A full half-century after E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Paul Scott concluded The Raj Quartet, his magnificent series of books covering the final years of British rule on the subcontinent. Scott began his story around the time of Gandhi’s Quit India campaign in 1942, and continued it through the dissolution of imperial control and the brutal partition of the country. It is impossible to do justice to the scope and the ambition of the Quartet (and to a fifth book, Staying On, about Britons who remained in independent India), but Scott’s achievement—simply put—was to link monumental historical events with minutely rendered characters and a sustained focus on the interlocking issues of race and gender.
The chief interest of Six Days in Marapore, an early work published in England in 1953 under the title The Alien Sky, is that it shows Scott—less than a decade after his service in the Indian Army Service Corps—beginning to wrestle with the themes that would eventually make his longer and more mature work so masterful. Scott arrived in India in 1943, when he was 23, and helped to re-capture Burma from Japanese control. His fascination with the country continued after he returned to England. The bloody legacy of colonialism was a given for him; and Six Days in Marapore is his early attempt to understand the British men and women who were in India when, as Scott later remarked, they “came to an end of themselves as they were.”
Like Scott’s later fiction, Six Days in Marapore is focused primarily on Anglos and Anglo-Indians. The story, which takes place in the summer of 1947, several weeks prior to partition, centers on Joe MacKendrick, an American businessman who travels to the eponymous fictional town with the hope of meeting his late brother’s mistress, Dorothy Gower. MacKendrick is in what might be called a funk: his intentions toward Dorothy are murky even to himself, and he is uncertain what he is doing in India. His political knowledge is negligible, and he seems unable to grasp either Indian or British feelings toward the imminent handover. Scott perhaps intends MacKendrick to personify the typically naïve Yankee abroad, but his portrayal of this quiet American has little of the bite or the cynicism that one finds in Graham Greene. Indeed, it is Cynthia Mapleton, the bigoted and pathetic English widow, who says of MacKendrick, “American, eh? Here already. They might let us get out of India first.” This particular strain of British resentment does not appear to be occupying Scott’s mind.
Dorothy is married to Tom Gower, who edits a local newspaper, and runs an experimental agricultural farm nearby. Gower is the story’s well-meaning, tragic figure who understands all too well what is coming. In an early scene he tries to award an athletics medal to a local Indian at a prize ceremony, only to be publicly humiliated. As Gower says, he himself has “spent a long time learning to understand something only to find it’s changed as quickly as [he’d] understood it.” As Gupta, an Indian journalist who wants to take over the paper that Gower edits, tells MacKendrick, “[Gower] is in India many years and takes our problems to heart.” When MacKendrick reveals his sympathy for Gower, Gupta quickly adds, “But Mr. Mackendrick, they are our problems …We cannot accept his solutions to our problems.”
Into this mix of characters Scott throws a British officer and his Anglo-Indian lover, a disabled former teacher and the Indian prince who was her student, and Indian servants who must navigate their relationships with the British while preparing for independence. There is also a surprise revelation about the racial make-up of one of the characters. These various strands range from powerful to strained, but Scott keeps his focus on the way in which the racial element is paramount. His sympathy rests with the Anglo-Indian women who must inhabit two separate identities. For these women, sexual service to the British eventually turns out to be less protection than they had hoped.
Scott leaves us in no doubt that it is the British themselves who are to blame for this situation, but for every obnoxious colonial figure there is the countervailing pathos of the British man or woman who will be left without a real home once the empire ends. As Gower explains to MacKendrick, “[Dorothy and I] have never been home together either. This is our place.” When MacKendrick finally senses the winds of change blowing around him, he shouts at his British friends, “You’re all dead and finished. You’re not alive any more, any of you. If you were you wouldn’t stay another minute in this goddamn funeral parlour. You wouldn’t sit quiet while they wrap you up in shrouds.” But Scott’s characters have nowhere else to go.
One of the pleasures of The Raj Quartet is its nuanced approach to the political questions of independence and partition. Scott saw partition as Britain’s “crowning failure,” and his contempt for the brutality of imperial control is manifest throughout all of his work. He understood British arrogance, but he was equally astute in recognizing the catastrophic misjudgments of Gandhi and other leaders of the independence movement who made facile comparisons between British rule and imperial Japan, and who (inadvertently or not) helped ensure that partition was more horrific than could have been imagined.
Scott shows the same skill here. Gower’s eventual downfall arises partially from his decision to publish an approving article about the creation of Pakistan, which enrages Gupta, the smooth writer who so well diagnosed Gower’s naïveté. Gupta turns out to be a member of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) the militant quasi-fascist Hindu organization that exists to this day. When Gower scolds another Englishman for shooting a Muslim escaping a Hindu mob, he exclaims, “You were prepared for violence. You are an apostle of violence. Your whole personality is conditioned by it.” Gower is no doubt correct; but he is also delusional in thinking that reason and calm can prevail. It is simply too late.
“We lost the Indian empire when we introduced Matriculation or whatever bloody thing it is that they fail every year,” a British officer tells Mackendrick near the start of the book. “We’ve taught ‘em to read and write a la bloody Whitehall so they can write us our marching orders.” Much later in the story, Gupta tells Gower that English language newspapers will no longer be necessary in a free India. The first statement perfectly encapsulates the bluster and self-pity that rightly ensured the end of the British Empire in India. The second statement rightly implies that it was past time for Indians to run their own affairs. Paul Scott understood both those things. He also understood that the first statement was largely true, and the second one is, to this day, false. His interest in such ironies would eventually lead to the finest works of fiction written about the end of the British Empire.
Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book.