Staying on, by Paul Scott

Reviewed by John Erik Bøe Lindgren

Publisert i [‚mægə'zi:n], 2/02

In a time when everything seems to be post-something, leaving us in an everlasting present, it might be a good idea to look back, if not for instruction, then perhaps for entertainment and possibly a widening of perspectives and horizons. Curiously enough, Paul Scott also joined the post-ism and wrote a novel set in post-British India. Recent years have seen quite a number of novels from and/or about India, and they seem generally to be worth reading. This proves at least two points: one, it is possible to find good literature outside Europe; two, the history of imperialism provides an endless source of good plots for portraying conflicts concerning human relations.

This time, however, we are dealing with good literature from Europe by a European. Even though Scott spent some time in India, he is as British as they come. He was born in 1920, in North London where he lived for most of his life. At the outbreak of World War II, Scott enlisted as a private, and was sent to India as an air supply officer. He came to Bombay in 1943, and stayed in India and Malaya until 1946. Staying On was published in 1977 and won him the Booker Prize. He died on March 1, 1978 in London. Scott published several novels, of which The Raj Quartet (1966) is perhaps the most well known and was adapted for the Granada television series "The Jewel in the Crown" (1982). Most of Scott's works depict India or have Indian themes and characters.

Staying On is, as mentioned, a novel about the aftermath of the Raj, the end of an empire. It gives a picture of both Indian and British post-Raj conditions in a convincing manner. Scott describes the immediate surroundings in great detail, as well as the relationship between the different characters we meet. The action takes place as late as in 1972, but still we find ways of thinking and ways of behaving that are deeply rooted in memories from and consequences of British rule.

It is difficult to point out a main character, because the plot focuses on several characters from different points of view, but the focus rests on the consequences for an elderly British couple, Tusker and Lucy Smalley, of staying behind in India after it won its independence. They try to get by and maintain a lifestyle that is faintly similar to the one they enjoyed in the golden years. They live in an old annexe, the Lodge, on the property of the equally old and similarly run down hotel called Smith’s, run by Mr and Mrs Bhoolabhoy. As a contrast we find the neighbouring hotel, the Shiraz, which represents modern India, wealth and success.

In one way the novel is somewhat sad and pessimistic. The British couple has lived in India for most of their adult lives, but they are still unable to fully understand or communicate with their surroundings. Language and culture seem insurmountable obstacles, and to some extent racism also plays its part; without British rule, chaos rules. But a long life in India has also estranged the old couple from their own European identity, leaving them in an isolated no man’s land, where they really only have one another. When they at one point also lose the ability to communicate with each other, life becomes truly sad and meaningless, reduced to a mere existence.

The positive aspect is represented by the Indians’ ability to hold on to their own way of life and their own way of thinking. It seems as if they understand the British better than the British understand them. At least they observe British behaviour and are able to predict responses, absurd though they may be. And it is interesting to see how upperclass Indians treat their inferiors, such as servants and labourers. They are completely ignored, as if they do not exist. Quite the opposite of the British, who treat their servants more as household pets.

All in all, Staying On is a novel worth reading. Not only does it give us a good description of life after the Raj for those of the English who chose to stay, or were forced to for economical reasons, as is the case here. The novel also portrays a marriage in an insightful way, showing us what may be the consequences when culture and network disappears and we are only left with tradition, after history has left us behind.

Lindgren © 2021