It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is the most awesome
novel which I have read about British India. The story is gripping: the language poetic ("the indigo dreams of flowers fallen asleep"
, to recall a phrase which lingers in the memory): and the characterisation near flawless. Even after more than twenty years (I think it's nearer twenty-five), I can recall the some scenes as if I had read the novel yesterday.
Just look at how Scott starts the novel off:Imagine, then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of, standing where a lane ended and cultivation began...
Like To Kill a Mockingbird
and One Hundred Years of Solitude
, the first paragraph hooks you with the whole story encapsulated in it. Then when the novelist goes on to say "this is the story of a rape...", you are lost for good.
It is 1942, and Gandhi has delivered the ultimatum to the British - "Quit India!" - in his quietly arrogant way. Everywhere, the winds of change are felt, as the worm is finally turning. In this chaotic situation, a British woman is raped by Indians-and all hell breaks loose. “The Bibighar Incident”, as it comes to be known, grows into a metaphor: the beginning of the end of the British Raj.
Paul Scott’s extraordinary achievement is to encapsulate this huge canvas into the private lives of a few misfits. Daphne Manners, large boned and clumsy, with none of the charms of the English girl: Hari Kumar (or Harry Coomer, as he likes to call himself), Indian on the outside and English on the inside: and Merrick, the policeman, acutely conscious of his low social standing in British society. This triangle is unlike any other seen in literature, as love and hate in equal measure bind these people together, pulling them into the inevitable vortex at the Bibighar gardens.
The novel unfolds through the perspectives of different characters, often not central to the story. It gives a jagged, kaleidoscopic feel to the narrative which is perfectly in keeping with India. And as the mystery of what happened at Bibighar is revealed, we seem to hear the bells start to ring the death knell of the British Empire.