Rape in India—Real and Allegorical
THIS IS THE STORY of a rape,” British novelist Paul Scott baldly explains as The Jewel in the Crown begins. Happily, except for a few hints and guesses to encourage curiosity, Scott does not get round to the specific unpleasantness in question until nearly three quarters of his tale is told. By then the author, far from merely unfolding an account of an isolated act of violence, has woven out of many voices and many contiguous lives a chronicle of the long, sometimes hopeful, often hateful relationship between Englishmen and Indians in what was British India.
No British writer since Kipling has doubted that this historic affair resembled rape far more than love. But far more even than E.M. Forster, in whose long literary shadow he has to work, Paul Scott is successful in exploring the provinces of the human heart. For it is there, after the failure of any marriage, between states, or men and women, that subtle memories of past damage and delight bloom and are brooded over.
The jewel in the crown, naturally, is the India over which Benjamin Disraeli quixotically decided to make Queen Victoria queen-empress. The flaw in the gem, according to Scott, was not so much colonial exploitation as raw race prejudice. For an American reader it comes as a shock to find that the British in India habitually referred to Indians as “blacks.” To Scott's credit as a novelist, the pigments he uses to in recreating their world and the grievances of the Indians, are rarely all black or all white.
The precise political moment is August, 1942. The Japanese have just defeated the British army in Burma and are threatening India. Mahatma Gandhi”s anti-British “Quit India” campaign has just been endorsed by the Indian Parliament, and in the riots which follow, British and Indian troops intervene “in aid” of local police, a tragic confrontation which Americans are today well-equipped by experience to understand. Racist extremists on both sides of Scott's imaginary city of Mayapore do their best to destroy such slight fabric of trust as exists. Any Indian who tried to protect lives and maintain order was branded by Indian nationalists as “Lickspittle of the British Raj”—a Colonial Uncle Tom.
All this emerges in a slow unwinding of the threads of human concern which link a half a dozen major characters involved in a minor incident during the riots—the rape of a thoroughly nice English girl by five Indian prowlers. The coils and counter coils of this event at times threaten to transform the book into a kind of transplanted, aged-in-the-miscegenation Southern plotboiler. To save her Indian lover, who is one of the suspects, the girl—rather too much like the heroine of Passage to India—refuses to testify about her attackers. “For all I know,” she says, outraging the British colony, “they could have been British soldiers with their faces blacked.” But most of the book's characters, telling their versions in an astonishing rage of different voices, bear witness to their own lives and to Scott's skill at pushing character up to, but not beyond, the yawning edge of caricature.
Like John O'Hara dwelling on the tribal rules of well-heeled aborigines in Pottstown, Pa. Scott minutely observes the social contortions created by such things as the fact that though Indians could not, in principle, belong to the club in Mayapore, Indian officers of the British Indian army could not be kept out—because “they held the king-emperor's commission.” They joined, but by unwritten understanding, played tennis but never used the swimming pool.
In the abstract, especially compared to our own grim and more violent examples of interracial cruelty, such discrimination might seem frivolous, if Scott were not so adept avoiding shrillness and at showing their cumulative impact throughout a man's lifetime. So swiftly does the rush of political change move these days that now, hardly more than a generation afterward, the India question of 1942 and the whole struggle for independence seem too remote to be of any pressing interest, yet too close in time to be taken seriously as background for an important historical novel. As a result, brilliant and multifaceted as it is, The Jewel in the Crown, like long delayed letters from a soldier whose death has already been announced by cable, sometimes seems touchingly irrelevant.
Note: The Jewel in the Crown was the first of four novels which lived on in a TV series.