Friday, August 29, 2014

Paul Scott — ‘The Jewel in the Crown’

And all the time wanting Hari. Seeing him in my imagination looking over the shoulder of every pink male face and seeing the strain of pretending that the world was this small. Hateful. Ingrown. About to explode like powder compressed ready for firing.
          I thought that the whole bloody affair of us in India had reached flash point. It was bound to because it was based on a violation. (p. 459)
August 1942. The eastern edge of the British empire is under threat from Japan, and the Indian National Congress passes the ‘Quit India’ Act, demanding that the British leave. Gandhi has called for ‘satyagraha’, or non-violent resistance. The British arrest the INC leadership, and riots ensue, so the leaders of these riots are arrested as well, and kept under lock and key until the end of the war. The Jewel in the Crown, as it sets out from the beginning, is the story of a rape, charged with symbolism, committed in the evening on the day of these arrests, in the (fictional) Bibighar Gardens at Mayapore. Hari Kumar, a rich kid fallen on hard times, falls in love with Daphne Manners, a young woman with ties to the British administration, doing volunteer work in a hospital. The first and only time they consummate their relationship is on 9th August, in a kind of open pavilion at Bibighar. Some thugs who have come to Mayapore to riot watch them, then attack, tying up Hari and forcing him to watch as they rape Daphne.
They assaulted me because they had watched an Indian making love to me. The taboo was broken for them. (p. 470)
It is striking how similar this set-up is to the premise of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, set in the 1920s, in which English Miss Quested is thought to have been sexually assaulted by Indian Dr Aziz in the Marabar Caves; Forster using the fallout to examine Anglo-Indian relations. The point that Daphne makes explicit, that the British presence in India is ‘based on a violation’, seems to have been irresistable for the two novelists. Scott’s story is twenty years on, and the slow progress towards independence has increased the tension between the two nations even further (to ‘flash point’) — which is perhaps why a suspected assault in the earlier novel is replaced by gang rape in the later one. The point at which the tension was finally released, 15th August 1947, and the resultant creation of babies with superpowers, for those lucky enough to have been born on the stroke of midnight, is covered in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Googling around this subject recently, I found Rushdie’s opinion of Scott’s India, with its harsh portraits of the British:
It will not do to argue that Scott was attempting only to portray the British in India, and that such was the nature of imperialist society that the Indians would only have had bit parts. It is no defence to say that a work adopts, in its structure, the very ethic which, in its content and tone, it pretends to dislike. It is, in fact, the case for the prosecution.
It is useless, I’m sure, to suggest that if a rape must be used as the metaphor of the Indo-British connection, then surely, in the interests of accuracy, it should be the rape of an Indian woman by one or more Englishmen of whatever class… not even Forster dared to write about such a crime. So much more evocative to conjure up white society’s fear of the darkie, of big brown cocks. (from his ‘Outside the Whale’ essay).
He’s right, of course. At least, he’s right that the west should not view the east only through the eyes of western correspondents. The east is more than capable of accounting for itself. Adelaide ebooks linked to an interesting blog recently which lists 100 books, split proportionally by countries’ populations: it’s dominated by India (17) and China (19); the US gets 4, and the UK 1 (Pride and Prejudice). That’s a list to explore the world. Expatriate literature can be a part of this, and can have interesting things to say about the clash of cultures, and dominion, but it has a tightrope to walk, and one end of the balancing pole is likely to be much heavier than the other. I don’t think you can dismiss it for that reason, though. Britian is a part of what India is, and India is a part of what Britain is, and that’s because of the Raj. I talk to people in India every day at work, and that situation is at least partially due to our shared language. It’s the reason, too, that Midnight’s Children was written in English.

The Jewel in the Crown is good on the blending of the English character with the Indian. Although the action of the story takes place in the 1940s, the documents and interviews through which it is told are gathered by a shadowy historian (a bit like in Citizen Kane) in the 1960s. Here the lawyer Srinivasen compares the two decades; compares the last years of the Raj, with their exaggerated class and race divisions, to independent India, in which there is still an English presence, but one of technical experts who are useful, and not upper class:
He [the new class of technical worker] laughs at what the Gymkhana used to represent — that old-fashioned upper-class English stuffiness and pretence — which is why I suppose he comes dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts and uses vulgar expressions. He knows almost nothing about British-Indian history, so writes off everything that seems to be connected with it as an example of the old type British snobbery. Which means also that in a way he writes us off too. (p. 213)
‘Us’ being the generation of Indians who have absorbed the 1940s English values. The most thoroughly Anglicised Indian of the lot is Hari Kumar (or Harry Coomer), who received an expensive education at an English public school before his father, after some bad business decisions, killed himself. Hari was left with nothing, and nowhere to go except to his aunt in India, a country with which he is utterly unfamiliar. In effect, he is a white upper class Englishman transplanted into an Indian’s body. I felt for him when, penniless, he went looking for a job, leaning on old school connections for all he was worth (but pretending not to), and came up against an early example of the lower middle class technical worker, who felt challenged and provoked him into a put-down, which ruined his chances. As long as Hari remains English, Scott can tug effectively at the (English) reader’s sympathy for his isolation; but as he becomes more Indian, he slips out of focus, and I think this is a mistake. Daphne says:
I was worried, worried for him, because he was a man who would find it awfully difficult to hide, and I believed that was what he wanted to do. To hide. To disappear into a sea of brown faces. (p. 457)
His tragedy is that he is wrongfully imprisoned, and treated barbarously by the policeman Ronald Merrick (also his rival for Daphne’s affections). Lumped together with the rioters, it doesn’t matter in the end that the rape can’t be pinned on him, which is what Merrick wants. This fading away coincides unfortunately with his growing identification with India, and the impression is left that an Indian character has to be Anglicised to hold Scott’s interest. But the reverse is almost true too: all the English characters are implicated in the Raj by their presence, and are defined by their attitude towards Indians. It is the clash which animates the book.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Thoughts on ‘God Help the Girl’

Typically, Chris S. is able to dispatch the whole God Help the Girl project with a look of righteous indignation and the proclamation that Stuart Murdoch has got the horn — which is much the funniest way of looking at it, but there is a bit more to say, I think. It’s affecting, is the first thing, which is a relief. It works, as a rite of passage movie, about a young Australian woman, Eve, who na├»vely follows where her true love leads, to Glasgow, and ends up a heartbroken anorexic. The film is the story of her recovery, through — friends and music? Through a band, certainly. She plays songs on her own on the hospital’s piano, then she magically improvises ‘The Psychiatrist is In’ in her flatmate James’ room, while he strums a guitar, dumbfounded. They add Cassie to their number because James already plays music with her. She marches on a machine in an exercise park (instant comedy) as the other two discuss how to make a great pop record. Eve is still fragile, and doesn’t want to involve any other people. James is clear: if you’re making a pop record, you need drums and bass. He is the motivator early on, taking Eve and Cassie out on canal expeditions in a canoe, and providing the learned pop narrative in which, in his vision, the band (I don’t think they’re actually called God Help the Girl in the film) need to exist. It takes Eve a while to notice the flaw with this vision, which is that it doesn’t include an audience, particularly. James wants to make the perfect record on his own terms; Eve comes to realise that the thing she wants is to sing to people, and connect with them.

These musical differences are paralleled romantically, when Eve, instead of taking up with the nice chap who has rescued her from despair, opts for a brooding, masterful Frenchman, who treats her bad and gives her the horn. James concentrates on making himself and his behaviour perfect in his own eyes, and unimpeachable in Eve’s; but unimpeachable is not sexy. Unimpeachable doesn’t grab the moment. So the film embodies the whole indier-than-thou / Pop! debate: it’s about ambition and integrity, and it seems to side with the notion that integrity without ambition is not worth the bedsit it’s concocted in. Just like Belle and Sebastian embraced their fame and became a proper pop band. But they didn’t leave Glasgow to do it, so it feels a little odd to see Eve get on a train to London at the end, to go to music college.

So maybe that’s not it: maybe James is the moral victor, setting off with Cassie and her tandem, back out of Central Station, knowing that, at nearly twenty five, his (quite local) wandering days are not over yet.


Further thoughts after a second viewing

  • The hunk (still can’t remember his name) is German Swiss, not French, don’t know where I got that from.
  • Throughout, Cassie wears a pendant saying ‘Deputy’, which is a cool thing to do.
  • Eve’s tape, which she hands in, via the hunk, to a local radio station, does actually say ‘God Help the Girl’ on it.
  • The local DJs, whom you never see, are played by Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie. This works very well, but it’s odd that the local Glasgow DJs aren’t Glaswegian.
  • It’s odd too that none of the leads are even Scottish. The most memorable locals in the film, arguably, are the neds who proposition Cassie from the bank as the three band members paddle past in a canoe.
  • As James and Cassie ride off on a tandem, and the credits roll, Belle and Sebastian’s ‘Dress Up In You’ plays, which supports the idea of James as the moral victor, with Eve selling out, or at least moving on to somewhere less special.
  • James makes much of the fact that he lived in Scotland for six months after he was born, before he moved to England. Everyone knows that you have to stay for two years for it to mean anything.

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