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The Towers of Silence
The Raj Quartet: 3
By Paul Scott
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1976 Paul Scott
All rights reserved.
The Unknown Indian
In September 1939, when the war had just begun, Miss Batchelor retired from her post as superintendent of the Protestant mission schools in the city of Ranpur.
Her elevation to superintendent had come towards the end of her career in the early part of 1938. At the time she knew it was a sop but tackled the job with her characteristic application to every trivial detail, which meant that her successor, a Miss Jolley, would have her work cut out untangling some of the confusion Miss Batchelor usually managed to leave behind, like clues to the direction taken by the cheery and indefatigable leader of a paper chase whose ultimate destination was not clear to anybody, including herself.
Miss Batchelor, christened Barbara (Barbie for short), knew she had many shortcomings, most of which were due to two besetting sins. She seldom stopped talking and was inclined to act without thinking. She had often prayed to be blessed with a more cautious and tranquil nature but had always done so by falling enthusiastically on her knees and speaking to God aloud, which may have accounted for the fact that these prayers were never answered. Her attempts to reform without intercession were also unsuccessful. When she held her tongue people asked rather anxiously about her health–not without cause because the stress of keeping quiet gave her headaches; and the headaches were not helped by the worry of work piling up if she put any of it off to think about it first. So in the end she was content to bear the burden of her own nature in the belief that God had known best what was right for her. Secretly she was rather proud of her voice. It carried.
Barbie was a believer in the good will and good sense of established authority. If the mission had told her that her furrow was not ploughed, that she was good for a few years yet, she would have squared her shoulders, spat on her palms and pressed on, grateful to be made use of. But the mission said no such thing and she outwardly accepted the situation with her usual bustling equanimity. Inwardly she accepted it with mingled relief and apprehension.
'I shall be glad to slow down,' she said. People smiled. They could not imagine Barbie except at top speed. In putting her out to grass the mission, which always looked after its own, would have provided her with temporary accommodation in Ranpur and helped to establish her eventually in Darjeeling or Naini Tal where they had twilight bungalows. They would have given her an assisted passage home, but the war made that difficult and in any case Barbie said she didn't want it. She had not been in England for thirty years.
It seemed that Barbie wanted nothing except her pension and her freedom to go where and do what she liked. She let it be known that she had plans. She said she did not intend to be idle in retirement. She would find a pied-à-terre and devote herself to some kind of voluntary work. She had saved. She was perfectly content, perfectly happy. She would always be available should the mission need her help or advice. They had only to ask and she would come, at the double.
The facts were that she had no plans and no clear idea where to go or what to do. She would have liked to be of use to someone or something but could not visualize whom or what. On the whole it did not matter much so long as being useful left her with a certain amount of time to devote to a personal problem.
Barbie had what her mother would have called a secret sorrow. She had been a fairly competent teacher, especially of small children, because they brought out her maternal instincts, and she had often been rewarded by proofs of her capacity to earn affection and esteem from pupils and their parents. But to Barbie the teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic had never been as important as the teaching of Christianity.
For almost as long as she could remember she had believed in God, in Christ the Redeemer and in the existence of Heaven. They were very real to her. The fate of unbelievers was equally real, particularly the fate of those who were unbelievers through no fault of their own. This was why when both her parents were dead she had given up her job at a Church school in South London, joined the mission and come to India.
To bring even one Hindu or Muslim child to God struck her as a very satisfactory thing to do and she imagined that in the mission it would be open to her to do this for scores, possibly hundreds. Once in India she was disappointed to find that all the emphasis was upon the mission's educational function, that the mission gates were ajar to let Indian children in to learn things that would be useful to them but not wide open in a way that encouraged teachers to go out and bring the children in, as into a fold.
Initially disturbed by this secular attitude and by the discipline imposed inside the mission to discourage its members from excessive displays of zeal, she soon accepted them as sensible measures taken by those who knew best and who were anxious to preserve and hold what had been won rather than risk losing it all in trying too hard to gain more. She discovered that the missions were not popular with the civil administration or with the military authorities and had not been since the mutiny of 1857, which people said started because the Indian sepoys believed they were to be forcibly converted, having first been polluted by the introduction of cartridges greased with pig fat. Moreover, the authorities, both civil and military, seemed to take considerable trouble to enable Hindus to go on being Hindus and Muslims to be Muslims by giving them every opportunity to practise their rites and hold their festivals and by giving official recognition to the communal differences between them.
'Well, one step at a time,' Barbie told herself and settled to the business of teaching Eurasian children whose parents were Christians already, the children of converts and the children of Hindu and Muslim parents who were anxious for their sons, and occasionally daughters, to get a good grounding in the English they had to know if they wanted to get on, but very few of whom would ever be baptized.
Over the years she became inured to this system. The Bishop Barnard schools, named after one of the founders of the mission to which she belonged, had expanded considerably between the wars and in the principal cities become distinguished and proud of an academic reputation that attracted Indian girls and boys whose parents were advanced enough to want to educate them to the standard required for entrance to government colleges and Indian universities. As reputation and supply of pupils increased so did the demand for teachers with the right kind of qualifications. Year by year the religious basis of instruction was chipped away and women like Barbie kept in junior posts or elevated to administrative positions in which neither their missionary ambitions (what was left of them) nor their lack of academic stature could do much harm. With the appointment of Barbie's successor, Miss Jolley, even that preserve of the old guard was infiltrated. Miss Jolley was young, she had letters after her name and her file disclosed her religion as non-conformist, not C of E which in Barbie's day had been a primary requirement.
But it was not in all this that Barbie's secret sorrow lay. It lay in the fact that in recent years she had felt her faith loosening its grip. She believed in God as firmly as ever but she no longer felt that He believed in her or listened to her. She felt cut off from Him as she would if she had spent her life doing something of which He disapproved. This puzzled her because she didn't think He could disapprove. He could be better pleased, but that was another matter entirely and one for which neither she nor the mission was exclusively responsible. One did what one could and it should not be necessary to be a saint or a martyr to feel His presence. She no longer felt it. She could not help blaming the mission just a bit for this and she thought there might be a chance of regaining the joyful sense of contact now that she was retiring. She would not hurt anyone by explaining this but her cheerful expression was not entirely due to her habit of keeping one; although that came into it too because she secretly feared a lonely old age.
* * *
The address in the advertisement for a single woman to share accommodation with another, which appeared in the Ranpur Gazette a week or two before Barbie's retirement, sounded attractive: Mrs Mabel Layton, Rose Cottage, Club Road, Pankot.
She had never been to Pankot. It was the hill station where most official Ranpur people spent the hot weather and to which a few of them eventually retired. Since Ranpur was the place in which she chanced to be when her career petered out the idea of retiring to Pankot herself appealed to her. She wrote to Mrs Layton at once, giving an account of herself, mentioning the sum she could afford and suggesting that if she took the short holiday she had been thinking of spending in Darjeeling–seeing old missionary acquaintances–in Pankot instead, they could meet and come to a decision.
She assumed that Mrs Layton was a widow and that the advertisement implied means as small as her own. The name of the house, seeming diminutive, rather bore that out. Barbie had long since lost the immediately tell-tale signs of a poverty-stricken lower-middleclass English background and could stand her own in any company as what, in her earlier life, had been called a gentlewoman, but she had remained a little fearful of women born in superior walks of life, especially if they had money to support their position.
Mabel Layton's reply was encouragingly simple and friendly.
'Dear Miss Batchelor, I have had a number of answers to my advertisement but I imagine from your own that we could get on well together. Unless you have changed your mind, in which case please write and tell me, I shall do nothing further about the accommodation available until you have had a chance to see it. If you come to Pankot on holiday perhaps you would like to spend it here at Rose Cottage. Smith's Hotel–a tiny branch of the one you will know of in Ranpur–is rather crowded nowadays and a bit expensive. With regard to a permanent arrangement, should we decide to make one, the sum you say you can afford is ten rupees a month higher than I intended asking, and should expect. Rose Cottage is a very old bungalow, one of the oldest in Pankot. Its main attraction is the garden. It is a little inconveniently situated but after your long and arduous work in the missions I fancy you don't especially wish to be at the hub of things. If you decide to come up just write or telegraph the time of your arrival and I will get my old servant Aziz to meet you and help you with your bags. As you probably know the train leaves Ranpur daily at midnight and reaches Pankot about 8 a.m.'
The kindly tone of this letter offset Barbie's first impression on receiving it. The envelope was lined and the writing paper thick. The address and telephone number were printed; in fact engraved. A smoothing motion of Barbie's fingers confirmed this. She felt alarmed, uncertain that she could live up to such things. But having read the letter she felt only pleasure and gratitude. Out of a number of applicants Mabel Layton had selected her and was actually prepared to keep the vacancy open until she could go to Pankot and see Rose Cottage for herself. This meant, Barbie thought, that although Mabel Layton needed someone to help with expenses the need was not so desperate that she could not afford to wait for the right person. She seemed to be a woman who liked to keep up standards, in important matters such as her choice of friends and in minor ones like the kind of paper used when writing to them.
Barbie sat down to reply.
'Dear Mrs Layton, Thank you for your letter and for your very kind suggestion that I should spend my holiday at Rose Cottage. I accept most gratefully. I hand over officially to my successor here on September 30th. She is very capable and my duties are already negligible. Therefore I can plan to leave without delay. I should be able to come up on the train that reaches Pankot on the morning of October 2nd. As soon as I have made the booking I shall write to you again or telegraph. Meanwhile I can begin my packing at once.
I hope you will not mind if I bring with me rather more luggage than might be expected of someone coming to Pankot on a vacation. Conditions here do not easily permit of other people's stuff lying around for long, so I am anxious to leave behind as little as I can even if it means bringing things with me which I do not actually need for a holiday and should have to bring back with me if we do not come to a permanent arrangement. Fortunately I have always travelled fairly light. A long experience of postings from one station to another has taught ...'
At this point Barbie realized she had set off on a tack that could well have the effect of boring poor Mrs Layton to tears.
But her luggage was a priority. She had wanted to make this clear. The importance of luggage was often overlooked. Barbie had never overlooked it but since hearing officially from mission headquarters in Calcutta that her retirement 'need not be postponed' her luggage had been perhaps overmuch on her mind. At the end of her career the tide of affairs which had involved her was on the ebb, leaving her revealed. And what was revealed did not amount to a great deal, which meant that every bit counted. There was, to begin with, herself, but apart from herself there was only her luggage and of that there was little enough although rather a lot in comparison: bedroll, camp-equipment, clothes, linen, many unread books, papers, photograph albums, letters, mementoes of travel, presents from past pupils, a framed and very special picture, a few ornaments and one piece of furniture. This latter was a writing-table and was the only item that still remained from the stuff she had originally brought out from England. It had legs that folded in and so was portable. Someone once told her that it was late Georgian or early Victorian and had probably belonged to a general for use in writing orders and campaign dispatches under canvas. She was very fond of it, kept it polished and the tooled leather surface stuck down at the corner where it tended to come away. It rather annoyed her to see Miss Jolley using it as if it were mission property and not Barbie's private possession; but so far she had not felt quite up to warning her that when she went the table went with her.
Mrs Layton could not possibly be interested in such things but it was important to Barbie to establish their existence as inseparable from her own and therefore to be taken into account in any plan to welcome her in Pankot. The luggage by itself, with the exception of the table, was merely luggage she knew, but without it she did not seem to have a shadow.
However, commonsense prevailed. She crumpled the letter, began again, determined to put herself into the recipient's place as she had been taught by her earliest mission instructor in the field, and record no more than was necessary to convey the prosaic details of her acceptance of Mabel Layton's invitation and of her intended time of arrival.
This accomplished she sealed the letter and called Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas was not her personal servant. He went with the superintendent's bungalow. He tip-toed everywhere but banged doors so loudly that sometimes you jumped out of your skin. He also suffered from chronic catarrh and sniffed perpetually. He was called Thomas Aquinas because the Catholics had got him first. She gave him the letter and told him to post it at the Elphinstone Fountain post office and not in the collection box on the Koti Bazaar road which she thought untrustworthy. She did not want the letter delayed. She hoped, as she watched Thomas take it, that she had struck the right note in it.
'Always remember,' she had been told, 'that a letter never smiles. You may smile as you write it but the recipient will see nothing but the words.'
The time was 1914, the man Mr Cleghorn, the place Muzzafirabad. Mr Cleghorn was handing her back the draft of her request to mission headquarters for a special discount on another half-dozen First Steps in Bible Reading, a limp-bound book illustrated by line drawings which the children earned marks for colouring–good marks for delicate tints, poorer marks for bold ones. A little Hindu girl once gave Jesus a bright blue complexion because that was the colour of Krishna's face in the picture her parents had at home.
Barbie sighed, got up from the writing-table, opened the almirah and got out a suitcase. At Muzzafirabad she had succeeded a younger, brilliant, indeed heroic woman, and was conscious of her shortcomings even then. Among them was the tendency to make a ruling without first thinking out its consequences. After the Krishna episode she had taken away the blue crayons. And then the children had no way of colouring the sky.
Excerpted from The Towers of Silence by Paul Scott. Copyright © 1976 Paul Scott. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsPart One - The Unknown Indian
Part Two - A Question of Loyalty
Part Three - The Silver in the Mess
Part Four - The Honour of the Regiment
Part Five - The Tennis Court