Monday, July 25, 2011

The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott

Having finally finished all four of the books making up the Quartet, I have a new understanding of Paul Scott’s final take on the British dominion of India. The action of the four books takes place between 1942 and 1947. In 1942 the Indian Congress first issued a motion for the British to leave, and in 1947 the British did just that. Scott tells his story through interweaving personal accounts, diaries, letters and reports of people playing major or minor roles in India –British commanders and their families, proprietors of shops, factories and newspapers, Indian soldiers in the British army, spies, police and ambassadors – the list goes on. Scott knew his India, having been posted to India for three years as a supply officer, and was able to visit India again in 1964, before writing the Raj Quartet. He wrote the four books over a roughly ten year period, with the last published in 1975, just three years before his death at the age of 57.

There is direct action within the accounts as well. Scott’s technique of providing us with documents written by characters in the story can make for slow reading, but faithful attention to details and nuance is amply rewarded by the outcome of a story with depth and resonance. Some critics have complained that they feel lectured to at times with Scott’s detailed elucidation of history. The characters are fictitious, of course, but they exist on a canvas of real events. Indian national figures like Gandhi, Nehru and Pakistan’s Jinnah are seen in the background, through the characters’ perceptions.

The characters themselves are alive and multi-dimensional. Unlike E.M. Forster’s novel “A Passage to India”, the British who are in India are presented sympathetically, even when their presumptions about India and Indians are derogatory and unfeeling. Somehow you see how they got there – most particularly in the character of Ronald Merrick, a villain who sees the bottom line of race that is Empire, and uses this perception for self-advancement. But was the British Empire – the Raj, as it was called in India, really based on racism? There are British commanders who inspire loyalty in their Indian recruits, with their Memsahib British wives going out to visit the Indian soldiers’ families in a gesture of underlying solidarity. There are Indian servants who have lived with an English family their whole lives, and have a closeness that is genuine. Does the closeness, where it exists, come simply from the spirituality and depth of the Indian?

Throughout the books Scott shows how the Indian landscape pervades everywhere - the vastness of the plains, the wildness of the hill country. It is this landscape that the children of Britain came to, and took it as their own, so that hereafter English vistas seemed too constricted, not answering to their increased appetite for scope and richness in their daily lives. Reading the Raj Quartet gave me a picture of how the Empire grasped India, tried to form it, and then let go – so that the disparity of India’s peoples – particularly the Hindus and the Muslims – could only express itself in disarray, with helpless violence. That violence and enmity continues today, in the legacy of Pakistan, an exterior solution to an interior dilemma.

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