The Towers of Silence

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The Towers of Silence
PaulScott TheTowersOfSilence.jpg
First US edition
Author Paul Scott
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Heinemann (UK)
William Morrow (US)
Publication date
October 1971
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 392 pp (hardback edition)
ISBN 0-434-68110-5 (hardback edition)
OCLC 281509
LC Class 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.

Plot introduction[edit]

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.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel begins with the story of Barbie Batchelor, a retired missionary schoolteacher, who 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. 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 not accepted by the upper-class of Pankot and is treated as a peculiar and unwanted intruder. She is haunted by the attack on Edwina Crane, another missionary schoolteacher, and by Edwina's subsequent suicide by fire. Pankot society does not know what to make of Barbie.

Barbie and Pankot society are disappointed that the important society wedding of Susan Layton and Teddie Bingham was held 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 buys a set of silver Apostle spoons as a wedding gift. 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. 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 pleads with Mildred for her friend's last wish, but Mildred rebukes her harshly for interfering. Mildred gives Barbie until the end of the month to vacate Rose Cottage.

Susan and her son survive a difficult childbirth. Barbie moves in with the vicar and his wife, Arthur and Clarissa Peplow. Susan's behavior is troubling. She seems not to be relating to her child in a maternal way and is often distracted and distant. 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, decides to make a gift of silver to the 1st Pankot Rifles. She then sets off in search of Captain Coley to deliver the goods. Arriving at Coley's bungalow in a rainstorm, Barbie sees Coley and Mildred having sex. Undetected by the lovers, she flees from the bungalow, but is caught in the rainstorm and falls seriously ill, coming down with bronchopneumonia.

It is discovered that Sarah is pregnant and that Jimmy Clark must have been responsible for it. Aunt Fenny agrees to take Sarah away surreptitiously for an abortion. Susan seems to be recovering under the care of psychiatrist Captain Samuels. Barbie, recovering from pneumonia, 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 suicide.

Barbie encounters Merrick and presents him with her copy of the painting, "The Jewel in the Crown". While leaving Rose Cottage, Barbie is physically and mentally injured in an 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)[edit]

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 Layton[edit]

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")[edit]

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)[edit]

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)[edit]

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[edit]

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 caste, 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.

Merrick is grievously injured and horribly disfigured when he tries to save Teddie Bingham from an ambush by the Indian National Army while fighting the Japanese in Manipur in eastern India.

Capt. Edward Arthur David Bingham (Teddie)[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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.

Kasim is a descendant of the 18th century Urdu poet, Gaffur Mohammed, and, as such, he is a kinsman of the Nawab of Mirat.

Several historical persons, such as Abul Kalam Azad, prominent Muslim politicians who stayed with the Congress and opposed partition, may serve as the basis for the character of Kasim.

Fenella Grace (nee Muir) (Aunt Fenny)[edit]

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)[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

Hari Kumar is 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[edit]

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. For much of the novel, he is being held in a German prisoner-of-war camp.

Maj./Lt. Col. Arthur Grace (Uncle Arthur)[edit]

Major Grace is the husband of Aunt Fenny and is an officer in the educational corps, stationed in Calcutta, where he is promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Pandit V. N. Baba[edit]

"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[edit]

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.

Edgar Maybrick[edit]

Mr. Maybrick is the organist at the church in Pankot and a friend of Barbie Batchelor.