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Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott.

December 7, 2012

Jewel in the Crown, the first novel in Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott.  New York : Morrow, 1976.

A compelling masterpiece about the end of British rule in India. A fine exploration of colonialism and what different individuals thought and felt as the old order was breaking down.

The Raj Quartet consists of four novels depicting India from 1942 through 1947.  Jewel in the Crown is the first book of the series and deals with the events of 1942, when Hindus and Muslims protested British demands that they actively support the struggle against the Japanese. The title was the accolade that the British had given to India.  (It is also the title of the fine BBC adaptation of the entire Raj Quartet.)  The plot involves Daphne, a young English woman, and Hari, an Indian man educated in England, whom she loves. When she is gang-raped, the police commander, Ronald Merrick, a lower-class Englishman,  arrests and punishes Hari.  The repercussions of the story are followed in later volumes.

Scott is a marvelous writer.  His style is a bit old-fashioned with long sentences and paragraphs, but his insights and descriptions are worth the effort.  Every page has a sentence or two I want to mark and later quote and discuss.  As I read, I remembered how deeply an author can explore the complexities of human beings and their relationships with each other in a book.  These detailed word pictures are too often lost in the sparse prose and visual stories so popular today.

In contrast, Scott’s organization of Jewel in the Crown is innovative. The BBC adaptation of the Raj Quartet by the BBC abandoned his original organization in favor of a chronological narrative.  In the book, Scott devotes separate chapters to different characters or events.  At first, these are rather minor characters in the overall story, so that we approach the critical events obliquely. For example, the early chapters describe Edwina Crane, a teacher who was attacked during anti-British riots, and Lady Chatterpee, the upper-class Indian woman who was hostess to Daphne.  Sometimes characters tell their stories in first person; other times Scott uses third person, as if he had interviewed them years after the events they describe.  Each chapter is almost a vignette, but the stories layer and build.   We learn what happened gradually and gain different perspective on events and on British-Indian relationships.  Scott’s approach also makes dramatically clear that each character is an individual. Neither English nor Indian can be understood with simplistic stereotypes.

Truth in historical fiction is not limited to factual accuracy, but comes from an imagination well-informed by the factual situation described.  Scott’s deep knowledge and experience of India enables him to imagine a narrative firmly based in fact..  Mayapore, where the book is based, is an imaginary town in the Ganges plain of northeastern India, just south of the Himalayas.  With a few exceptions, the characters are also fictional.  Scott has created everything in loving detail, just as if it really existed. Drawing on his vast knowledge of the region and his own experiences of the people there, he is able to fit his story into factual established accounts of India during and after World War II.  For me, these were new facts explaining how and why Indian nationalists, both Hindu and Muslim, resisted British attempts to mobilize them to fight the Japanese in Burma on India’s border.  During the Mayapore riots in 1942, the commander of the local troops and the British civilian administer had shared command of the city.  Conflicting priorities had made their partnership uneasy, and afterward each had a different interpretation of events.  The military commander’s viewpoint was that the Indians were ridiculous to want independence just when the Empire needed them. He could not understand why Indians were unwilling to prioritize the defeat of the Japanese.  The civilian administrator felt primarily responsible for those in his district, both Indian and British, rather than the Empire.  His was the way an Empire might have been wisely governed; the commander’s was the view that prevailed.

Like other reviewers, I toss out comments about books exploring the intersection of class and race, but none I have previously read have examined those issues as deeply as the Raj Quartet.   With his multiple narrators, Scott reveals the particular mechanisms by which conceptions of class and race function.  He describes the hierarchy and snobbery within both the British and Indian communities and the ways in which these internal ranking systems were affected by racial views.  Fundamentally, the antagonism between Ronald Merrick, the policeman with working-class British roots, and Hari Kumar, the Indian educated at elite English schools, rests on both race and class.  In their reactions to these two men, other characters act out their own social backgrounds.

Generally, I appreciated Scott’s development of his varied women characters.  Both British and Indian women were strong individuals acting out of their own beliefs.   I disliked some of the British women who were snobbish and shallow, as,  I am sure, Scott intended.  He is less articulate about gender than race or class, which is not surprising, given that he wrote fifty years ago. His focus, however, on interracial sexuality and its repercussions is rare and sensitive.   The last chapter of Jewel in the Crown is narrated by Daphne, and in it she gives her account of her love for Hari.  For her, Hari’s blackness was a part of Hari, and she loved and desired it.  She also explains that she remained silent when Hari was said to be part of the gang that raped her because she believed that he would be in additional danger if their love was known.

I heartily recommend the Raj Quartet to readers who appreciate big complex books of historical fiction.   I decided to read it after Alex wrote about it and its BBC adaptation. I watched the BBC production first and liked it enough to read the original.  The BBC version helped me keep an overall sense of what was happening.  If possible, other readers may want to see it before reading it.

As much as I liked Jewel in the Crown, I am not quite ready to embark on the rest of The Raj Quartet alone.  My one-volume edition is almost 2000 thin pages of tiny print. It is a book that cries out for discussion.  Would anyone out there be interested in a Read-Along of it sometime next year—taking a book a month or spreading it out over a year?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2012 2:16 pm

    I’m not up for a readathon as I have other commitments, but I did find this book exceptional when I read it years ago. (I also stopped at one volume.) Scott’s Staying On is also a very interesting read – completely different in scope and style.

    • December 8, 2012 10:12 am

      Thanks for the comment. I will see if I can find Staying On.

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