Staying On by Paul Scott is a wonderful little novel, a Booker Prize Winner and, having read Scott’s Raj Quartet, a novel that has changed what I thought of Scott’s writing.
In the garden of Smith’s Hotel in Pankot, India, Tusker Smalley lies dead from an apparent heart attack. In his hand he still clutches a letter from the hotel manager, and his best friend, Mr Bhoolabhoy, who he calls Billy Boy with a mixture of affection and condescension. Tusker and his wife, Lucy, have been living in a lodge attached to Smith’s for some 10 years but the hotel has certainly seen better days.
An elegant, colonial-era establishment, it thrived during the years of the British Raj. Even afterwards it continued to do well when an airport was built in the region. But it is now 1972 and the future of Smith’s is facing its toughest test in a rapidly changing India, especially from the modern and imposing Shiraz Hotel built right next door.
Tusker was a Colonel in the British Army in India. He was 47 when Indian independence came; too young to retire but too old to start over. Tusker and Lucy decided they would ‘stay on’ in India, or rather, Tusker decided for both of them. Better to be relatively rich and live comfortably in a poor country than be poor in a rich country was his thinking.
My only ambition ever has been to survive as comfortably as possible.
Most English did not stay on, however. As the years went by, the Smalley’s became increasingly isolated and alone as the institutions of their former community disappeared. Now, they face new threats as their finances dry up, Tusker’s health begins failing and the hotel’s owner, Mr Bhoolabhoy’s wife, is redefining the terms of their lease.
Meanwhile, Mr Bhoolabhoy is also feeling squeezed. He has been the manager of Smith’s since long before he married the woman who came to own it. A somewhat meek people-pleaser, Mr Bhoolabhoy feels caught between his affection for Smith’s, for his friend Tusker and placating his powerful and intimidating rich wife. Mr Bhoolabhoy feels nostalgia not only for better days at Smith’s; as an Indian Christian, he has also watched the decline of his local church. But when help to restore the church finally arrives, it comes in a form that troubles him.
Staying On begins with the death of Tusker Smalley and swiftly fills the reader with intrigue. What was in the letter Tusker was holding when he died? What was Mr Bhoolabhoy really doing in the nearby town of Ranpur where he was supposedly there on business? What is the nature of Lucy’s secret understanding with her servant Ibrahim? What happened years ago between Tusker and Lucy that she can only refer to as ‘the debacle’? From here we are taken back a few months and told the story of events leading up to the fateful day of Tusker Smalley’s death. It is the story of the legacy of the British Raj and what life was like for those English who ‘stayed on’ in a new India. But more than that, it is the story of a marriage.
Staying On is, in a way, a sequel to the Raj Quartet. But do you need to read the Raj Quartet first? It’s a difficult question to answer. Staying On takes place in the same location, Pankot, where some significant parts of the Raj Quartet take place and includes references to key locations within the town that readers of the Quartet will be familiar with. The main characters of Staying On, Tusker and Lucy Smalley, were barely part of the Raj Quartet and another character, Minnie, now a housekeeper employed at Smith’s, was also a very minor character from the Quartet though she did participate in a major event.
Otherwise, there are references to events from the Raj Quartet, particularly the third novel, The Towers of Silence. Lucy also corresponds with Sarah Layton; a main character from the Raj Quartet, so readers will hear what becomes of her some 25 years after the events of the Quartet. None of this is enough to say that you need to read the Quartet first; Staying On can be read as a stand-alone novel. But, since these connections do add to the pleasure of the novel, I wonder if readers would enjoy it as much as I did without reading the Quartet first.
In terms of style, there are some glaring differences between Staying On and the Raj Quartet. Staying On is much more ‘readable’; it is a much more leisurely, fun and entertaining read. Shorter than the Raj novels, it feels denser; the colouring in of the characters and the events of the plot come with greater force and pace. It is also funny, though it is difficult to give a good example of the funniest parts since they are mostly long jokes.
Memsahib sat opposite, her spectacles on the end of her nose, knitting one of the awful pullovers which Sahib grumbled about having to wear. Since Memsahib took months to knit a pullover, and knitted it in full view of Tusker Sahib, Ibrahim never understood why it wasn’t until he got it for Christmas that he complained about the pattern and colours.
The Raj Quartet, by contrast, is very slow, considered and serious. It reads as something meticulously crafted with plots that slowly unravel and where the story and the characters are, at best, given equal importance to the themes that inspired their creation. Staying On is very different novel; its story and characters, I feel, dominate its themes but it is an achievement of no less skill.
Thematically, there is a little overlap between the Quartet and Staying On. One of the main themes of the Quartet was that frequently, though not entirely, the worst of the English were attracted to India and that India drew out the worst in the English. There is some of that present in Staying On, particularly when Lucy looks back at how her life changed when she followed Tusker to India.
But, like the style of Staying On, its main themes are a break from the Raj Quartet and are also why it is not entirely a sequel. One of those main themes is, obviously, the legacy of the Raj and the lives of those left behind. This was something the setting of the Quartet is too immediate to address directly; only indirectly by inviting reflection on the part of the reader, reading stories written long after events. Staying On, set in 1972 and published in 1977 is obviously more contemporary.
The theme of the those left behind when the Raj ended is not just reflected in the lives of English like Lucy and Tusker, who found they would probably be better off financially in India which may have become more of a home to them than England could ever be again, fighting feelings of loneliness and abandonment that come with those realisations. It is also in the lives of Indian converts to Christianity like Mr Bhoolabhoy, who finds the pillar of his identity and community falling into disrepair and inevitable change with the departure of the English. It is also in the lives of mixed-race Eurasians who are outcasts in both the new India and the old.
That new India is also a new theme in Staying On. It is in the way that Tusker, like the English in the time of the Raj, continues to indulge the customs of common Indians without understanding their significance or questioning the social propriety of doing so. Since the wealthy Indians of this new era do not, his lone spectacle is all the more glaring. It is also in the way the new, glittering, modern, Indian Shiraz Hotel literally casts its shadow over the antiquated elegance of the colonial Smith’s Hotel.
But, as I say, I feel that the story of Staying On takes precedence over these themes. More than the legacy of the Raj, of those that are staying on or were left behind, or of contrasts between the new and old India; Staying On is, in my opinion, mostly the story of a marriage. And as fun and leisurely a read it may be, it is also quite sad.
In the mid-section of the novel, we cease being told the story from a bustling third-person perspective centring on Tusker or Lucy or Ibrahim or Mr Bhoolabhoy in turn. The pace of the novel slows and we see a mostly first-person perspective as Lucy looks back on her life. It is the story of a somewhat quiet and meek young woman who had difficulty making real friends or of finding real purpose. Over the decades, little changed. Her inability to fit in with the other women in the typing pool as a young woman in England was replaced by her inability to fit in with other army wives in India after marrying Tusker or with Indians of their social class after independence.
I have had a rather sad life, Lucy told herself […] ‘A life like a flower that has never really bloomed, but how many do?’
The prospect that Tusker may not have long to live has applied a spur to Lucy as she faces the prospect of being old and alone in India. After decades of a marriage with little drama or excitement, of no children and few friends, in which she has had little independence and no control over their finances or future, Lucy is finally confident enough to tell Tusker what she really thinks, even if his heart is now too weak to handle it.
She had merely been closing her mind to what at a deeper level of consciousness she knew had to be faced. In a year, perhaps sooner, she could be a widow.
She would be alone. She would be alone in Pankot. She would be alone in a foreign country. There would be no one of her own kind, her own colour, no close friend by whom to be comforted or on whom she could rely for guidance. The question whether she would be virtually destitute was one that frightened her so much that even her sub-conscious mind had been keeping that fear buried deep.
Staying On was Scott’s last completed novel. It won the Booker Prize in 1977, though Scott could not receive the prize in person as he was too ill from the colon cancer that would claim his life some months later, aged only 57 and, it might be argued, at the peak of his writing career. It is the tenth Booker Prize winner I have read and I would count it among my favourites of those. Quite different from what I thought I knew of Scott’s writing from the Raj Quartet; it is both funny and sad, light but undeniably well-crafted and tightly-controlled. Beginning at a quick pace and slowing through the middle, it picks up pace again in the last section, peaking with some of the funniest and saddest passages of the whole novel.
For my reviews of the Raj Quartet novels, see here.