In this book Scott examines India under British rule in 1942, the period towards the end of the ‘Raj’, in a large (fictional) town called Mayapore. The narrative is told from several different points of view, some directly, and others as if the characters are reminiscing to someone about the events of twenty years previously. The event which is central to the novel is the rape of an English girl, Daphne Manners, by unknown Indian assailants in the Bibighar gardens of the town; an event which we find out is part of widespread unrest resulting from the arrest of several local Congress party members by the British rulers.
The books of the Raj Quartet were filmed for television back in the 1980s (when sweeping, expensive costume drama was still being made in the UK), with Susan Wooldridge as Daphne and Art Malik as Hari Kumar – though I imagine the books to have been considerably condensed for television, given the experience of reading this novel.
Though the plot, summarised neatly in a Wikipedia article, is simple enough, the way Scott tells it certainly isn’t. In short, orphaned Daphne Manners comes to India to live with her aunt, Lady Manners, in Rawalpindi. Lady Manners is one of those unusual Britons who have Indian friends and see Indians as equal to Britons; she suggests that Daphne visit Mayapore to stay with her old friend Lili Chatterjee. Hari Kumar has been educated at an exclusive public school, Chillingborough (coincidentally where Daphne’s brother was educated) and brought up as an Englishman though his father is Indian. However, before Hari can complete his schooling, his father dies bankrupt, and he must return to India. He is taken in by his aunt, Shalini, but finds himself in an unenviable position – neither Indian nor English. He and Daphne meet at a party at Lady Chatterjee’s, and they become friends and later, lovers. Ronald Merrick is superintendent of police in Mayapore – a “grammar-school boy” with a chip on his shoulder and racist views. His resentment of Hari (since Hari is both Indian and more exclusively educated than Merrick, as well as the fact that Daphne clearly prefers him to Merrick) leads to Hari’s arrest, torture and imprisonment after Daphne’s rape, and his own failure to investigate the attack properly.
Scott casts his net wide, giving us many narrative voices from both British and Indian people involved to greater or lesser extents in the tragedy (ranging from the colonel commanding the British forces in the town with his very traditional attitude towards Indians and his insistence on seeing the unrest as a problem to be tackled solely in a military way; to the lawyer Mr Srinivasan who recounts the story and gives details of the politics surrounding the events) as well as those told by an omniscient narrator but featuring the thoughts and actions of one main character. It’s very cleverly done, with each section having a distinctive voice: some are more affecting than others.
Scott also writes in great detail, making the reader very aware of the sights and sounds of the world he is describing – even to the way the tables are set in the Gymkhana Club – but which rather bogs down the plot in the first half of the book. It’s not to say that these details are in themselves boring or tedious – far from it – it’s just that it’s as well to bear in mind that Scott examines British India in its dying days through a very personal story, and it’s only in the last part of the book that the reader is acquainted with the full details of that story through Daphne’s journal. Despite this multiplicity of viewpoints, the characters are clearly drawn, and their motivations are understandable even when the characters themselves are not sympathetic (Ronald Merrick, for example).
Daphne’s story is the most affecting, particularly through the poignancy of the ending, and it’s in her story that we actually learn what really happened. Though by that time, Scott has shown us how it came about, and how it sparked unrest, in narrative that is peripheral to Daphne’s ordeal.
I have the rest of the Raj Quartet books to read, which I gather continue the story, and also allude to it, namely The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence and A Division of the Spoils. I’m looking forward to these more than I was – this sounds like faint praise, which is not meant – I think perhaps The Jewel in the Crown is more to be admired than loved.