The Towers of Silence
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (August 2012)|
|The Towers of Silence|
1st US edition
William Morrow (US)
|Publication date||October 1971|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||392 pp (hardback edition)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0-434-68110-5 (hardback edition)|
|LC Classification||PZ4.S428 To PR6069.C596|
|Preceded by||The Day of the Scorpion|
|Followed by||A Division of the Spoils|
The Towers of Silence is the 1971 novel by Paul Scott that continues his Raj Quartet. It gets its title from the Parsi Towers of Silence where the bodies of the dead are left to be picked clean by vultures. The novel is set in the British Raj of 1940s India. It follows on from the storyline in the The Day of the Scorpion.
- 1 Plot introduction
- 2 Plot summary
- 3 Characters
- 3.1 Barbara Batchelor (Barbie)
- 3.2 Sarah Layton
- 3.3 Mabel Layton ("Auntie Mabel")
- 3.4 Mildred Layton (nee Muir)
- 3.5 Susan Layton (Susan Bingham)
- 3.6 Capt. Ronald Merrick
- 3.7 Capt. Edward Arthur David Bingham (Teddie)
- 3.8 Count Dmitri Bronowsky
- 3.9 Mohammed Ali Kasim
- 3.10 Fenella Grace (nee Muir) (Aunt Fenny)
- 3.11 Ethel Manners (Lady Manners)
- 3.12 Capt. Kevin Coley
- 3.13 Hari Kumar
- 3.14 Col. John Layton
- 3.15 Maj./Lt. Col. Arthur Grace (Uncle Arthur)
- 3.16 Pandit V. N. Baba
- 3.17 Capt. Dicky Beauvais
- 3.18 Edgar Maybrick
- 4 Major themes
The novel is set in the British Raj. It follows on from the storyline in the The Jewel in the Crown and The Day of the Scorpion. Many of the events are retellings from different points of view of events that happened in the previous novels.
Much of the novel is written in the form of interviews and reports of conversations and research from the point of view of a narrator. Other portions are in the form of letters from one character to another or entries in their diaries.
The story is set in the period 1939-1945 in several locations throughout India, particularly in a northern province of India. The province shares characteristics with Punjab and the United Provinces. The names of places and people suggest a connection to Bengal; however, the physical characteristics place the setting in north-central India, rather than in northeast India. The province has an agricultural plain and, in the north, a mountainous region.
The capital of the province is Ranpur. Another large city in the province is Mayapore, which was the key setting in The Jewel in the Crown. The princely state of Mirat is a nominally sovereign enclave within the province. Pankot is a "second class" hill station in the province which serves as a headquarters for the 1st Pankot Rifles, an important regiment of the Indian Army, who fought the Axis in North Africa. During the cool season, the regiment moves to Ranpur, on the plains. At Premanagar there is an old fortification that is used by the British as a prison. Another town, Muzzafirabad is the headquarters of the Muzzafirabad ("Muzzy") Guides, another Indian Army regiment. Other towns in the province are Tanpur and Nansera. Sundernagar is a "backwater town" in the province. Another hill station is in the Nanoora Hills.
The novel begins with the story of Barbie Batchelor, an old missionary schoolteacher, who, after years of service to the church, decides to take her pension and retire. She finds a place as a paying guest with Mabel Layton, a member of the aristocracy of the English in India, at Rose Cottage in Pankot. Barbie and Mabel become close. Late one night, Mabel tells Barbie that she will only go to Ranpur when she's buried, which Barbie interprets to mean that she wants to be buried in Ranpur, next to the grave of her late husband, James Layton.
Barbie is proud of her working-class background and her simple Christianity, but she does her best to behave in a manner that makes upper-class Pankot comfortable. Unfortunately, they will never accept her as one of their own, treating her as a peculiar and unwanted intruder.
In 1942, Pankot society hears about the attacks on two English women in and near Mayapore (events that took place in the first novel of the series). Daphne Manners was gang raped by a mob and Edwina Crane was witness to the murder of her Indian colleague. Miss Crane, another missionary schoolteacher, was a good friend of Barbie's, and she is haunted by the attack and by Edwina's subsequent suicide by fire. Pankot society does not know what to make of Barbie and her insistence on sharing a picture, "The Jewel in the Crown" of the title, that Edwina gave her.
Pankot also rejects a theory, proposed by an officer passing through from Mayapore to Muzzafirabad, that the relationship between Daphne Manners and Hari Kumar, who has been arrested for the rape, was not a case of an innocent, inexperienced white girl being mesmerized by a crafty Indian, but rather that Daphne and Hari simply were in love, like any two young people.
Just as Daphne Manners dies while giving birth to the child conceived on the night of the rape, the Laytons announce the engagement of Susan Layton and Teddie Bingham. Just then, Teddie gets a new posting and is reassigned to Mirat. In Mirat he meets his new quarters-mate, Ronald Merrick.
Merrick, who is serving in army intelligence, briefs Teddie and his unit regarding the "Jiffs" or the Indians who are fighting on the side of the Japanese as part of the Indian National Army. Teddie and the other more traditional officers of the Indian Army can hardly believe their ears. They and their forebears have grown up with generations of these Indian soldiers, knowing intimately their villages and families, and they cannot believe that such disloyalty is possible.
Returning to his quarters, Teddie comes across a woman's bicycle, old and battered, accompanied by a symbol made of chalk marked on the veranda, like those made in connection with Hindu religious rites. Before he can ask Merrick about it, the bike has disappeared. However, Merrick suspects that it is the work of his old nemesis, Pandit Baba, who was present in Mayapore when Daphne Manners was attacked. Merrick was the police commissioner there and took brutal action against Hari Kumar and a group of his acquaintances. The bicycle belonged to Daphne and might have served as evidence had any charges been brought in the case.
Merrick informs Teddie that if he means to get married, then he had better do it quickly, because he would soon be sent to do battle against the Japanese. Teddie panics, not knowing what to do. Merrick solves his problem by arranging the loan of the sumptuous guest house belonging to the Nawab of Mirat and suggesting he then go on honeymoon nearby in the Nanoora Hills. Teddie's best friend, Tony Bishop, is down with jaundice, Merrick helps out again by being best man. The honeymoon is disappointing for Susan, who is let down by Teddie's sexual inexperience.
While these arrangements are being made, the Laytons are vacationing in Kashmir, where they encounter Lady Manners and Daphne's child Parvati. Sarah without her family's knowledge defies her family by going to visit their houseboat. But Lady Manners actually proves helpful when she suggests that by way of thanks for the loan of the guest house, a volume of the poems of Mohammed Gaffur would make a nice gift for the Nawab of Mirat, since the nawab is a descendant of the Urdu poet.
The Laytons return to Pankot to make preparations. Mildred disturbed by the fact that this step is being taken while her husband, Lt. Col. John Layton, is held prisoner in Germany. Barbie and Pankot society are also disappointed that such an important society wedding will be in Mirat and not Pankot. But they are consoled with the gossip of the momentous events: (1) Teddie's injury resulting from a stone being thrown at his car, (2) Susan's instinct to show obeisance to the Nawab, thus saving all from embarrassment at his being detained at the entrance, and (3) the appearance of Shalini Gupta Sen at the railway station when the couple are being seen off on their honeymoon and the scene she creates with her entreaties to Merrick which are later revealed to regard Hari's imprisonment.
Barbie, wanting to show her affection for Susan with a nice wedding-cum-21st birthday gift, buys a set of silver Apostle spoons and gives them to Sarah to pass on. Mabel, while going through some old clothes, comes upon a piece of cloth that remained from a christening gown. The fabric is embedded with woven butterflies, symbolically imprisoned in the material. She gives the piece to Barbie, who is quite taken with its fragility.
In order to make up for having the wedding out of town, Mildred throws a buffet luncheon at the Pankot Rifles officers' mess for Pankot society. Mabel and Barbie go together, but are efficiently separated from each other under Mildred's instructions. Barbie is puzzled that her gift of spoons is not displayed with the other wedding gifts.
Susan's pregnancy is announced and, several months later, news of Teddie's death arrives. While Sarah is in Calcutta visiting Merrick, who witnessed Teddie's death and was himself injured, Mabel Layton has a stroke and dies. Susan is witness to the old lady's death and the shock drives her into premature labor. Worried about the state of Mabel's soul, Barbie worms her way into the morgue at the hospital and thinks she sees the anguish of eternal torment on the face of her dead friend. She is then shocked to learn that Mabel will be buried in Pankot and not in Ranpur, as she had wished. She barges in on Mildred to plead for her friend's last wish, but Mildred rebukes her harshly for interfering and offers a vicious evaluation of her character. Mildred gives Barbie until the end of the month to vacate Rose Cottage.
Susan survives the difficult childbirth and so does her prematurely delivered son. Sarah returns from Calcutta and gives the report of Merrick's heroism in trying to save Teddie. Barbie moves in with the vicar and his wife, Arthur and Clarissa Peplow. Barbie tries hard to get back into the missionary service, but finds a position difficult to secure. She learns through Sarah that Mabel has left her an annuity in her will. Barbie is embarrassed by the gesture and predicts that Mildred will cause trouble over it.
Meanwhile, Susan's behavior is troubling. She seems not to be relating to her child in a maternal way. She seems often distracted and distant. One evening, remembering a fable about scorpions committing suicide when surrounded by fire told her by Barbie, Susan pours kerosene in a ring on the grass, puts her baby in the center and lights the fluid. The baby is quickly saved by a servant. However, it is now clear that there is something seriously wrong with Susan, and she is put under the care of a psychiatrist. Mildred blames Barbie for planting the idea in her mind and returns the Apostle spoons through Clarissa.
Barbie, deeply hurt by the insult, sends notes to Colonel Trehearne and Captain Coley saying that she intends to make a gift of silver to the 1st Pankot Rifles. She then sets off in search of Coley to deliver the goods. Arriving at Coley's bungalow in a rainstorm, Barbie gets no answer at the door. Finding it unlocked, she goes in to leave the gift inside. But hearing an odd sound, she investigates and comes upon the sight of Coley and Mildred Layton rutting furiously. Undetected by the lovers, she flees from the bungalow, but is caught in the rainstorm and falls seriously ill, coming down with bronchopneumonia.
Fenny is visiting from Calcutta and is gossiping with the Pankot women about recent events, Susan's recovery in the hospital, and the state of the household. Fenny suggests to Mildred that Sarah is under too much stress and should be allowed a vacation. Mildred turns viciously on Fenny, telling her that she cannot believe that she could try to fool her. Fenny does not know what Mildred is talking about until Mildred informs her that for the past two months, Sarah has not been using her sanitary napkins. Fenny realizes that Sarah is pregnant and that Jimmy Clark must have been responsible for it. Mildred assumed that Fenny already knew what the situation was. Fenny agrees to take Sarah away surreptitiously for a "D&C," their euphemism for an abortion.
With Sarah gone and Susan in hospital, Mildred decides to close Rose Cottage and move into Flagstaff House. Susan seems to be recovering under the care of psychiatrist Captain Samuels, the "Jew-boy trick-cyclist". Barbie, recovering from pneumonia but unable to speak above a whisper, finally donates the spoons to the regiment. She gets a letter from Calcutta, offering her a position as a teacher in Dibrapur, the site of Edwina Crane's horror.
Captain Coley informs Barbie that a trunk full of her things has been found stored in a shed at Rose Cottage and it had better be removed before Mildred finds out. Knowing that she will soon be leaving the Peplows and will have enough space of her own, she goes up to the vacant cottage to retrieve her trunk. There she encounters Ronald Merrick, who is in town for treatment at the local military hospital and has come in search of the Laytons; however, no one is currently in residence. Barbie is excited to finally meet Merrick and asks him about Mayapore. She opens her trunk and presents him with her copy of the painting, "The Jewel in the Crown". Merrick recognizes it as one he saw among Edwina Crane's things and accepts it gratefully.
Barbie has the tonga-wallah load the large trunk onto the tonga she is travelling in. Merrick worries that the load is too heavy, especially on such a steep road down from Rose Cottage. Barbie sets off anyway as it begins to rain. The dirt road becomes slick and the tonga-wallah loses control, dumping Barbie and the trunk in a ditch. Barbie is physically and mentally injured in the accident and ends up at a sanitarium in Ranpur. Her view is of the Parsees' towers of silence of the title. Sarah visits her, but she cannot seem to get through. Barbie dies just as the atomic bomb is exploded over Hiroshima in August 1945.
Barbara Batchelor (Barbie)
Miss Batchelor is a retired missionary schoolteacher who lives with Mabel Layton at Rose Cottage. Barbie is a simple, down-to-earth woman, who believes strongly in her god and in egalitarian Christianity and has clear ideas about right and wrong. She is troubled that in all her years of missionary work, she was not very successful in converting the children in her charge to Christianity ("How many of them did I bring to God?" she asks herself.) Above all, Barbie wants to be useful and to have a role in the society in which she lives.
Barbie is haunted by the suicide of her friend and former colleague, Edwina Crane, who in The Jewel and the Crown witnessed a brutal murder during rioting "on the road to Dibrapur."
Barbie comes from a working-class background, and this — as well as her taking up space in Rose Cottage — causes Mildred Layton to resent her. Barbie's egalitarian attitudes, based on her communal Christian beliefs, annoy and exasperate Mildred.
Barbie is a figure of fun for the English elite in Pankot. They mock her and roll their eyes at what they view as her hysterics and spread rumors that she is a lesbian. However, Sarah Layton, especially, and her sister, Susan, have affection for her.
She talks a lot and fondly remembers her father, a drinker from Camberwell with a joy for life.
The author uses Barbie and other characters to show how India changes Europeans until they no longer resemble those they left behind. Barbie speaks fluent Hindi and is perhaps more Indian than British.
Sarah is the elder daughter of Lt. Col. John Layton, the commanding officer of the 1st Pankot Rifles, and his wife, Mildred. While her father is held in a German prison camp in Europe after engagements in North Africa, Sarah and her family continue to live the aristocratic life of the British in India. However, unlike the rest of her family, Sarah is uncomfortable with the hierarchy that the English have established in India. She is not so sure of the racial philosophy that forms the basis of British dominance in the subcontinent and she occasionally shocks her family with her deviance from accepted propriety.
Sarah's strength, independence, and competence are what keep things going in the Layton household, especially after the death of Susan's husband, Teddie. For the duration of the war, Sarah (as well as her sister, Susan) has joined the Women Army Corps (India), and is serving in a clerical position at regimental headquarters (the "daftar") in Pankot.
She feels a sense of kinship with outsiders like Lady Manners, Mabel and Barbie.
Mabel Layton ("Auntie Mabel")
Mabel Layton is the stepmother of Colonel Layton and the owner of Rose Cottage in Pankot. Mabel is very close to her stepson and his daughters, who address her as "Auntie Mabel".
Layton's houseguest and companion is the retired missionary schoolteacher, Barbie Batchelor. Mildred Layton, her stepson's wife, resents her for occupying Rose Cottage and for bringing the working-class Miss Batchelor into their lives.
But Mabel knows the real reason for Mildred's resentment. In 1919, after the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in Amritsar, when most of the British in India were contributing to fund the retirement of Reginald Dyer, who was responsible for the massacre, Mabel contributed money to the fund for the Indian victims of the massacre. As a result, Mildred sees Mabel as a traitor to her own people.
Mildred Layton (nee Muir)
Mildred is the wife of Colonel Layton and the mother of Sarah and Susan. As the daughter of a general and the wife of a colonel, she is very comfortable with her place in society and her class status and enforces her authority without hesitation. She keenly resents the presence of the low-class Barbie Batchelor in their midst, and has harbored a long-term resentment of her husband's stepmother, Mabel.
With her husband held as a prisoner of war in Germany, Mildred has developed a heavy drinking habit. As Ahmed Kasim reports to Bronowsky, "[S]he begins first, finishes last and has two drinks to anybody else's one. Also ... her behavior is erratic." Mildred is also having an affair with Captain Coley, the adjutant of the 1st Pankot Rifles.
She is obsessed with Barbie, erroneously believing her to have influenced Mabel to make donations to 'Indian' causes, thus diminishing what's left to be inherited by the family. She also insinuates that Barbie might be sexually predatory to Sarah and Susan.
Susan Layton (Susan Bingham)
Susan, the younger sister of Sarah Layton, is of a more superficial character and sees herself only as reflected in the eyes of others. She is engaged to be married to Captain Bingham. Despite, or perhaps because, of her personal emptiness, Susan is keen to the needs of others. The death of her husband and the birth of her child but most especially the death of Mabel to which she's the only witness have unhinged her.
Capt. Ronald Merrick
Merrick’s fears, desires, ambitions, and hatreds are the catalyst for the Jewel in the Crown and the stories of the subsequent three novels in the series. Merrick comes from a working-class background and keenly feels his inferior position in British society.
Having come to India, he finds a place where he can be on top and he has developed a sophisticated justification for a virulent brand of racism. Merrick strongly believes that whites are the natural rulers of the world and non-whites must be made subject to them. He also believes that non-whites cannot ever improve their position and that they must be reminded of this. But Scott shows us repeatedly how racist and intolerant Indians are of one another, despising cast, origin and religion in the fatal clash of Hindu and Muslim.
For his own part, however, Merrick seeks to climb the ladder of British society. He is intelligent, resourceful, and ruthless in both his quests: to keep Indians in their place and to improve his own social rank. Merrick uses the appearance of frankness and honesty as a tool to impress his social betters. He often reminds them that he is "only a grammar school boy" and not, for example, the product of an exclusive school like Chillingborough.
Merrick was the district superintendent of police in Mayapore when Daphne Manners was raped. He was admired for his efficiency and skill at his job, but his notoriety after the Manners case (and his sadistic treatment of Hari Kumar, which was never revealed to the public) resulted in his transfer to Sundernagar, a backwater town in the unnamed province. Seeing his opportunity to advance in the civil service frustrated, Merrick calls in his chips to get a commission in the Indian Army at the rank of captain.
Other characters in the story become important when Merrick "chooses" them for his personal attention. He chooses the Layton family as an opportunity to climb the social ladder.
Capt. Edward Arthur David Bingham (Teddie)
Bingham, a young officer in the Muzzy Guides, is engaged to be married to Susan Layton. He is not the best example of his class, being a bit scatterbrained. He does however possess the honor and chivalry demanded of him.
He resents Merrick's cynicism towards the traditionally close pseudo-parental relationship between English officers and Indian soldiers. It is in an effort to prove Merrick wrong that leads to Teddie's demise on the front lines in Imphal.
Count Dmitri Bronowsky
Bronowsky, a one-eyed émigré Russian, serves as the wazir, or chief minister, to the Nawab of Mirat. Much of Bronowsky's background is mysterious. It is thought that his title, "count," is genuine, but it is not certain. It is said he fled Russia after the defeat of the White Movement.
Mohammed Ali Kasim
Kasim, known in the popular press as "M.A.K.", is an Indian politician and one of the few remaining Muslim members of the Indian National Congress. Kasim was formerly the chief minister of the unnamed province, until the Congress decided to boycott the elections.
Kasim is a principled man and he strives to live his life according to those principles. He wants independence for India, but he believes in a secular, undivided India, which puts him at odds with most Muslim leaders, who want a separate state (Pakistan), and have left the Congress to join the Muslim League.
Fenella Grace (nee Muir) (Aunt Fenny)
Fenny is the younger sister of Mildred Layton. She is more outgoing and fun-loving than Mildred. She notices that Sarah does not seem to have quite the right attitude towards British administration of India and she worries that that puts off potential suitors, such as Teddie Bingham, who showed interest in Sarah before switching to Susan.
("Fenny" or "feni" is also an Indian term for a type of intoxicating drink made from coconut or cashews.)
Ethel Manners (Lady Manners)
Lady Manners is the widow of Sir Henry Manners, a former governor of the unnamed province. In The Jewel in the Crown, her niece, Daphne Manners, fell in love with an Indian, Hari Kumar. Daphne was the victim of a gang rape during a riot that became a cause celebre among the English in India and Kumar was arrested as a suspect. Lady Manners, who has taken custody of Daphne's daughter, Parvati, is a ghostly presence to Pankot society. She seems to be everywhere but nowhere, with people catching only glimpses of her or seeing her signature in guest books after she has gone. Her existence is a kind of reminder of the past, both honorable and not and of an unknown future.
Capt. Kevin Coley
Coley is the adjutant for the 1st Pankot Rifles. He is rather too old for his position and his lack of ambition in seeking an assignment elsewhere puzzles Pankot society. His secret is that he has stuck around because he is having an affair with Mildred Layton, the wife of the commanding officer of the Rifles, who is interned in a German prisoner-of-war camp.
Hari Kumar was an Indian raised as an Englishman and educated at a highly regarded public school, Chillingborough. Upon returning to India, he found himself isolated from both the Indians and the English until he met Daphne Manners, as recounted in The Jewel in the Crown. His affair with Daphne ended tragically when she was gang-raped by a mob and he was held as a suspect by Ronald Merrick. The police were unable to make any charges stick, but they hauled Kumar off to Kandipat prison as a political subversive.
Col. John Layton
Colonel Layton is the commanding officer of the 1st Pankot Rifles, headquartered in Pankot and Ranpur. He is also the patriarch of the Layton family. He is the product of Chillingborough, the same exclusive school that Hari Kumar and Daphne's brother attended. He is currently being held in a German prisoner-of-war camp.
Maj./Lt. Col. Arthur Grace (Uncle Arthur)
Pandit V. N. Baba
"Pandit Baba" is the alias of a man who has connections with Indian nationalists. A devout Hindu, Pandit Baba is respected in the Indian community of Mirat and elsewhere. Having been present in Mayapore during the riots, the rape of Daphne Manners, and the brutal treatment of Hari Kumar and his fellows, Pandit Baba has made it his mission to take revenge on Ronald Merrick. Merrick occasionally finds signs of Pandit Baba's scrutiny, but he can do nothing to act against him. Pandit Baba lectures Ahmed Kasim on the importance of preserving his Indian cultural identity and criticizes him for speaking only English and wearing western clothes.
Capt. Dicky Beauvais
Beauvais is a young officer in Pankot who becomes romantically interested in Sarah Layton. Mildred discourages this attachment, having envisaged him as a husband for Susan.
Mr. Maybrick is the organist at the church in Pankot and a friend of Barbie Batchelor.
The major theme flowing through the four novels of the Raj Quartet is the negative impact that rule of India has on the characters of the English who rule. Such rule over a different people can only be justified by racism, in the author's view, and this racism corrodes the soul.