miércoles, 15 de febrero de 2012

The Jewel In The Crown by Paul Scott

Paul Scott’s The Jewel In The Crown is the first of his tetralogy of novels on British India. These really were the last days of the Raj. And the jewel in Empress Victoria’s crown was India, itself. Without it Britain may have remained a colonial power rather than an imperial one. Status was all.

But Paul Scott’s book is no jingoistic celebration of empire. On the contrary it lays bare the pretensions, the racism and above all the class divisions that characterise the society that Britain exported to its colony. And, in the final analysis, while India embarked upon an unsatisfactory, divided independence, the British – certainly those directly involved, but perhaps the rest of us as well – remained trapped within their cocoon of often inappropriate and certainly blind presumptions. While India might challenge caste via development and prosperity, the British remain trapped in the class divisions that their own early economic success created.

Central to the story embedded in The Jewel In The Crown is the relationship between Daphne Manners and Hari Kumar. In 1942 Daphne is already a victim of war. She has lost all her family and has been driving an ambulance in the blitz. Her uncle, now deceased, happened to be a high ranking official in the British Raj so, by way of respite, she travels to her aunt in India to pick up the pieces of her life. She soon moves on to Mayapore where she does nursing in the hospital and also volunteers at the Sanctuary, a hospice for those found dying on the street.

Hari Kumar is the lynchpin in the tale’s structure. An only child, he was raised in Britain from the age of two and was about to finish school – Chillingborough no less, a prestigious public school – when his bankrupt father committed suicide. His mother had died in childbirth, so he was left both alone and penniless in England, the place he called home. An aunt in India was his only hope. So he is also in Mayapore trying to find a way of making some sort of living. He speaks no “Indian”, has an accent that to all but the English upper classes sounds like a put-down, has black skin over white identity, and so is accepted by no-one. Except the rather idealistic – perhaps naive – Daphne Manners, that is. And by the way, if you are not English, you need to know that in Britain a public school refers to a wholly private, privileged institution. Have we changed at all?

Daphne and Hari become friends. But where can they meet? Clubs, restaurants and even workplaces enforce racial segregation. Even Lady Chatterjee, widow of Sir Nello, knighted by the English king, and with whom Daphne lodges, cannot get into such places, so Hari has no chance. But if Daphne goes local, she incurs the wrath and ridicule of her class and race-conscious compatriots who see their own status threatened if questioned. Add to that the complication of timing, since the couple’s romance coincides with the 1942 Quit India campaign and the arrest and imprisonment without trial of Congress leaders and then protest riots.

The real strength of The Jewel In The Crown, however, is Paul Scott’s insistence that we should see events from different perspectives. Not only do we hear Hari’s and Daphne’s account, but we also have the voice of the military, that of the civil administration and that of an Indian activist. But it is always from outside, sometimes from afar, that we are presented with the attitudes and actions of the policeman, Ronald Merrick. It is his actions that are crucial to the book’s success. He is no upper class military type, no public schoolboy. He is an ambitious, self-made man with competence and a desire for achievement as his badge. He potenjtially is meritocracy personified.

And so through the lives and actions of these characters, against a backdrop of war and colonial turmoil, Paul Scott creates a rich tapestry of comment on social class, ethnicity and politics. It is a truly remarkable book and its observations, despite the unfamiliarity of the language to contemporary readers, are still relevant in today’s Britain, but are perhaps no more than an historical relic in today’ s India.

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