Friday, August 12, 2011

The Towers of Silence

Towers of Silence are funerary towers in Zorastrianism where the dead are exposed to the elements, to be eaten by carrion birds, and their bodies are kept from contaminating the earth.

A failed burial is a heart thread of Paul Scott's third novel of the same name in his Raj Quartet. Mabel Layton, according to her companion, Barbie Batchelor, wanted to be buried next to her second husband in Ranpur. These wishes, expressed to her, were not communicated to her step-daughter who buries her in Pankot. Barbie, who barging into the morgue, has seen the body being shifted into an appropriate pose after a post-mortem examination, imagines its extended features to reveal Mabel's present torment: a vision of hell and displacement.

This scene of heightened emotion and surreal viewing is beautifully controlled and evoked by Scott in the context of an apparently realist novel, unfolding with documentary like precision.

Indeed the closer you read Scott the more he diverges from a 'straightforward' narrative. The book breaks out of both history and personal psychology into deeper realities of vision and spirituality. Unfolding prosaic events take on the status of symbols.

Mabel Layton's 'failed' burial becomes a parable of displacement. This woman, an embodiment of English tradition in India, who has come to disbelieve in the colonial project, survives her disbelief by withdrawal into her garden, her tended flowers and her deafness. She does not mention her wished burial to anyone, except her eccentric companion, socially displaced by Mabel's family and their peers and wholly doubtful of her own career as a missionary and its failed impact on India. It becomes a sign of the whole project - apparently busy, hoping to come to rest as if to a native place, and, in fact, a retreat and a final disillusionment.

Barbie is (as we read on) to lapse into withdrawn, haunted silence in sight of the towers - where the illusion of embodiment and permanence (against which the British in India are fighting a losing battle) gives way to vultures and dismemberment.

It is such a satisfying read, and on so many levels, historical, psychological and spiritual.

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