Forster’s novel sees the Indian subcontinent from a very unique angle. The British ruled Indian society is complex and to describe it, the author frequently uses the terms muddle and mystery. While muddle may imply a pointless mess, a mystery is not pointless. The term often crops up when something about India is difficult to describe or when it is impossible to hold to a simple and single point of view about the topic.
The terms first crop up in the novel when Fielding has invited Mrs Moore and Adela Quested to his residence. Dr Aziz has also joined them. While they are talking, Adela tells Aziz she cannot comprehend why her two Indian acquaintances, the Bhattacharya couples, did not send their carriage that morning as they had promised earlier. Their behavior appeared mysterious to her and she sought an explanation for it. Aziz appeared the best person to help them know Indians better.
Adela said she hated mysteries and Mrs Moore joined her saying while she does not hate mysteries she definitely hated muddles. Adela thinks that the two are the same – a mystery is a muddle. Mrs Moore decides to consult Mr Fielding who was of course the most reliable source of knowledge on such topics. However, Fielding thinks that the topic must not be stirred since he and Aziz pretty well knew that India was a muddle. According to him, mystery was just a high-sounding term for a muddle.
Aziz wants to provide them some clarity. He considers the Hindus slack and their behavior was no mystery to him. So, the word muddle appeared rather right in their context to Dr Aziz. However, when the two ladies came to see him, they would not find a muddle. It might be because he thought Hindu lives were just like that.
Mystery is a rather common term used in the context of India. It is often described as a land of mysteries and mystics. Even the geography appears like a mystery, rising here and falling there. The caves are a mystery and the mysterious episode never gets resolved implying a muddle follows a mystery. Following the tragic episode at the Marabar caves, there was a lot of mess and Fielding had foreseen it that besides being a tragedy there would be a muddle.
Hinduism is a mystery for Fielding and other Westerners but to Dr Aziz it is a muddle and to a significant extent Fielding agreed with him. Fielding could not foresee a clear future for India and what it would be like when the British left. In the last part of the novel, titled The Temple, which is set in Mau, Forster calls India’s approaching triumph a muddle, a frustration of reason and form. He observes at the time of the festival that the Hindus did not do one thing a non-Hindu would call dramatically correct. Even the God’s idol, the Hindus are worshipping did not appear clear. It was lost in the jumble of its own altar.
The Marabar incident marked a turn in Adela’s life. Her engagement with Ronny was broken and she wanted to get back to England. Her only remaining support in India is Fielding. While trying to recount the incident at the Caves that took the form of a tragedy, she again found herself caught in a muddle and still trying to find a proper explanation. She thinks Mrs. Moore possibly knew the culprit and Fielding wanted to know why Adela thought so. She remarked telepathy but that did not amuse Fielding. So, Adela was forced to withdraw her remark. She could not clearly comprehend what had happened to her but whatever it was had changed her life.
Neither she and nor Fielding had a plausible explanation to the situation because it was the most unexpected thing to happen to them. Possibly there were worlds beyond their comprehension and there was more knowledge than could fit into their consciousness. Perhaps they did not know India well or did not have the right tools and methods to judge it.
As the author writes, “Perhaps life is a mystery, not a muddle; they could not tell. Perhaps the hundred Indias which fuss and squabble so tiresomely are one, and the universe they mirror is one. They had not the apparatus for judging.”
Muddles and mysteries also refer to the various contradictions that Fielding and other English characters come against in India. When someone thinks he has started understanding India, it shocks him in a way so vulgar as Adela experienced at the caves.