“English is the language of a people who have probably earned their reputation for perfidy and hypocrisy because their language itself is so flexible, so often light-headed with with statements which appear to mean one thing one year and quite a different thing the next.”
Whenever I run into someone who has been to India, not just visited, but actually lived there. I'm always infinitely too curious and whenever anyone admits to being somewhere I haven't been; I grill them Ronald Merrick style (Investigating Police Officer from the novel), well without the caning. I can almost see their face contort as conflicting memories fight for prominence. They are horrified about the squalor, the waste of life, the ever present pressing masses of people, the diseases running amok, the crippling poverty, and the stench of death. Then their face relaxes and they talk about the drop to your knees unexpected beauty of the architecture, how wonderful the people are, and those amazing intangible things about living in India that makes them pine to go back. Those intangible things that get under their skin and won't let go of them. This book is full of the intangibles that make India a mysterious, dangerous, and yet romantic place.
The Jewel in the Crown is set in 1942. This is after the great hey day of the British Empire in the 1920s when over a 1/5th of the world population rose in the morning under the British flag. The empire is crumbling and yet still the British government continued to dispatch earnest young men around the globe to shore up their interests in far flung kingdoms. It was an amazing feat using thousands to control millions. With the war pulling apart the world and Britain short on resources this the perfect point in history for India to press for independence. By 1947 Pakistan has been partitioned off and India has gained their independence.
Ethel Manners expressed it best in the novel. "Such a marvelous opportunity wasted. I mean for us, by us. Indians feel it too, don't they? I mean, in spite of the proud chests and all the excitement of sitting down as free men at their own desks to work out a constitution. Won't that constitution be a sort of love-letter to the English-the kind an abandoned lover writes when the affair has ended in what passes at the time as civilized and dignified mutual recognition of incompatibility?"
The plot of the novel is threaded through an event, one of those events that rocks the foundations of a community. Paul Scott starts the novel with the beginning of the aftermath and then spends the rest of the novel, through the various viewpoints of the principle characters, investigating and building a file of what everybody saw, experienced, overheard, and speculated about with regard to what actually happened to Daphne Manners. The victim is not cooperating because she has a secret that is more important to her than justice.
Hari Kumar is her secret and she is willing to bear the pressure of her peers and is willing to be judged in the court of public opinion to keep any hope alive that she could someday have a life with Kumar. Daphne, as all women are, was struck by how handsome Hari is and finds him a curious specimen. A man that speaks English better than the native British and yet he is black. I was struck by the fact that Indians in the book were referred to as black. I guess that is a catch all phrase for those of our species that are not white. There are no browns or yellows or cocos or caramels. I guess to keep things simple, a person is only either black or white. The more Daphne interacts with Hari the more enamored she becomes. It was unacceptable for a black man to be with a white woman. This restrictive public behavior is what leads to the tragedy.
Scott uses a host of characters to bring to life his vision of India. One scene in particular has and will haunt me for a long time. The image of a burning over turned car and the bludgeoned corpse of an Indian teacher and the British teacher Miss Crane sitting in the rain along side the road holding his unresponsive hand. This scene is a great example of Scott exploring the ripple effect of one event that leads to a tidal wave of more and more disastrous reaction.
Sister Ludmila, the sister that was not a sister, but who exhibited all the characteristics of what we wish the church could be, is a witness to part of the events surrounding the tragedy. Scott has this great scene when and old and blind Ludmila is talking with GOD
"I'm sorry about your eyes, HE said, but there's nothing I can do unless you want a miracle. No, I said, no miracle, thank YOU. I shall get used to it and I expect YOU will help me. Anyway, when you've lived a long time and can hardly hobble about on sticks but spend most of the day in bed your eyes aren't much use. It would need three miracles, one for the eyes, one for the legs and one to take twenty years off my age. Three miracles for one old woman! What a waste! Besides, I said, miracles are to convince the unconvinced. What do YOU take me for? An unbeliever?"
Paul Scott infused this novel with lush, beautifully written scenes that gives the reader a real feel for a lost time and place. "There is no breeze but the stillness of the leaves and branches is unnatural. As well as these areas of radiance the switches have turned on great inky pools of darkness. Sometimes the men and women you talk to, moving from group to group on the lawn, present themselves in silhouette; although the turn of a head may reveal a glint in a liquidly transparent eye and the movement of an arm the skeletal structure of a hand holding a glass that contains light and liquid in equal measure. In the darkness too, strangely static and as strangely suddenly galvanized, are the fireflies of the ends of cigarettes."
I remember after the mini-series came out everybody was reading these tan colored paperbacks by a guy named Paul Scott.
In an era when I was gobbling down any book I could get my hands on, even at times desperate enough to read one of my mother's bodice busters, I did not read Paul Scott. I'm kind of glad I didn't because this is a book that requires a more mature mind than what I was carrying around on my shoulders then. I probably wouldn't have appreciated Paul Scott if I had tried to read him as a teenager and I may never have had this amazing experience with this book. Without a doubt I will read the rest of the Raj Quartet and can even see myself venturing deeper into his body of work.
A Young Paul Scott
I hope more people rediscover Paul Scott as I have and bring him back from the dusty bins of used bookstores and give him a proper place in the British canon of writers to be read and cherished.