterness in their talk because they believe that the English insult them and look down on them. The Englishwomen are even worse, according to Hamidullah, who believes it is only possible to be friends with the English in England. Later in the conversation it transpires that Aziz is a widower with three children who live with his wife’s mother.
After Mahmoud Ali is called away, the others sit to eat. They are joined by Mohammed Latif, a cousin. Aziz, a well-read man, recites some poetry, delighting the company. But they are interrupted by a servant, who brings Aziz a note from Major Callendar, the civil surgeon and Aziz’s superior. Callendar wants to see Aziz immediately at his bungalow. Reluctantly, Aziz leaves on his bicycle. The bicycle gets a flat tire, and he has to be driven in a tonga (carriage). When he finally arrives at Callander’s bungalow, he is told that the Major is out and has left no message. Two English ladies come out of the bungalow, and take the tonga that Aziz had been using, without even asking his permission. Aziz decides to walk home. On the way, feeling tired, he stops at a mosque. In the mosque, he is surprised to find an old Englishwoman, who identifies herself as Mrs. Moore. As they converse, Mrs. Moore reveals that she has recently arrived in India to visit her son, Ronny Heaslop, the City Magistrate. A hint from Mrs. Moore that she does not much like Mrs. Callendar encourages Aziz to confide his frustrations about the English to her. He feels that she sympathizes with him. He escorts her back to the Chandrapore Club, which is an English club that does not admit Indians.
Mrs. Moore re-enters the club, where an amateur play production is nearing its end. Adela Quested, who has come to India with Mrs. Moore as a potential bride for Ronny, is expressing a desire to see the real India. Mr. Turton, the governor of the city who is known as the Collector, has high praise for Ronny, and he also wants to make sure that Adela is happy on her visit. He offers to put on a “bridge party,” which is a party attended by English and Indians in order to bridge the gap between East and West. A patronizing discussion ensues about Indians as “natives.” Almost every remark the English people make contains some disparaging reference to the Indians.
The evening at the club ends when the Collector and his wife depart. After this, Mrs. Moore tells her son about her visit to the mosque and her encounter with Aziz. Ronny disapproves, telling her she should not have spoken to the man. Over his mother’s protests, he says he will report Aziz’s remark that he did not like the Callanders. Ronny is also very anxious that Adela does not get caught up in the “native question” and start inquiring about whether the Indians are being properly treated.
The opening chapter sets the scene, describing the fact that Chandrapore is really two cities, or a city that can be experienced from two points of view, the Indian and the English. Chapters 2 and 3 then introduce the main characters on each side of this racial and cultural divide. Each talks obsessively about the other. The Indians (ch. 2) are aware of their own humiliation at the hands of the English and complain vigorously about it. This is then vividly illustrated in Aziz’s experience at Major Callendar’s bungalow.
The English (ch. 3) reveal their deep prejudice against the Indian population, whom they regard as inferior and untrustworthy. Their attitude of contempt towards the “natives,” as they call them, is clear from Ronny’s remark to his mother, regarding the fact that she had not told him that the man she met in the mosque was an Indian: “Why hadn’t she indicated by the tone of her voice that she was talking about an Indian?” (ch.3)