Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Paul Scott's "The Jewel in the Crown": Book Review

"The Raj Quartet" dwarfs even Tolstoy in length; like him, Scott wanders where minds captured within historical events and longing bodies yearn for understanding and release. He contrasts the English view of dividing heaven from earth with the Hindus for whom "the material world is illusory and Heaven a name for personal oblivion." (75) Lady Lili Chatterjee continues: "on this difficult journey from illusion to oblivion 'anything' counts as practical, because everything is speculative."

Out of such contradictions and resolutions, Indians, both British and native, must find reasons to carry out or shirk their duties, as administrators, soldiers, compromisers, rebels, or comforters, during WWII. Scott brings us behind the scenes as suspects are interrogated, idealists silenced, and dissenters tracked down. The Japanese have defeated the Crown in Burma, the Congress Party in India has fomented uprisings while Gandhi seeks withdrawal of troops and non-violent non-cooperation with the Empire. Scott explores a handful of characters reacting to two vicious attacks on Englishwomen, the elderly Miss Crane and the young Miss Manners, from various angles, altering his prose style subtly or dramatically, as an unnamed, unseen narrator collates these testimonies.

Scott's craft's amazing. He can create sinously periodic sentences that build up magisterially, or simple prose that transmits Indian versions of English pithily. He notes how in English, the written word attains flexibility, confidence, and evasion; "a way of gaining time and winning confidence." (217) But spoken, it's crueler. Hindi's spareness, by contrast, adds beauty missing from English, which " cannot be called truthful because its subtleties are infinite." Out of such elusive speech of the conqueror learned perforce by those ruled who must deal with the Crown's forces of law or arms, Scott builds his saga.

It's not romantic. A returning Hindu, educated in English public school, recoils at his native land's filth. Kumar reflects on a scene outside the hovel to which he's returned as a young man. Scott cleverly allows us, therefore, to see in an acculturated Indian's eyes the same scenes the same way that the British also view poverty when they come to this struggling land.
"The milkman comes in the morning and milks his cow outside the house, near a telegraph pole. To this pole he ties a dead, stuffed calf which the cow nuzzles. This keeps her in milk. The calf was starved to death because the cow's milk was taken by the milkman to sell to good Hindus. Since I knew that, I take only lemon or lime in my tea when Aunt Shalini can get them from the bazaar." (243)
You also get a sense of the differences of India, of course, from the British characters. Miss Manners confides: "Behind all the chatter and violence of India-- what a deep lingering silence. Siva dances in it. Vishnu sleeps in it. Even their music is silence. It's the only music I know that sounds conscious of 'breaking' silence, of going back into it when it's finished, as if to prove every man-made sound is an illusion." (476) From these types of thoughts, the actions that the British and Indians engage in, violent, heroic, compromised, or confused, arise. Necessity, the pressure of war and revolt, and the demands to do something make all those whom Scott introduces complicit in the failed enterprise that was colonial India.

There's an analogy that sums this up. Scott as a military man in India captures in Brigadier Reid's memoir sharply the precise, pedantic, composed tone of officials he must have known intimately during this period. Travelling in a car, he notes how:
"My batman was a Hindu, but the driver was a Muslim. I thought how salutary a lesson it was to those who talked so readily of 'differences' that in the car there could be found-- travelling in perfect amity-- a representative of each of the three main 'powers' in India-- Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. The journey itself, however, seemed endless. In the dark, with all these troubles freshly behind me I pondered the immensity, the strangely compelling beauty of India." (336-7)
Reid's tone shifts between the obvious symbol, the Englishman's materialism, and his straining towards what he cannot as easily articulate, what distinguishes the mystery at the core of this plot. In all of its perspectives, all of its reports, we still close it wondering. Perhaps the next three books will bring us closer to solutions, or perhaps, given the collapse of British hegemony after the war, not.

(Posted today to Amazon US. Citations from Everyman's 2007 ed. paired with "The Day of the Scorpion." A demanding, but engrossing prose saga worth the concentration.)

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