Friday, May 13, 2011

The Jewel in the Crown


I spent six months in Nizhny Novgorod ostensibly as both the chair and the director of a micro-finance fund. I must confess much of that work -apart from the spectacular resignation of my predecessor as director - has faded from view but what I vividly recall is at weekends progressing through Paul Scott's 'The Raj Quartet' and subsequently re-watching its painstaking and triumphant dramatization (by Granada) that I had watched, long before, on the television.

It was without doubt my most deeply cherished reading experience to date.

This extraordinary narrative of the British in the last, declining days of colonial rule that begins with the doomed relationship of Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners, her rape, and the injustice of Kumar as accused by Ronald Merrick, the Police Superintendent, and one of the most malevolent characters ever created in fiction. He is a magnified alter ego of Scott himself especially the sharply, destructively repressed homosexuality. The narrative spreads, sprawls outwards incorporating politics, history, religion but never departs from the intimate texture of particular lives. It is a remarkable achievement.

The television series that I watched in my early teens was the first time I knowingly saw the depiction of homosexuality on screen. It was a covert, electric excitement - and, thankfully, Merrick was not the only model. There was, most of all, the suave, accomplished Count Bronowsky played by Eric Porter who runs a minor Indian state for his compliant prince (what an opportunity to identify)!

The book is a rich and complex meditation on identities - their capacity to fascinate and bind.

Merrick is exemplary. The grammar school boy confronted by a public school educated Indian who repels in that difference and attracts in his physicality. A man who every day lives with a double exclusion - the wrong social status amongst the English, and a repressed sexual identity that (at that time) would distance, repulse most, who projects power as a compensation, and a place to hide. His death comes when finally he lives out (in private) his sexual fantasy - a mixture of desire, power and violence.

It is a series of books noticeable for the absence of any simple solutions (or escapes). In many ways a tragic narrative of people misunderstanding and misunderstood but there are glimpses of light. Lady Manners adoption of Daphne's child of ambiguous origin - Hari's or a rapist's? The count's non-judgemental attitude to the world, his ability to navigate towards well-being, recognizing the compromises on the way, and light's fragility. Sarah Layton's even temperament and capacity not to succumb to easy prejudice or false certainty.

It is in the small acts of human decency that hope is found even as the tides of history sweep on.

I am thinking of embarking on a second reading...

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