May 19, 2010

THE RAJ QUARTET

by Paul Scott
Four Volume Set originally published 1966-75

Review by Oliver Corlett

Paul Scott claims that his Raj Quartet originated in an image that came to him one sleepless night in an Indian village, the image of a young English woman running, exhausted but game, in the dark along a road beside a wall. The novel, he says, was an attempt to find out where the image came from. Who was this woman? Why was she running? From what? To where?

Was it a coincidence, then, that the novel should have as its central event – the unfounded allegation against an Indian of the rape of an English woman – the same essential situation that had been portrayed decades before in EM Forster’s classic novel, A Passage To India? This is not the only similarity, though it is the the most striking. Forster’s novel was set in a fictitious town by the name of Chandrapore, and Scott’s in a town called Mayapore (Maya being a Hindu word meaning “illusion”). The most obvious bad guy in Forster’s novel is called Ronnie, while the main villain in Scott’s is called Ronald, occasionally also referred to as Ronnie. Forster was, as everyone knows, gay; Scott, it transpired in Hilary Spurling’s highly acclaimed biography, was at least fractionally gay despite his having lived a more or less conventional life. Did their being gay (or partly gay) in a less tolerant age contribute to the selection of illicit sex as the central event in both their stories? Or was there something about this situation that struck these authors as peculiarly emblematic of the colonial experience in India? Most critics seem to cast it as a reflection of fear: as Salman Rushdie apparently put it in his savage review (an essay entitled Inside The Whale) “white society's fear of the darkie, of big brown cocks." I’m inclined to think this might have been wishful thinking on his part.

Most usually, the Raj quartet has been critically analyzed at its face value, as a portayal of the last years of the British in India; and that is the setting – the ten years from around 1937 to the rather sudden independence and partition of India after the war. It certainly is that: there is quite a lot of historical detail – interesting or boring, according to the reader’s taste -- in the story. But nobody seems to have really followed up on Scott’s own comment, that the story is to him “a metaphor”, which suggests there is more to it than just political and historical analysis. As one who grew up “lower middle” in the still class-stratified England of the Slump (he was born in 1920), Scott must have had a keen appreciation of what it was like to be a social inferior in the way that Indians were under the Raj; and perhaps his “metaphor” has a wider scope than Imperialism per se, encompassing humanity rather more generally, and the difficulties of putting Liberal/Enlightenment ideals into practice.

At any rate, this is a wonderfully inventive and imaginative work, full of extraordinarily well observed characters (or cliches, if you’re Rushdie). The central figure, Hari Kumar, is an Indian brought up from the age of two to a life of privilege in England. By force of unfortunate circumstance, he is sent back to live with his impoverished aunt in Mayapore at the age of 18, a man with the mind and accent of an English public schoolboy, only stranded in an alien, cockroach-infested world in the skin of an Indian, across the river from the English cantonment, belonging to neither one group nor the other, a situation sketched out in very poignant detail. His nemesis, Ronald Merrick, would be a lower-middle if he had stayed in England, an extraordinary antagonist whose intelligence, single-mindedness and cynicism has raised him to the position of Police Superintendent of Mayapore. Hari Kumar, who went to the same school as many of Merrick’s superiors, is like a red rag to his bull; and, as a mere Indian, Kumar is at his mercy. Unfortunately for the darkly handsome Kumar, Merrick is also a sadist and, it later transpires, homosexual.

This is a long book Рfour volumes of some 300 pages apiece. We see the points of view of many different characters -- diplomats and government officials, military men and their wives and daughters, Indian aristocracy, Indian politicians and businessmen, missionary women teachers, among which are no straw men. One of my particular favorites is Count Bronowski, a shrewd, urbane, Machiavellian White Russian émigré who serves as the grey eminence behind an Indian prince (singled out by Rushdie as being perhaps the most outrageous of the cliches, perhaps because he wears an eye patch). The detail in which these wide-ranging lives are imagined is really quite humbling. EM Forster could never have achieved this.

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