Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Division of Spoils

This last (and lengthiest) volume of Scott's Raj quartet is moving towards its conclusion both by passing over key episodes in the preceding books, seen from multiple perspectives, and moving towards two denouement: of Britain's presence in India and of of the book's core character - the policeman, Ronald Merrick.

It is compelling that even though he is central, he is always seen through other eyes, he never has his own voice, only how it is reported by others. It captures with arrest his fundamental hollowness. He is an act of fabrication, a gifted illusion, that generates significant (negative) power; and, thus, is an apt cypher for a way of looking at the British in India. Beyond all the ideological counterfeit of imperial obligation is the wielding of (dark) power, driven in Merrick's mind by the balancing forces of contempt and envy. The latter requires to lay hold of power (over possessions, over others) and contempt justifies it.

If that were all, it would capture one way of seeing imperial ambition but would not, I think, yield the complex riches that are the quartet.

Dark power (not least by its unconsciousness, a feature of it that Merrick holds in contempt) was/is certainly present but around it, binding it, are many other complex drivers.

I was reminded of the United States who denying imperial ambition have yet pursued it with attendant dark and tragic power but that does not make the 'mission of light and freedom' simply an exercise in hypocrisy (and Scott too recognizes the falsity of this, Merrick's charge). 

The problem is not that we are hypocrites - every war is simply about the oil for example - but it is freighted with many different, and competing, motivations - many of which do stay beneath the surface.

And one is love (and regard).

I was reminded of this in the lives of Tigger and Ann, much in my thought this week. Both were born in India to a father in the ICS, a judge, whose exemplary practice won many friends both English and Indian; and, of his wife, Dinah, who founded, with Indians, a charity that continues to flourish with an especial aim at helping widowed women. Both Tigger and Ann regarded India as home, their first love, and in many ways responded to India with continuing love and affection.

It is a possibility that is, also, present in Scott's book, though it is often placed in the 'outsider' - Count Bronowsky and the 'eccentric' sergeant, Guy Perron -and, of course, in the Indian characters themselves (excluding the tragic Hari Kumar, though even he, it is hinted at the end, has begun to find a version of it).

We often interfere (or engage) out of love (and love can be bound with many burdens, envy being one) but it is not a motivation that is allowed to play much sense making in political or social arenas.

The stance of public cynicism is too corrosive: we have a Merrick voice in all of us.

There is a moment that captures it in that other great, flawed book of Anglo-Indian relationships - A Passage to India. An Indian lawyer friend of Dr Aziz turns to him, when both of them have been forced from their bicycles by an urgent British official's unthinking car, and asks rhetorically, 'Why do we hate the English? It is because we love them"!

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