»  The New Criterion

February 2008

  The Unrecorded Man

The Raj Quartet
by Paul Scott
Volume 1:  The Jewel in the Crown  and  The Day of the Scorpion
Volume 2:  The Towers of Silence  and  A Division of the Spoils

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In the early weeks of 1984, for an hour each Tuesday and Sunday evening, a strange silence fell over England, or at any rate over the bourgeois precincts thereof. Streets were deserted; bartenders and waiters dozed idle at their stations; theaters and cinemas played to half-empty houses; telephones and doorbells went unanswered. The English middle classes were in front of their TV sets, gripped by the first (Tuesdays) or repeat (Sundays) broadcasting of The Jewel in the Crown, in fourteen weekly episodes. I was living in the English Midlands myself at the time and recall the enthusiasm. It was, I think, the greatest success for a TV fiction miniseries since The Forsyte Saga seventeen years earlier.

The success was well deserved. The miniseries is now available on DVD, and I have recently watched it for comparison with these books. With due allowance for advances in TV production standards — especially sound recording — over this past twenty years, the TV adaptation is still excellent viewing. The casting is superb, drawing from the great mid-20th-century generations of British and Anglo-Indian actors. Peggy Ashcroft is there, and Eric Porter (a Forsyte veteran), and many younger performers, some of whom — Art Malik, Charles Dance, Geraldine James — were made famous by this production. This, one found oneself thinking, watching the miniseries, is what TV is for: the meticulous reproduction of good, long, middlebrow fiction. This justifies the medium, if anything can.

The TV miniseries was based on a tetralogy of novels written by an Englishman, Paul Scott, and published between 1966 and 1975. The Jewel in the Crown is actually only the first of the four novels; the producers of the TV miniseries confusingly appropriated this title for the entire tetralogy, which is more properly called The Raj Quartet.

At the sixtieth anniversary of Indian independence last fall, Knopf brought out The Raj Quartet in an elegant new Everyman's Library edition. The four novels are packed into two volumes, the first prefaced with an illuminating introduction by Hilary Spurling, the author's biographer, and with a chronology of Scott's life, keyed to literary and historical events. The two volumes together make a fine set for anyone who enjoys good unpretentious fiction, and who would like to understand something about India, Pakistan, and the way Britain's presence in those countries came to its inglorious end.

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The action of The Raj Quartet takes place over a five-year span, from the nationalist "Quit India" disturbances of 1942 to Britain's departure in 1947. The consequences of these tremendous events are still being played out in the news today.

Paul Scott's four novels show us this history through the fates of several persons, most of them English. By the novelist's art we see the birth pangs of modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — nations that contain over a fifth of the world's present population.

Scott's direct experience of India was comparatively meager. He had been posted there during and just after World War II. The Japanese had overrun Burma in 1942, and attempted an invasion of eastern India in the Spring of 1944, being repelled by Sir William Slim's Fourteenth Army — called the "Forgotten Army" because news of its victories was drowned out by the invasion of Europe that Summer.

Scott arrived at his posting near the Burmese border as these events were winding down. He served as an officer in one of Slim's air supply units, sometimes flying in to Burma with the supply crews he supervised. It is improbable, but not impossible, that he encountered the late George MacDonald Fraser, who was fighting his way down through Burma with the Indian Seventeenth Division at this time, and who survived to become the author of the Flashman novels — material for a wonderful miniseries themselves, if some producer can raise the budget.

After the war Scott became a London literary figure of the minor sort, working for a firm of literary agents, and turning out book reviews, occasional radio plays, and novels. He published eight novels from 1952 to 1964. Nearly all had some Indian theme or connection. Scott is, in fact, an illustration of the truth that we accumulate most of our impressions about the world during our first quarter century of life, our personalities and interests being then pretty much "set." Scott was just 26 when he left India after the war. There were two brief — a few weeks each — return trips in1964 and 1969, after he had conceived the idea of a really big India novel, but even then Scott's entire direct experience of the country was little more than three years. Those three years provided sufficient imaginative nourishment for a lifetime of fiction writing.

The lifetime was shorter than it might have been, probably hastened to its end at age fifty-seven by Scott's heroic consumption of legal stimulants. Approaching his last illness, he told a doctor that he drank a quart of vodka a day, and smoked sixty to eighty cigarettes. The recollections of friends and acquaintances make this perfectly credible. Hilary Spurling's biography, though as sympathetic as it could fairly be, does not leave one with the impression that Paul Scott would have been an ideal house guest.

None of that matters in evaluating the man's art, of course. What is its value to readers of today — this eminently televisable epic of sahibs and pandits, missionaries and policemen, Anglicized Indians and Hindophile Englishmen?

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The central event of The Raj Quartet is the rape, during the 1942 disturbances, of a young Englishwoman by a gang of Indian ruffians. The victim, Daphne Manners, is the niece of Sir Henry Manners, a former governor of the province in which the event takes place. Only recently arrived in India, Daphne had scandalized the British expats by striking up a friendship with Hari Kumar, a young Indian. Kumar had been expensively educated in England until his father went bankrupt and committed suicide, obliging Hari to return to a life of poverty in India. Daphne and Hari had in fact commenced an affair, and just consummated it, when the rape happened.

The local police superintendent, Ronald Merrick, investigates the case. Of all the characters in the Quartet, Merrick is the one most frequently present, or lurking noticeably in the background, throughout all four novels. It is plain that the author found Merrick the most fascinating of his creations. Cool, intelligent, efficient, and dedicated to his duty, gifted with "an unshakable sense of his own authority," yet burdened with class resentment — ever conscious of his own lower-middle-class origins when among the better-spoken and -educated sahibs and memsahibs of British India — Merrick's development through the story is summed up accurately by Hilary Spurling in her introduction:

The kind of man always welcome in a tight spot, Merrick slowly comes to seem … more like the man who brings the tight spot with him. [Ms. Spurling's italics.]

Merrick, who has essayed some attempts on Daphne's favors himself, decides that Hari was complicit in the rape, and arrests and tortures him.

Gradually the reader comes to share the author's fascination with Merrick. Although it is impossible to like Merrick, it is none the less the case, as so often with actual human beings of this type, that there exists beneath the unpleasantness a core — difficult to look at directly, but not easy to ignore — of icy authenticity. Merrick's starkly reductionist approach to human nature is not, I think (and hope) the whole truth about our species, but it is an attitude to which we are willingly, if guiltily, drawn, seeing in it something we recognize in ourselves.

Reporting to third parties on Merrick's interrogation of him, Hari says:

In India he automatically became a Sahib. He hobnobbed on equal terms with people who would snub him at home … What they all had in common was the contempt they all felt for the native race of the country they ruled. … He said you couldn't buck this issue, that relationships between people were based on contempt, not love, and that contempt was the prime human emotion because no human being was ever going to believe all human beings were born equal. If there was an emotion almost as strong as contempt it was envy. He said a man's personality existed at the point of equilibrium between the degree of his envy and the degree of his contempt.

The rape of Daphne Manners, and the concurrent assault on an old missionary woman, ripple down through the 2,000 pages of the Quartet, stirring and shifting the destinies of many people. There are, most notably, the Layton sisters, Sarah and Susan, "daughters of the regiment" (their father is a Colonel in the Indian Army). These are a sense-and-sensibility pair, the calm English good sense all concentrated in Sarah, while Susan, pretty and social but psychologically fragile, endures various living nightmares, not all of her own creating.

The narrative framework of the books is a skillful mix, much of it in the voices of the characters themselves, some in letters or official reports, some presented from a distance by a detached observer. In the fourth book, as if the author was concerned that we might be tiring of the characters we've so far encountered, a major new personality is introduced and, a little later, given a narrative voice.

This is Guy Perron, another embodiment of English sense and sang-froid. One is not surprised when Guy has an affair — a diffident and sensible one, of course! — with Sarah. Guy is the anti-Merrick. He has, for example, a sympathetic interest in Indian history and culture, and a good knowledge thereof. He detests Merrick, of course. Still, he and Merrick are two sides of the imperial mentality, often found co-existing in the same person, as I think Scott was aware, he himself being one such person. George Orwell is Exhibit A here, his dislike of the imperial subject races continually bursting through the surface in Burmese Days. (Though his principles were sympathetic to Burma's independence, as Scott's were to India's, in Shooting an Elephant Orwell cannot resist sneering of the nationalists that: "No one had the guts to raise a riot.")

These insights into the imperial experience, and into (see below) the larger matter of the co-existence of different races, help to keep the Quartet moving forward through some doldrums of authorial self-indulgence and occasional squalls of literary sin. Scott had a fondness for plonking symbolism that he seems to have been aware of, but could not always restrain. Though I did not spot any inconsistencies, there are some coincidences and improbabilities. The Englishwomen all seem wonderfully fertile: Daphne, Susan, and Sarah all get pregnant from a single sexual encounter. Something to do with that spicy Indian food, perhaps. For an American reader — and even, I glumly suppose, for a British reader under fifty — the casual use of untranslated Indian words will be disconcerting, too. How many non-Indians nowadays know the difference between a dhoti and a dhobi? (The latter washes the former.) A glossary would have been handy.

These are petty cavils, though. No work as long as this can be free from small faults. The Raj Quartet easily transcends them, with insights into history and human nature that, I think on reflection, raise it above the merely middlebrow. Upper-middlebrow, perhaps? British India never found its Tolstoy, but in Paul Scott it came close to finding its Dostoyevsky.

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Perhaps the lasting relevance of the Quartet, other than for sheer entertainment value, is in what it has to tell us about race and "diversity," matters that are going to occupy us mightily in the decades to come. With recent discoveries in human genetics, we are beginning to get a clear understanding of the history of our species, and of the ancient inbred populations that now comprise it. Those populations, each with its distinctive characteristics, formed in isolation from each other during the long decamillennia of the Paleolithic.

The rise of literate civilization is a comparatively recent event tacked on to the end of that long development. With it came the mass encounters between peoples hitherto known to each other only scantily, or not at all: the conquests of Islam, the great tidal movements of the steppe nomads (one consequence of which was the Moghul Empire, into whose ruins the eighteenth-century British moved their furniture), the colonization of the Americas and Oceania, the Atlantic slave trade, the humiliation of China and the opening of Japan, and of course Britain's Indian empire.

Our children are taught in school, and our politicians doggedly insist, that there is no obstacle to disparate populations getting along harmoniously even when commingled in the millions — no obstacle, at any rate, other than the willful malignity of a few spoilers ("racists") who ought to be ignored, re-educated, or silenced. The unhappy history of great population encounters suggests that this may be all empty wishful thinking.

It was impossible for thoughtful Englishmen in India not to reflect on these things, though their manner of doing so was of course dependent on the attitudes they took to the subcontinent with them, and on their individual inclinations and personalities, and on the scientific understandings of their time.

Paul Scott's characters do so reflect, rather often. Lady Manners, writing to a cultivated Indian friend:

What terrifies me is the thought that gradually, when the splendours of civilized divorce [she means, of Indian independence] and protestations of continuing as good friends are worked out, the real animus will emerge, the one both our people just managed to keep in check when there was reason to suppose that it was wrong, because it could lead neither rulers nor ruled anywhere. I mean of course the dislike and fear that exists between black and white.

Hari Kumar, to an English friend, a young man he was at school with:

At the moment there seems to be no one country that I owe an undivided duty to. Perhaps this is really the pattern of the future. I don't know whether that encourages me or alarms me. If there's no country, what else is left but the anthropological distinction of colour? That would be a terrible conflict because the scores that there are to settle at this level are desperate. I'm not sure, though, that the conflict isn't one that the human race deserves to undergo.

Sarah Layton, out riding with a well-born young Muslim gentleman, indulges herself in some speculations about the effect of climate and topography on the characters of nations:

Muslim men did have [the military virtues]. Sarah corrected herself: not Muslim men, but Indians who were descended like Mr Kasim from Middle Eastern stock: Arabs, Persians, and Turks. They had retained the sturdiness of races whom extremes of heat and cold … had toughened.

Sarah's musings, which go on for over a page, seemed quaintly Galtonian in the 1960s, and the author may have inserted them for satirical effect. Now, forty years on, Galton doesn't look such a fool, and the satire, if any was intended, is quite lost.

(I note in passing here the impression Scott gives — I get a whiff of it in Kipling, too, and in the Flashman books — that the British, especially the military ones, preferred Muslim Indians to Hindus, as being more manly. Doublethink must have been active here, as some of Britain's most prized Indian troops — the Gurkhas, for example — were Hindus. The preference is plain, none the less. Perhaps it was just imperialist fellow-feeling with the subcontinent's previous proprietors, or perhaps it was solidarity between monotheists.)

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In a key passage near the very end of the Quartet, Guy Perron summarizes the odd symmetry in the connection between Ronald Merrick and Hari Kumar:

And yet how logical that meeting was, between Kumar … and Merrick, … a man … who lacked entirely that liberal instinct which is so dear to historians that they lay it out like a guideline through the unmapped forests of prejudice and self-interest as though this line, and not the forest, is our history. [My italics there.]

Place the two men in England, Perron continues, and it is Kumar on whom the eye of that liberal historian falls: "he is a symbol of our virtue." Merrick, the lower-middle-class striver, is invisible. Put them both in India, however, and both will disappear from sight.

They have wandered off the guideline, into the jungle. But throw a spotlight on them and it is Merrick on whom it falls. There he is, the unrecorded man, one of the kind of men we really are (as Sarah would say). Yes, their meeting was logical. And they had met before, countless times. You can say they are still meeting, that their meeting reveals the real animus, the one that historians won't recognize, or which we relegate to our margins. [My italics again.]

These dark thoughts are placed in the mouths, or on the pens, of sympathetic characters, created by a novelist of liberal and anti-Imperial inclinations. Scott's original reaction to the behavior of his countrymen in India, during his wartime tour of duty, seems to have been similar to Orwell's twenty years earlier: a sort of detached distaste, mixed with some amusement. "The overall argument" of the Quartet's last book, Scott wrote to a friend while working on that book, "is that the greatest contribution to the tragi-comedy of Anglo-India was the total indifference to and ignorance of Indian affairs of the people at home, who finally decided to hand India back in as many pieces as was necessary so long as it was got rid of. Which is what happened."

A writer of those views, and with the limited engagement with India that Scott had had, might very easily have produced a bitter caricature of the imperial British, or perhaps a thoughtful caricature gussied up with brilliant literary effects in the manner of E.M. Forster. (Scott admired A Passage to India for its insight, but seems to have been somewhat intimidated by it as a literary production.)

Instead, through the unfathomable mystery of literary creation, Scott gave us one of the best — truest, most unsparing — descriptions ever written of what happens when two ancient populations collide. Good sense, good intentions, civilized administration, liberal inclinations, and generosity of spirit — all those things "so dear to historians" — are present on both sides; yet at last they count for less than we think, or wish. The real decision-maker is too often the unrecorded man: the Ronald Merrick, or the man who kills him, or the sepoy who betrays Sarah's brother-in-law to the Japanese, or the anonymous (and chillingly polite) Hindu who murders Sarah's Muslim friend Kasim in the sectarian violence that attended independence, or those "dark young men of random destiny and private passions" that so vex Count Bronowsky, the wily, worldly vizier of a local prince.

Those dark young men are with us still. One of them dispatched Benazir Bhutto while I was writing this. Others are there a-plenty, in the friction zone where tribes, faiths, and races meet, where modernity encounters historical resentment, where humanitarianism collides with identity. They defy the glib nostrums of the world-improvers, they spit on sweet reason and good intentions, they laugh to scorn the bourgeois verities of cool, shy northern peoples.

Statesmen, generals, intellectuals, and merchant princes will pronounce and propose, posture and plead. Still the unrecorded man may have the last word. The events surrounding Indian independence exposed some dark human terrain. In fiction, I have encountered no better guide to that terrain than Paul Scott.