In India, in 1943, a groom and his best man are travelling to the wedding ceremony when a rock is hurled at their limousine. A window is shattered and the groom, Teddie, has a cut on his cheek. He is quickly patched up and the rest of the day goes on, almost without incident. But the mystery remains.
What prompted this act of violence? Was it simply the random act of some misfit? Could it be due to the fact that both men are English and the perpetrator was some individual, committed to the cause of Indian independence, making a statement?
Could it be because the limousine belongs to the Nawab, the ruler of this princely state, and the hurler was making a statement against his rule?
Or could it be that the best man happens to be one Ronald Merrick, the police superintendent at the heart of the infamous Bibighar case?
The case, where an English woman was allegedly raped by Indian men during a period of rioting in Myapore, was never resolved. The chief suspect, Hari Kumar, has never been charged, never faced a trial, yet continues to be imprisoned for political reasons. The entire incident is still a sore point, an open wound, between Indians and English.
Merrick, did not come out of the incident well, as judged by either side. Some argue he fumbled the case, others that he is a hateful man who proceeded with prejudice rather than evidence and others that he was a victim of a case that could never end well, that got played out in the public’s imagination.
The Bibighar case was at the centre of The Jewel in the Crown, the first novel in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. In The Day of the Scorpion, the second novel, Merrick sees opportunity in the Second World War to put the case behind him and try to reinvent himself by joining the army. Merrick’s ruthless ambition to rise above his humble origins has not eased despite his setbacks and he still sees in colonial India the opportunity for someone like himself to enjoy a certain superiority and the potential to rise even further in social rank. Meeting Teddie, and through him the Layton family, gives Merrick that opportunity.
Teddie’s bride is Susan Layton. Their romance was short and their engagement and wedding plans came swiftly. The outbreak of war and setbacks in the East mean Teddie is expected to be sent to the front soon. Yet, it was Susan’s older sister, Sarah, that Teddie had first met and first shown an interest in. Teddie is not the first man to have found Sarah to be too plain, too lukewarm, too blandly intelligent to keep pursuing. Susan, by contrast, is prettier, fun and affable. But there may be something else behind the lack of interest shown Sarah. Could it be that she is sympathetic to the cause of Indian independence and this is what puts English men off?
Merrick was not Teddie’s first choice as best man, rather a last minute arrangement. They only met recently when they became roommates in the army. But Merrick is pleased at the opportunity to ingratiate himself with his social betters. Teddie has no idea of Merrick’s past and, if he had known, it is unlikely he would have chosen someone as controversial to be his best man. When he learns of Merrick’s past, Teddie finds he cannot trust Merrick to treat Indians justly, which leads to disaster after the wedding when both are sent to the front to halt the Japanese advance.
How will Susan, the simpler, less secure sister, face being the pregnant newlywed of a man now at the front in a brutal jungle war? The title of the novel comes from a memory from the sister’s childhood; of being shown a scorpion placed within a ring of fire. The scorpion appeared to sting itself to death, but perhaps they saw this event differently, perhaps its fate was something else.
Sarah has dilemmas of her own. As the older sister of a married woman in a upper-class family, it would appear that society has made a judgement against her credentials as potential wife and mother although she does not seem terribly troubled. With limited opportunities for a woman of the master race in a far away colony, Sarah’s romantic life stands at a crossroad, with spinsterhood a very real possibility. A meddling aunt, though, is determined to not see that happen. Though indelicate, she conspires to put Sarah in a difficult situation to discover some more about herself.
Meanwhile Mildred, mother of Sarah and Susan, is at odds with her step-mother-in-law, Mabel. Mabel has taken on a flatmate, Barbie, to share a family home at a time when it could have been of use to Mildred and her daughters. That, and the fact that Barbie is of a lower class to the Layton family and is mocked by others in the circle seems to be a source of friction between step-mother and step-daughter. Or is it because Mabel gave support to Indian victims of the massacre at Amritsar, an act viewed as treasonous in Mildred’s eyes?
The middle stories in a series are always tough to do well. While I did not enjoy The Day of the Scorpion as much as the first novel, The Jewel in the Crown (review here), there is still plenty to admire and think about. There is a necessary shift to a new location and a new set of characters so it does not have a sense of continuity despite the fact that there is a lot of new material on the fate of those characters who were prominent in the first novel. The Day of the Scorpion is also less overtly a commentary on colonialism and racism than the first novel. Instead it has more to say about the effect of colonialism on the colonisers, doing so in a more subtle way.
This novel also lacks the action of the first novel. Comparatively little happens. Although, what does occur is at times shocking and explosive, the novel is at its best during some long conversations between the disparate characters. The interview of Hari Kumar in prison, Russian Émigré Bronowsky’s and Merrick’s incisive discussion and Merrick’s two conversations with Sarah, one soon after first meeting and another in hospital after he returns from the front, particularly stand out. Also, for what it may lack in a chain of events, it more than makes up for in the incendiary potential of the characters – the clash of personalities, classes and social status, race, political persuasions, loyalties, emotional frailty and response to tragedy. This is a deeper, meditative read.
Other characters, whose personal situations carry a large potential for drama, have also been introduced in this volume. Altogether it achieves what a middle-book in a series requires – making the reader eager for the next novel in the series to see the fate of these characters.