As the commemorations for the 70th anniversary of Indian Independence from Britain continues, Adam Somerset takes a look back at two of the most popular British novelists of their time to take the ending of Raj as their subject, Simon Raven and Paul Scott, and evaluates how well they stand up today.
Anniversaries proliferate. This is in part due to the elasticity given to the interval of years themselves. Commemoration used to require a century, a half-century, a quarter-century but now every decade of time gone by is deemed significant. Seventy years, the threescore and ten, is not even the measure of a lifetime. Nonetheless, this August television programming was packed with commemoration of the closure of Britain in India. The documentaries were good, the debates less so, being too diffuse. Kehindre Andrews, a professorship in sociology, contributed a version of the past that reduced it to a crude cause and effect of blame and shame. It was bad history, refuted by a rapid glance at Jan Morris for her view. The British, she wrote, had neither the concept nor a particular wish for a divided India. It was politics that did it and it was politics that the BBC coverage, for all its quality, was short on.
Anniversaries fade quickly. A book on the trauma of partition was published to coincide with August 15th, the date of freedom at midnight. Partition:the Story of Independence and the Creation of Pakistan by Barney White-Spunner received strong reviews as a good piece of accessible history. “Stands out for its judicious and unsparing look at events,” was the verdict of Dominic Sandbrook for The Times. Before September had finished it was for sale in The Works with seventy-five percent of its cover price lost.
The television was good but felt evanescent. I took on holiday two novels on the end of the Raj, battered paperbacks, neither new, over eight hundred pages together. The experience was rewarding not just for what they are, but in showing the strength of the word in visual culture. They were also a reminder as to why we have fiction at all.
White-Spunner’s book of the history is clear-headed on the British. Neither Mountbatten nor Attlee and the Government knew anything about the vast country under their dominion. By the time of independence the politics of India had been incendiary for decades. Subhas Chandra Bose had raised a force of fifty thousand to fight in alliance with Japan against Britain. He was also instrumental in the forming of the Indian Volunteer Legion of the Waffen-SS also known as the Tiger Legion and the Azad Hind Fauj. Their involvement in the sub-continent was small. Some sabotage in Baluchistan was carried out and some officers were moved to the Indian National Army, Bose’s main force. The Indians in Europe were deployed against the French Resistance and were active in Italy against British and Polish troops.
Their capture and shipment back to India should have meant charges for treason. The soldiers’ oath had been “I swear by God this holy oath that I will obey the leader of the German race and state, Adolf Hitler, as the commander of the German armed forces in the fight for India, whose leader is Subhas Chandra Bose”. But Britain was politically unable to carry out the trials. The authorities were fearful of revolt and uprising across the Empire. The BBC was ordered to make no mention of the subject. The Royal Indian Navy mutinied, to wide public support, followed up by smaller mutinies in the Royal Indian Air Force, and one in the Indian Army was put down with force. The events were crucial in determining the Labour government’s policy. The Empire had lost the certainty that its armed forces would obey.
The INA features in the fiction of Paul Scott but not in that of Simon Raven. Raven (1927- 2001) is an author now lesser known than his contemporary, Anthony Powell. He too wrote a sequence of ten novels, “Alms for Oblivion”, over the years 1964-76. They differ from Powell in several ways. They are scabrous and racy, the characters have more life to them, with a preference for sexual fetish. His cast comes from the peaks of the establishment, its members variously pompous or cynical, many natural cheats motivated solely by self-advancement. The plots include Suez, Cyprus, and a Cambridge college under assault by the 1960s. The seventh to be written, Sound the Retreat (1971), is set in the period of Britain’s wavering hold over its jewel of empire in the years 1945-46. A group of young officer trainees are put under the command of a Moslem officer, Gilzai Khan. As India fragments on religious lines Khan becomes an object of disfavour in Delhi for his resistance to partition.
Raven’s tone is raucous comedy, closer to Waugh than Powell, with added sex. An obituary declared that “he combined elements of Flashman, Waugh’s Captain Grimes and the Earl of Rochester.” He put Lord Annan, his tutor at Cambridge tutor, in mind of the young Guy Burgess. The strength of Sound the Retreat is that it captures a part of the British experience in India; but A Passage to India it is not.
Most conscripts loathed India. They detested the heat, the food and the diarrhoea that never ceased. They disliked the inhabitants almost as much as the old India hands and officers who commanded them. The novel is set after the election of 1945. Churchill won the home vote with ease. It was the postal vote from the conscripts across the world that sank him, the motivation to hit back at the officers. Much of this distemper is caught by Raven. The army is out of its depth in a situation of civil and religious disorder. The officers, blinded by protocol, are both inadequate and devious. Disease carries off one of the young officers. The main female character, Margaret Rose Engineer, is mixed-race and terrified that she will have no place in the independent country-to-be.
The racial abuse is rife and abashed, to the extent that it feels as if the author may well be sharing it. A strain of misogyny runs through the novels which grates. Nonetheless “Alms for Oblivion” is a set of novels that is like no other in the same way as is the ten-novel “Strangers and Brothers” sequence of C.P. Snow. Whereas Snow is the disadvantaged boy who did good, Raven is the boy of privilege gone to the bad. The ninth novel Bring Forth the Body ends on a cruel moral note. Reading Raven induces a guilty sense that we should not approve at all. Paul Scott is a weightier writer by any standard but he cannot match Raven for sheer dash and fun.
The television documentaries that were broadcast in August in commemoration of India’s independence omitted a crucial part of the country. It is the nature of the medium that it needs linearity and simplicity. The politics when they occurred were reduced to a three-way match of Jinnah-Nehru-Mountbatten. Vallabhbhai Patel did not feature. It was Patel, India’s first Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, who brought the princely states under the sovereignty of the new government.
The provinces were only part of the new government’s dominion. The princely states, whose numbers ran into the many hundreds, were self-governing political entities. The documents of May and June 1946 proposed that the states be free to choose independence or accession to whomever they preferred. The Muslim League supported the proposal while the Congress rejected it. It was Patel who fought against Bengal and the Punjab being incorporated in total into Pakistan, a scheme rejected by Gandhi. It was Patel’s relentless diplomacy, admittedly with the option in the background of using military force, that brought them into India. His will to create a national territorial unit was total. Gandhi told him, “The problem of the States is so difficult that you alone can solve it”. Only Jammu and Kashmir, Junagadh and Hyderabad resisted his blandishments and did not sign the documents of accession to India. Patel sent the army into Junagadh and in September 1948 Hyderabad too was invaded. It is Patel who was called the “Iron Man of India” and who was its unifier.
The princely states are central in the fiction of Paul Scott. In A Division of the Spoils (1975), the last of his Raj Quartet, a newspaper is cited with news that a prince is consulting lawyers in Switzerland with a view to suing the government of Britain. His case is that he has a treaty with a sovereign government that cannot be abrogated by one side.
Scott’s novel is six hundred pages long. That means that it occupies more space, intellectual and thematic, than a television programme can manage. It is a reminder as to why we have fiction at all. It is documentary’s complement that renders the world in a greater richness.
Paul Scott lived from 1920 to 1978. He was posted as an officer cadet to India. He became a captain in the Indian Army Service Corps and was involved in the retaking of Burma from the Japanese. India left him with amoebic dysentery which was undiagnosed and was implicated in his resort to alcohol in excess. His last quartet of novels was initiated by a visit to India in 1964. The Jewel in the Crown was published in 1966, The Day of the Scorpion in 1968, and The Towers of Silence in 1971.
The last book in the quartet has an immediate first strength. The characters are plunged into a time of challenge and deteriorating order. Historically, the interval between VJ Day and independence was short but every past was once a lived-in present. Scott’s quiet observer character Guy Perron looks at the troops that are in his barracks. They are aware that a Germany in ruins is an infinitely better place to be. Perron sees the face of a nineteen year old. “The faces were those of urban Londoners and belonged to streets of terraced houses that ended in one-man shops: newsagent-tobacconist, fish and chip shop, family grocer and a pub at the corner.” “What,” wonders author-character, “could such a face know of India?”
The war has been an accelerating agent to change. The officers club in Mirat looks unchanged with its colonnade a white that dazzles, hung with sprays of red and purple bougainvillaea. With the commissioning of Indian officers they are according to the rules permitted to join the club. The old hands respond by emptying chamber pots and excreting in the swimming pool. It is never used again by the Indians who are defending the empire.
At the other end of the spectrum of loyalty Scott’s policeman-sadist Ronald Merrick is charged with investigating prisoners who have served with the Indian National Army.
The charge “waging war against the King-Emperor” is incontrovertible. One of the prisoners has been in Europe. About to be shot by the Free French he has been rescued by Americans to be transported to a cell in India. Meanwhile high politics swirl above the heads of the junior Britons. Pethick-Lawrence from the new Labour government is far away in negotiation with the Congress leaders. The fate of Scott’s fictional princely state is in the balance, the crown’s representative the political agent an “unemotional man with rigid views.”
On the ground far from Delhi the new generation of young are joining the Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, radical groups equally hostile to British and Congress. Against them are the Muslims with their views of the new government-in-waiting. “Congress is a Hindu party whatever they pretend,” says a son to his father who is hoping for accommodation: “They will exploit us as badly as the British, probably worse… A Hindu raj would be a catastrophe. They hate us.” Scott’s book climaxes in a brilliantly described set piece, a murderous assault on a train packed with passengers seeking to flee the inter-communal strife.
Scott’s writing is rich in detail and low in symbolism. In that he is the reverse of another Paul. In Kowloon Tong (1997), Paul Theroux wrote a novel of Britain’s exit from Hong Kong. It is thinly textured in comparison with Scott. Scott’s martinet villain Merrick meets a grisly end. Sarah Layton goes to revisit an old haunt, a piece of India made to masquerade as England. But she sees it differently: “The name, Rose Cottage, given it by a previous owner, a tea-planter, was now all too clearly, absurdly, inappropriate.” There is the difference between the documentaries of television and the long dense making of fiction. The first shows well how it looked, but the latter conveys how it felt.
(header image: Tim Pigott-Smith as Merrick in the TV adaptation of Scott’s Jewel in the Crown)