The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, July 13, 2003

Signs and signatures
Raj through the eyes of British novelists
Darshan Singh Maini

INDIA, with all its mysteries, continued to fascinate and confound several British novelists of the Raj from Kipling to John Masters. Indeed, nearly all the three novelists that form the discourse here, finally, take refuge in ambiguities and ambivalence. The epistemology of the India as seen through British eyes "troubles their sight", to recall a Yeatsian phrase, and unable to come to terms with the eternal India which is as much a geo-political reality as "a state of mind", they tend to fall back upon cliches and myths spawned by British imperialism. The Indian trio of R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand as well as other native novelists have also grappled with this theme, and the quest and the question still remain unanswered. If Jane Richardson described India as "heaven’s neighbouring state", V.S. Naipaul whose antipathies are well known, called it the "world’s largest slum". So, the sphinx aspect of Bharat complexifies the issue, and abides.

Kipling, an assistant editor of The Civil & Military Gazette (Lahore) was the first notable novelist and story-writer who in his two novels, Kim and Naulakha, sought to understand the maddening disparities, contradictions and polarities of the Indian situation. Though in Kim, he came close enough to the meaning of the Lama’s quest for nirvana, yet he remained sceptical after his own fashion like most other "Blimps", he too was derailed in his formulations, and the concepts of "the East-West divide" as well as "the White Man’s Burden" became the staple of his song. This "burden" was interpreted in two ways: one, as a physical curse and "the tyranny of the Tropics", and two, as the British "destiny" to "civilise" the country of naked fakirs and fakes, of "degenerate", superstitious natives, steeped in darkness. These myths were hoisted with the Bible in one hand, and the gun, in the other. Kipling, as the bard of the Raj, thus, became an archetypal novelist, and perpetuated the imperial lore. Later novelists like E.M. Foster and John Masters didn’t fall into that trap, and that’s why their work has a more authentic ring.


Before I comment on Forster’s fiction, it may be helpful to isolate and identify the multiple meanings of the word "myth" which occurs both in its pejorative sense, and in its metaphysical, anthropological and mythopoeic connotations. The British writers often get lost in this duality, and the positive, purposive aspects, now identified by western critics of note, do not enter the frames of their fabulation. Forster, in particular, stands apart, and is, in the end, more rewarding, more enduring. That is why E.M. Forster remains supreme in the affections of his Indian readers. A Passage to India, whose title is derived from Walt Whitman’s beautiful tribute to a country he had only read about in the works of the American Transendlists like Emerson and Thoreau, is now a recognised classic. So many Indian critics have traced Vedantic echoes in the great poem. Even a novelist like Raja Rao whose novel, The Serpent and the Rope is a metaphysical evocation of Mother India, among other complex strains, has this to say of the British novelist, "To speak of Forster is, in a way, to speak of a saint". He admires his penetrating books on India, and believes, like him, "in an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky, "not in that of power based upon rank and influence". Does Forster admire Islam for its orderliness and well-defined doctrines? Is he perplexed by the Hindu amorphousness and "spiritual muddledom"? He maintains a studied ambivalence. The Malabar Caves incident, a traumatic experience again, remains a riddle within a riddle.

John Masters, in a way, is a sui generis phenomenon in the history of the novelists of the Raj. Being the fifth generation Britisher to serve in India, he had an instinctive regard for the country, which he considered his second "home". In fact, at the time of Independence in 1947, he even expressed a desire to serve in the Indian Army, though it couldn’t materialise. And all his novels, moving backward and forward through time, then, constitute a vast picture, rich in texture and tone. He couldn’t avoid being British, but, he had developed a keenly neutral, observant eye, and, therefore, he treated both the masters and the subjects with equal justice and authority. He could see how the British had colonised not only the land of India, but grievously enough, even the native consciousness. In other words, imperialism in its devious ways had invaded the corporate Indian psyche and made the common Indian feel inferior, comic and supine.

In Nightrunners of Bengal, he takes up the "terror and tragedy" of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, and he is unsparing in his treatment of both the mutineers and their British overbearing commanders. This historic episode has figured in many novels, but Masters’ rendering of the gruesome picture, though free of prejudice, is, nonetheless, inclined to dwell heavily on the atrocities committed by an incensed soldiery on innocent British women and children. However, Captain Rodney, the Chief protagonist, is equally bitter about the British rudeness and hauteur. "The English in India had failed England", he laments.

In the Deceivers, the theme is "thuggee" and the hold of Goddess Kali whose offerings include children and goats as sacrifice. The inhumanity of the prowling chains of thugs is severely condemned as something barbaric. Masters’ ironic comment is: "The Goddess Kali gave her children a long sight as well as a strong hand". The next novel, The Ravi Lancers is a story of Indian troops in France during World War I. Masters has touched on the heroic deeds of Indian soldiery as well as on their British officers’ little cruelties and callousness. In a way, it could be considered an anti-war novel.

In the more ambitious, Bhawani Junction, Masters has given us an empathic peep into the predicament of the Anglo-Indians, a small community despised by the Whites in India, calling their men "wogs" and their daughters "chee chee" girls. The native Indians treat them as ‘mongrels’ or ‘half-breeds’, and leave them to face their own plight. Caught between these pincers of unending pain, they are unable to claim a heritage, or a meaningful future. In Far, Far, the Mountain Peak, he returns to the theme of British insensitivity to the native customs and culture. The Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, among other events, becomes a shameful page in the book of the Raj, and the more refined British officers find it an unbearable mark of disgrace on the Christian civilisation.

If I’ve not taken note of other novelists like J.K. Ackerley (Hindoo Holiday) and Paul Scott whose novels describe India as "a Jewel in the British Crown", it’s because an exercise of this nature is not meant to cover the full story of an imperialism on which the sun has set at last. This "backward glance", thus, precludes on extensive critique.