The day of the scorpion, p.1
The Day of the Scorpion,
About the Author
Also by Paul Scott
BOOK ONE: The Prisoners in the Fort
BOOK TWO: Orders of Release
About the Author
Paul Scott was born in north London in 1920. During the Second World War he held a commission in the Indian army, after which he worked for several years in publishing, and for a literary agency. His first novel, Johnnie Sahib, was published in 1952, followed by twelve others, of which the best known are the ‘Raj Quartet’: The Jewel in the Crown (1966), The Day of the Scorpion (1968), The Towers of Silence (1971) and A Division of the Spoils (1975). His last novel, Staying On (1977), won the Booker Prize. He died in 1978.
Also by Paul Scott
The Alien Sky
A Male Child
The Mark of the Warrior
The Chinese Love Pavilion
The Birds of Paradise
The Corrida at San Feliu
The Jewel in the Crown*
The Towers of Silence*
A Division of the Spoils*
* available from Arrow
of the Scorpion
Fern and John
with deep affection and regard
The writer encountered a Muslim woman once in a narrow street of a predominantly Hindu town, in the quarter inhabited by money-lenders. The feeling he had was that she was coming in search of a loan. She wore the burkha, that unhygienic head-to-toe covering that turns a woman into a walking symbol of inefficient civic refuse collection and leaves you without even an impression of her eyes behind the slits she watches the gay world through, tempted but not tempting; a garment in all probability inflaming to her passions but chilling to her expectations of having them satisfied. Pity her for the titillation she must suffer.
After she had passed there was a smell of Chanel No. 5, which suggested that she needed money because she liked expensive things. Perhaps she had a rebellious spirit, or laboured under a confusion of ideas and intentions. On the other hand she may merely have been submissive to her husband, drenching herself for his private delight with a scent she did not realize was also one of public invitation – and passed that day through the street of the moneylenders only because it was a short cut to the mosque. It was a Friday, and it is written in the Koran: ‘Believers, when the call is made for prayer on Friday, hasten to the remembrance of Allah and leave off all business. That would be best for you, if you but knew it. Then, when the prayers are ended, disperse and go in quest of Allah’s bounty.’ Perhaps, when the service was over, it was her intention to return by the way she had come.
If she was going to divine service then she was bound for the Great Mosque, which lies in the heart of the city. Its minaret is not the only minaret in Ranpur, but it is the tallest and the only one from which the call to prayer is made nowadays; the other mosques of Ranpur are no longer in use as houses of worship. Some of them have decayed, others less ruinous are used as storerooms by the municipality. There are still Muslims in Ranpur but the days are gone when the great festivals of the îd al-fitr and the îd al-Adzha could fill the mosques with thousands of the faithful from the city and the surrounding villages of the plain. The days are gone because thousands of the faithful are gone. Some of those that remain still mourn friends and relatives who chose Islam but never reached that land of promise, having died on the way, some of illness, many by violence. Sometimes a train they travelled on would pass one coming out of Islam, laden with passengers who had neither chosen Islam nor been content to stay when they found themselves living there, in the houses they were born in. These people mourned too for what they had left behind and for friends and relatives who started on the journey with them but did not live to finish it. Some of the survivors settled in Ranpur which was, still is, a sprawling city, seat of the provincial government. There are temples and bathing places on the banks of the sacred river, with steps and burning ghats. Bridges connect the north to the south bank which is less densely populated than the north where lateral and tangential industrial development has broken the landscape with chimneys taller than any minaret. From the air this expansion outwards from the ancient nucleus falls into something like a pattern. From the ground no pattern can be seen (except to the east in the military precision with which the roads and installations of the cantonment were built by a people who are also gone) and the nucleus itself is a warren of narrow streets and chowks in which one may too easily get lost and, being lost, marvel that anyone could know of a short cut to the mosque or to anywhere, let alone find it. Here, you might think no experience would be long enough to acquire such knowledge, in fact that confusion seems to be almost deliberate, the result of recognition of a need to huddle together in order not to be destroyed by a land that seems at best indifferent, at worst malignly opposed, to human occupation.
To leave the narrow streets and crowded chowks behind and enter the area once distinguished by the title Civil Lines, an area of broad avenues and spacious bungalows in walled compounds which culminates in the palladian grandeur of Government House, the Secretariat and the Legislative Assembly; to continue, still in an easterly direction, past the maidan, the government college, the hospital and the film studios and enter the cantonment, which someone once described as Aldershot with trees planted to provide shade instead of cut down to make room, is to pass from one period of history to another and to feel that the people from the small and distant island of Britain who built and settled here were attempting to express in the architectural terms that struck them as suitable their sense of freedom at having space around them at last, a land with length and breadth to it that promised ideal conditions for concrete and abstract proof of their extraordinary talent for running things and making them work. And yet here too there is an atmosphere of circumspection, of unexpected limits having been reached and recognized, and quietly, sensibly settled for. Too late to reduce the scale and crowd everything together, each road and building has an air of being turned inwards on itself to withstand a siege.
If you look in places like Ranpur for evidence of things these island people left behind which were of value, you might choose any one or several of the public works and installations as visible proof of them: the roads and railways and telegraph for a modern system of communication, the High Court for a sophisticated code of civil and criminal law, the college for education to university standard, the State Legislature for democratic government, the Secretariat for a civil service made in the complex image of that in Whitehall; the clubs for a pattern of urbane and civilized behaviour, the messes and barracks for an ideal of military service to the mother country. These were bequeathed, undoubtedly; these and the language and the humpy graves in the English cemetery of St
But it is not these things which most impress the stranger on his journey into the civil lines, into the old city itself (where he becomes lost and notes the passage of a woman dressed in the burkha in the street of the moneylenders) and then back past the secretariat, the Legislative Assembly and Government House, and on into the old cantonment in a search for points of present contact with the reality of twenty years ago, the repercussions, for example, of the affair in the Bibighar Gardens. What impresses him is something for which there is no memorial but which all these things collectively bear witness to: the fact that here in Ranpur, and in places like Ranpur, the British came to the end of themselves as they were.
More than two hundred miles south-west of Ranpur but still inside the boundary of the province of which Ranpur is the principal city lies the town of Premanagar, and – some five miles farther, marking the site of an earlier town of that name – the Premanagar Fort.
Premanagar is most easily prounounced Premman’ugger. Old-style British used to call it Premah’n’gh, strongly accenting the second syllable and all but swallowing the third and fourth, which gave the Fort status of the kind enjoyed by a tent when it is called a marquee. Originally built by the Rajputs, the Fort was partially destroyed and patched up by the Moghuls who held it against the Mahrattas but lost it to the British. In the mid-nineteenth century it was for a time the seat of an English freebooting gentleman of doubtful origin called Turner who raised a company of mercenaries which he styled Turner’s Horse. His men terrorized the countryside and were said to be devoted to their leader. Apart from his Horse Turner had six wives, and a modest fortune which he lost gambling in Calcutta trying to buy a seventh. He died in a skirmish which most historians of the Mutiny of 1857 overlook, probably because so far as one can see nothing led up to it and it led nowhere itself. And old daguerreotype reveals Turner as a man with side whiskers and fixed, pale-looking eyes that were probably blue. One suspects that he was murdered. His irregular cavalry either died with him or disappeared in search of further adventure, so no Turner’s Horse lived on to perpetuate his memory. He was, it is said, a press-ganged sailor who deserted in Madras and sought his fortune up-country. But no matter. He is a body buried as it were in the foundations of that other ruined stronghold, the British Empire.
Real bodies were in fact buried in the foundations of the Premanagar Fort. It was a fashion of the times, but the parents of young men (and sometimes the young men’s wives) who were bricked up alive to give a fort an auspicious start in life were handsomely rewarded. It is said, though, that the misfortunes of this particular fort were once traced to the fact that the treasurer at the court of the Rajput prince who built it – and bricked up a promising young man and his child wife – pocketed the bereaved family’s pension for the five years it took the boy’s father to pluck up the courage to go over the treasurer’s head and hint at injustice. It is not known what then happened to the treasurer, or the complainant. And anyway it is all conjecture. It has the sound of a myth devised later to explain or anyway celebrate misadventure. The British – as usual – had the best of it. They inherited a partial ruin and preserved it with reverent determination as if awestruck at the thought of changing anything that might then be turned to their disadvantage. Until 1939 the Fort was a detention barracks, and a magnet for military schemes run by grey colonels who had forgotten that as rosy subalterns they had always found such exercises distracting to their sense of what one was in the world to do.
After 1939, the Fort became a prison – a place of civil instead of military detention. It comprised the foundations of the old outer wall, a broken-down despoiled Hindu temple in what had once been the precincts of the South Gate, a still stout inner wall, a pretty mosque, two wells, a flagpole, and a walled courtyard of red earth. Here, in the courtyard, between August 1942 and the date of his release, the Fort’s most distinguished prisoner created a garden to pass the time. Traces of it still remain. Given better luck than Turner his memory might have been perpetuated by the habit, dear to Indians, of naming a place after its founder or its most illustrious inhabitant. But it is not known now as Kasim’s Garden. Besides, it was only a patch.
Below the hill on which the redstone Fort rests in the massive immobility of its functional decline are other ruins, the site of excavations in 1926 by a team of Frenchmen whose leader became persona non grata with the Deputy Commissioner and the Provincial Governor when a complaint was lodged by an English lady, a Miss Frayle, that Professor Lebrun had made an improper suggestion to her while pointing out a recently uncovered frieze of Hindu erotica. The expedition departed for Pondicherry in amused, Gallic disgrace, collectively shrugging its shoulders; and the inquisitive English who subsequently took an archaeological interest in the diggings at Premanagar found the erotica disappointingly mild, so mild in fact that Miss Frayle’s reputation suffered and she packed her bags and left for Persia.
Beyond the ruins is the plain, eroded by time, low rainfall, occasional floods and poor husbandry: a complex of old dry river-beds (nullahs) and scantily grassed hummocks over which herds of goats tinkled and still do, seeking the shade of infrequent trees and of bushes whose exhausted-looking leaves become yellowed by the dust blown up from the unmetalled strips on either side of the trunk road. This road stands out in the arid landscape, a hardened artery. The lifeblood of the country, traffic, flows along it thinly and irregularly. Even today you can stand on the roadside and hear nothing for an hour on end except sometimes the goatbells and the wind in the telegraph wires. The wind is hot. At midday the Fort’s outline is distorted by the shifting, shimmering air. At a suitable distance it takes on the look of a mirage and at certain times of the year, when climatic conditions are right, actually produces one – a replica of itself, hovering above ground, sometimes upside down. English people, observing the apparition, used to find themselves thinking of Kipling or A. E. W. Mason, and looking forward to sundown, at which hour it was customary to refresh the body and relieve the spirit of the otherwise oppressive burdens of their duty.
Ranpur and the Fort at Premanagar are the first two images in the story to be told.
The Prisoners in the Fort
AN ARREST, 1942
Ex-chief Minister Mohammed Ali Kasim was arrested at his home in Ranpur at 5 a.m. on August 9th 1942 by a senior English police officer who arrived in a car, with a motor-cycle escort, two armed guards and a warrant for his detention under the Defence of India Rules. The officer waited for ten minutes on the wrong side of the locked iron gates while the chaukidar went off to rouse one of the servants who in turn roused another who roused Mr Kasim. By the time the officer gained the entrance hall Mr Kasim was standing there in his pyjamas.
‘Good morning,’ the ex-Chief Minister said. ‘I’m sorry they’ve dragged you out of bed. Is that for me?’
‘I’m afraid it is,’ the officer replied. Mr Kasim glanced briefly at the warrant, asked the Englishman to step inside and promised not to be long. Mrs Kasim came out and offered him an early morning cup of tea which he felt he had to decline in the circumstances. She nodded, as if she quite understood, and then returned to help her husband get ready.
Ten minutes later Mr and Mrs Kasim came into the vestibule together.
‘Where are you actually taking me?’ Mr Kasim asked.
The officer hesitated. ‘My orders are to drive to Government House. Beyond that I can’t say.’
‘Oh, well, that’s just an initial formality. They’ll hardly put me up there for the duration. I hope it’s not going to be the Kandipat jail, though. It’s so damp and depressing.’ He turned to his wife, to embrace her, and the officer moved away and looked at one of the many portraits on the wall, a head and shoulders
‘I’m ready,’ Mr Kasim said.
‘Haven’t you a bag?’
‘Oh, that’s here.’ He pointed to a suitcase and a bedroll standing against the wall. ‘I packed last night when I had news of the Congress Committee vote in Bombay. I thought it would save us time.’
The officer looked at the luggage and disguised his reaction – one of surprise and slight annoyance – by pursing his lips. Lists and arrangements for the detentions had been made secretly for some time, but the arrests, if they had to be made at all, were supposed to come as a surprise.
Saying nothing the officer stooped, picked up the suitcase and bedroll and carried them out to the waiting car where they were taken from him by one of the servants who had now all been alerted and stood around in the forecourt to see their master off to jail.
It was still dark. Mrs Kasim did not come out of the house. The Englishman waited until Mr Kasim was settled in the back seat of the car, gave a nod to the motor-cyclists and as they kicked their machines into life entered the car himself and closed the door. Now that the most embarrassing part of his job was done he would have liked a cigarette. He put his hand in his pocket. He would offer one to Mr Kasim to show him that he appreciated his co-operation. The last time he had arrested a member of Congress there had been a most objectionable scene: sarcasm, abuse and a lecture all the way to the jail about the iniquities of the raj. Mr Kasim was a model of restraint and good behaviour. But then he was a Muslim, and the Muslims were men of action, not words. You knew better where you stood with them and they knew when to bow with dignity to the inevitable. Remembering Mr Kasim was a Muslim, though, the officer realized he probably didn’t smoke, and realizing that, he thought it would be better manners to deny himself as well.