cover

CONTENTS

About the Author

Also by Paul Scott

Title Page

Dedication

Book One: 1945

AN EVENING AT THE MAHARANEE’S

JOURNEYS INTO UNEASY DISTANCES

THE MOGHUL ROOM

THE DAK BUNGALOW

THE CIRCUIT HOUSE

Book Two: 1947

PANDORA’S BOX

Author’s Note and Acknowledgments

Copyright

About the Author

Paul Scott was born in north London in 1920. During the Second World War he held a commission in the Indian army, after which he worked for several years in publishing, and for a literary agency. His first novel, Johnnie Sahib, was published in 1952, followed by twelve others, of which the best known are the ‘Raj Quartet’: The Jewel in the Crown (1966), The Day of the Scorpion (1968), The Towers of Silence (1971) and A Division of the Spoils (1975). His last novel, Staying On (1977), won the Booker Prize. He died in 1978.

A Division of the Spoils

Paul Scott

Also by Paul Scott

Johnnie Sahib

The Alien Sky

A Male Child

The Mark of the Warrior

The Chinese Love Pavilion

The Birds of Paradise

The Bender

The Corrida at San Feliu

The Jewl in the Crown*

The Day of the Scorpion*

The Towers of Silence*

Staying On*

 

* available from Arrow

Author’s Note and Acknowledgments

A Division of the Spoils is the last in a sequence of four novels about the closing years of British rule in India. The characters were imaginary. So were the events. The framework was as historically accurate as I could make it. Three return visits to India during the time the sequence has taken to write have left me indebted to many people there for information, for help, for hospitality; and I gratefully acknowledge that debt. I am indebted, too, to the Arts Council for an award in 1969.

Above all, I am indebted to seven people who must be named because without their combined encouragement and practical help I doubt that the enterprise could have been brought to a conclusion. Each novel in the sequence has already been dedicated, for reasons that they know, to someone who seemed to be particularly connected with it. I dedicate the sequence as a whole, if I may, to (in New York) Dorothy Olding, John Willey, Larry Hughes and Ivan von Auw, and (in London) David Higham, Roland Gant and Charles Pick.

Facta non verba.

P.S.

To Doreen Marston
With my love and regard

BOOK ONE 1945

An Evening at the Maharanee’s

I

HITLER WAS DEAD, the peace in Europe almost a month old; only the Japanese remained to be dealt with. In June the Viceroy left London, flew back to Delhi, said nothing in public for nearly two weeks and then announced a conference of Indian leaders at Simla to discuss proposals which he hoped would ease the political situation, hasten final victory and advance the country towards her goal of full self-government. To enable all the leaders to be there he had to issue several orders of release from imprisonment.

The conference opened on June 25 and did not break down until July 14, an unexpectedly long time in the opinion of many English officials for Congress and Muslim League views on the composition of a new Indianised Executive Council or interim government to prove irreconcilable. The Viceroy, Lord Wavell, admitting failure, blamed himself and begged that there should be no recriminations. Subsequently, in press conference, the leader of the All-India Congress Party, a Muslim, blamed the leader of the Muslim League for the unbending nature of his claim for the League’s right to nominate all Muslim members of the proposed Executive Council and blamed the British Government for not having foreseen that the conference would break down if one party were given the right of veto on nominations and therefore the opportunity to hold up the country’s progress to autonomy. The leader of the Muslim League spoke disapprovingly of a combination of Hindu interests supported by the ‘latest exponent of geographical unity’ – the Viceroy – whose plan in his opinion was a snare for Muslim interests. Mr Nehru described the Muslim League as mediaeval in conception, and warned that the real problem facing a free India would not be communal and religious differences but economic backwardness.

The members of the conference then left Simla to consider the situation in private. Among the first to go was Mr Mohammed Ali Kasim, a Muslim Congressman and ex-chief minister of the pre-war government of the province of Ranpur, who, if Jinnah had his way, could expect no portfolio in the higher council. Like several other prominent Congress politicians Mr Kasim had not been seen in public for nearly three years. Guarded from reporters by a small but efficient entourage headed by his younger son Ahmed, he ignored the questions shouted at him as he left the Cecil Hotel and concentrated on helping Ahmed to support a frail old man later identified by onlookers as his aged and ailing secretary – Mr Mahsood. Safe in his car at last he snubbed the young man from the Civil and Military Gazette who got close enough to the window to say, ‘Minister, is Pakistan now inevitable?’ by commanding Ahmed to put up the glass and pull down the blinds.

The lowering of the blinds caught the imagination of an Indian cartoonist who portrayed the car (identified as that of the ex-chief minister by the initials MAK on one of its doors) with all its windows, including the driver’s, shuttered and making off at high speed (smoke-rings from the exhaust) from a once imposing but now crumbling portal inscribed ‘Congress’ towards a distant horizon with a sun marked ‘Hopes of Office’ rising behind a broken-down bungalow on whose rickety verandah the leader of the Muslim League, Mr Jinnah, could be seen conferring with several of his associates.

The cartoon annoyed adherents of Congress. They objected both to the inference that Mr Kasim was about to betray them and join the League and to the representation of their party as a derelict doorway with nothing behind it. Similarly, Muslim Leaguers objected to the portrayal of the Qaid-e-Azam as the occupier of a squalid little property such as the one depicted.

By the time the cartoon appeared (two days after the end of the conference) the liberals and middle-of-the-road men in Indian politics – who might have protested at the lampooning of a man whose legal skills and political integrity had commanded wide respect for a quarter of a century – could not help wondering whether Mr Kasim had after all shown himself as capable as men of lesser merit of acting with an eye to the main chance. What else, they asked, but an intention to shift his allegiance to the League, in the hope of securing his political future with a party that had grown strong enough to wreck a viceregal conference, could better explain his subsequent mysterious behaviour?

Between Delhi and Ranpur Mr Kasim seemed to have succeeded not only in evading the journalists but in disappearing together with his entire entourage. He was not on the train when it arrived in Ranpur and he never turned up at the old Kasim house on the Kandipat road. This house had been closed since Mr Kasim’s wife (and then Mr Mahsood) had left it in the middle of 1944 to join him after his release from the Fort at Premanagar in the protective custody of his distant kinsman, the Nawab of Mirat. The reason given for that release had been Mr Kasim’s reported ill-health, but it was Mrs Kasim who, some six months later, died.

The journalists who waited outside the still-locked gates of the house on the Kandipat road to greet the distinguished Muslim Congressman on his return home after three years detention and restriction, found themselves joined, towards evening, by colleagues who had waited just as uselessly at the station, and then by a growing crowd of spectators who eventually tangled with a truck-load of police sent to disperse them. A running battle developed between the lathi-armed constables and the quicker-tempered of Mr Kasim’s admirers (students). The peaceful pleasures of families taking the air in the Sir Ahmed Kasim Memorial Gardens opposite were disturbed. A number of arrests were made and rumours then spread through the Koti bazaar and out to the suburb of Kandipat that Mr Kasim had been arrested by the British on the train from Delhi, had been abducted by Hindu extremists, had been murdered by the communists, had succumbed to poison administered by agents of the Viceroy. The shop of an unpopular merchant, a Hindu who gave short weight, was broken into and looted and that of another, a Muslim, ransacked in retaliation. The following day students of the Ranpur Government College demonstrated in the area of the Civil Lines carrying placards asking ‘Where is MAK?’ and hartal was observed in the Koti bazaar by Hindus and Muslims alike for fear of riot, arson and the consequent loss of profits.

At this stage it was discreetly leaked by the Inspector-General of Police to the Municipal Board that Mr Kasim was alive and well and back in the Nawab of Mirat’s summer palace in the Nanoora Hills, and this information was simultaneously confirmed by a telephone call from a correspondent in Mirat to his editor in Ranpur. It seemed that Mr Kasim and his party had left the Delhi-Ranpur train at a wayside halt some miles outside the provincial capital and had then been driven to another wayside halt where the Nawab’s private train awaited him and carried him back to the scene of his protective custody, although in this case it had to be assumed that his return was voluntary and caused by nothing more sinister than the need to sort out the detritus of the year he had spent there under government restriction.

The news inspired the same cartoonist to a further interpretation of Mr Kasim’s evasive behaviour. Mirat was a princely state whose territory was contiguous to the province, whose inhabitants were predominantly Hindu but whose ruler was of the Islamic faith. In the new cartoon MAK was shown sitting cross-legged at a low table in the company of the Nawab and Mr Jinnah. The table, heavily spread with a feast, was labelled ‘Islam’. Beneath it, only head and arms visible, was the struggling body of Free India. From behind a pillar the puckish face of Winston Churchill peered, the head sporting a Jinnah-shaped fez to depict the English leader’s alleged preference for Muslims and sympathy with their aspirations, the face smoothed by an expression of satisfaction at the thought that the Princes, those loyal Indian supporters of the Crown in two world wars, and the Muslim League which had refused to have anything to do with the non-co-operation tactics of the Congress Party, would together – for whatever different reasons – now so bedevil every move the Congress made to force the issue of Indian independence to a conclusion favourable to themselves that British rule could comfortably be extended far enough into the future for the phrase ‘indefinitely if not in perpetuity’ not to seem inappropriate. Another cartoon on the following day depicted Mr Churchill receiving an ovation from a moronic (or badly drawn) and adoring British public, to whom he was about to appeal for reelection, holding in one arm a baby labelled ‘Victory in Europe’, with the other arm extended presenting its hand in giant perspective and the famous V-sign, but with the two fingers raised the wrong way round. One of these fingers was labelled ‘Jinnah’ and the other ‘Princely India’. Clenched in the curled fist below the fingers was a limp body representing Indian unity and nationalism. Thereafter, as a result of a visit to the editor’s office by a representative of the CID no cartoons by this particular artist appeared in this or any other newspaper for some time.

The news that Mr Kasim had gone back to Mirat caused a similar influx of journalists into Nanoora to that of the previous year when he had been let out of the Fort; but although there were now presumably no restrictions on his movements or activities the journalists again failed to obtain an interview and this time did not even receive official messages of regret from court officials that Mr Kasim had no statement to make. Several abortive attempts were made to enter the grounds of the summer palace; a costly business since it involved bribing servants and officials, and a dangerous one because there was the risk of arrest for trespass, even (it was said) of summary imprisonment in one of the Nawab’s dungeons. One by one the journalists departed, filing imaginative copy, until only a handful remained in the rambling little hill town, drinking in the coffee and liquor shops, discussing the interesting rumour about Mr Kasim’s elder son Sayed, which their editors dared not yet print, and visiting the brothels, for private entertainment but also in the hope of meeting Mr Kasim’s younger son, Ahmed, who was said to be a drunkard and a lecher, an incorrigible wastrel who had come near to breaking his father’s heart before being packed off to Mirat in the Nawab’s service, to womanize and drink himself to death if he wished.

But there was no sign of Ahmed Kasim either. A story that he was being treated for venereal disease in a room in the private residence of Dr Habbibullah, chief physician to the Nawab, sent the remaining journalists from the Nanoora Hills down to the city of Mirat and then a rumour that MAK had initiated the story of his younger son’s illness to get rid of the press and leave Nanoora unnoticed sent some of them rushing back and others out of the State altogether, back to Ranpur and British India. The latter found the Kasim house on the Kandipat road still closed and the former were no more successful than hitherto in establishing through the evidence of their own eyes whether the elusive Congressman was in fact in residence at the summer palace.

Journalists in other parts of India thought they detected in the attitude of members of the Congress high command more pious hopes than firm convictions of Mr Kasim’s continuing allegiance to the twin cause of freedom and unity which he had supported throughout his political life, and a characteristically enigmatic comment by the Mahatma (not spoken, but written down, it being his day of silence) did little to remove the suspicion that during the Simla conference there had been private differences of opinion between MAK and his distinguished colleagues. Asked if he could throw any light on Mr Kasim’s apparently self-imposed security screen, Mr Gandhi wrote: ‘God alone throws light on any matter and in this light we may from time to time perceive the truth.’

With this the two journalists had to be content because the Mahatma indicated that the interview was over. They departed, leaving him to bathe and have his massage.

A few days later public interest in Mr Kasim’s political intentions was temporarily extinguished by the unexpected news that the British electorate had voted overwhelmingly for the Socialists and, in doing so, relegated the arch-imperialist, Mr Churchill, at the moment of his triumph, to the post of Leader of His Majesty’s now numerically harmless Tory Opposition.

*

The story that three senior members of the Bengal Club promptly died of apoplexy, although not without a certain macabre charm, proved to have no foundation in fact; but there was no doubt that for several days relations between many British officers and the rank and file of conscript British soldiers serving their time in India, who had voted by post and proxy, were a little distant, and in one reported case demonstrably strained and only saved from escalating to the point where they would have formed the basis of a very serious affair of conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline by the presence-of-mind of a sergeant-major who stood between his captain and a lance-corporal who had admitted ‘voting for old Clem’ on the railway station at Poona and said, ‘Sir, I think we have a little touch of the sun.’ It was raining at the time.

The rifle company of which this captain was in command formed part of a British infantry battalion that was on its way to Kalyan, near Bombay, to join the forces gathering there for the invasion and liberation of Malaya, in an operation known as Zipper. The battalion reached Kalyan on July 30 and settled itself in to a section of an immense hutted encampment that looked and proved dreary. The wet monsoon was at its peak. The Churchillian officer and most of his colleagues managed to travel frequently by jeep to find solace in Bombay, in whose roads part of the invasion force of shipping had already anchored in preparation for the embarkation of the troops, but the rank and file were less fortunate.

There was Housey-Housey, a camp cinema, and Indian prostitutes who were cheap but out-of-bounds. There was mud. It was a bleak terrain that it took some effort of imagination to see as once having been part of the background to the romantic and exotic affairs of the Mahratta kings in whom a fair-haired and well-spoken British Field Security sergeant – with a degree in history from Cambridge – attempted to interest a bored and restive group of captive Cockney, Welsh, Midlands and Northern Englishmen who had to be forgiven for wondering what they were doing in Kalyan getting kitted up for the Far East when the real war (the one in Europe) was over and the lights had actually gone up in London, in every sense. Accounts received from home of VE night celebrations had already eroded what little sense of India’s attractions they had acquired and since this had in any case never been lively enough to nourish in them any kind of curiosity about her history or her future, the Field Security sergeant, whose name was Perron, was soon left in little doubt of his audience’s indifference to the political machinations and territorial ambitions of Mahdaji and Daulat Rao Sindia. Since he had embarked on the lecture with neither enthusiasm nor optimism, the audible appeal to wrap it up for ****** sake caused him no surprise and scarcely a pang. His closing description of a lady-warrior said to have reduced her male rivals to a state of military impotence, by admitting them to her chamber one after the other on the night before a battle, brought the lecture to an end in an atmosphere of near-hysteria. ‘Bring ’er on,’ the same voice cried, and the room then resounded to whistling and the stamping of hundreds of ammunition boots – a noise that greeted the Welfare Officer as he arrived to see how Sergeant Perron was getting on and which seemed to encourage him in a belief that such lectures were a good thing; a belief of which Sergeant Perron did not disabuse him because he had decided quite early in his military service that for life to be supportable officers had to be protected from anything that might shatter their illusion that they knew what the men were thinking.

Knowing himself incapable of reaching the required standard of self-deception in this, and other matters that came under the heading ‘Leadership’, and believing that life in the ranks would provide him with a far greater measure of freedom and better opportunities to study in depth human behaviour during an interesting period of history, he had politely but stubbornly resisted every attempt made to commission him. Only one set of the batch of uncles and aunts who had taken it in turns to bring him up thought this short-sighted. The others approved of his decision. They thought it agreeably eccentric, quite in keeping with the radical upper-class tradition which they liked to feel distinguished them as a family.

‘It obviously went down well,’ the Welfare Officer said, toning down his North Country accent and matily accompanying Perron from the lecture hall. ‘I must say I had doubts, but a chap who really knows his subject is more likely to pass some of his enthusiasm on than not. You must do some more, sergeant.’

‘A good idea, sir.’

‘These waiting periods are damned difficult. There’s a batch of airborne blokes due in soon. Now that the show in Germany’s over they’ll be itching to get started and give the Jap a knock. They’ll be a handful to keep occupied and entertained. I know you’ve got your own special security job to do but I’d be grateful if you’d spare half-an-hour to talk to them one morning on this Indian history thing of yours. I’ll try and come myself. Learn a bit too. Extend my range beyond the Black Hole. Never too late for that, eh?’

Perron said, ‘Actually, if you don’t mind, sir, I think they’re more relaxed without an officer present.’

Captain Strang looked relieved. To reassure the officer that his interest was appreciated but that his friendliness would not be taken advantage of and made an excuse for slack behaviour, Perron slapped up a particularly smart one when they parted and would have stamped his feet had they not been standing in a puddle. Perron had cultivated a formidable parade-ground style and soldierly manner not only to preserve that encouraging image of discipline and efficiency which heartened officers but also (after a tiresome experience with a Seaforth Highlander captain in the map-room of a camp on Salisbury Plain) to minimize the risk of his BBC accent (as fellow-NCOS called it) and his cultural interests giving them the impression that he was a pansy.

*

The sight of the armada gathering off Bombay – a city to which Sergeant Perron’s field security duties now began to take him fairly regularly – appearing, disappearing and reappearing as the curtains of monsoon rain and mist rose and fell with sinister effect, did not usually depress him. In four years of service he had learned to look upon the entire war as an under-rehearsed and over-directed amateur production badly in need of cutting. In this light the low grey shapes of the troopships and escorts could be seen as figments of the imagination of an unknown but persistent operational planning staff whose directives had caused them to appear. The same imagination could just as easily dispel them. Nothing in the army was absolutely sure until it happened and he did not intend to worry about Zipper or the danger he might be in until the ships weighed anchor with himself on one of them.

But on the afternoon of Sunday August 5 as he drove past the Taj Mahal Hotel in a brand new jeep that had been lent in temporary exchange for the motor-cycle he had left at the motor-pool for water-proofing for the sea-borne landings in Malaya, he observed that the armada had increased in size since his view of it a couple of days before. Perhaps it was the sense of futility lingering from his previous day’s lecture on the Mahrattas that chiefly contributed to his unusual feeling of disquiet, of there being something in the air that boded no good and moved him to nostalgic thoughts of a world where peace and common sense prevailed.

Being early for his appointment with a Major Beamish he stopped the jeep and gazed at the brown-grey waste of Bombay water. Without ever having taken any other personal avoiding action than that of co-operating cheerfully over the deferment of his call-up to enable him to sit his finals and obtain his degree, he had managed to get through the war so far without coming any closer to a violent end than half-a-mile away from a bomb off-loaded by a Heinkel over Torbay after a night visit to Bristol. But he had always assumed that his turn for danger would come. Posted to India in 1943 he had expected it to come quite soon but, of course, any apprehension that he felt in regard to that was combined with the excitement of finding himself after several years’ scholarly absorption in Britain’s imperial history actually in the country in which so much of it had originated.

In the first six months the luck of the draw of postings had given him opportunities to visit Cawnpore, Lucknow, Fort St George, Calcutta, Seringapatam, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Agra, and if he had felt some disappointment in these places as relics of old confrontations he had always managed to suppress it before it grew strong enough to undermine his academic confidence. ‘India’ he wrote in his notebook, ‘turns out to be curiously immune to the pressures of one’s knowledge of its history. I have never been in a country where the sense of the present is so strong, where the future seems so unimaginable (unlikely even) and where the past impinges so little. Even the famous monuments look as if they were built only yesterday and the ruined ones appear really to have been ruined from the start, and that but recently.’

Occasionally he was tempted to blame the war for his inability to relate the country he saw to what he knew of its past and at such times he thought how interesting it would be to come back or stay on when the war was over, to examine India undisturbed. But this afternoon, looking at the unfriendly vista of the Arabian Sea which as a boy he had thought the most romantically named ocean in the world, he felt more strongly than ever how perilously close to losing confidence the actual experience of being in India had brought him; and he wanted to go home – not (like the men to whom he had lectured) merely for home’s sake or to enjoy the first fruits of a new political dispensation (for which he too had posted his vote by proxy through his Aunt Charlotte) – but so that he could regain lucidity and the calm rhythms of logical thought. These, he knew, depended upon a continuing belief in one’s grasp of every issue relevant to one’s subject and India seemed to be the last place to be if one wanted to retain a sense of historical proportion about it.

He got out his notebook with the intention of writing something down that might clarify his thoughts and expose as baseless his nagging doubts about the value of work he intended to do in pursuit of certain ineluctable truths but just as there seemed to be no connection between the India he was in and the India that was in his head there was no connection either between paper and pencil and the page remained ominously blank. This depressed him so much that he wrote out in a determined hand: ‘Tell Aunt Charlotte that Bunbury is deteriorating rapidly?’

*

‘This is Captain Purvis, sergeant,’ Major Beamish said, indicating a thin-faced, mousy-haired, ill-looking man who was dosing himself with brown pills which he washed down with water without quite choking. ‘You an’ ’e are goin’ this evenin’ to a party.’ Beamish, like so many elderly regular officers, spoke a kind of upper-crust cockney.

‘Yes, sir,’ Perron said, keeping his thumbs in line with the seams of his trousers.

Beamish was in a bad temper, either as a result of a thick Saturday night or of lingering resentment at being made to work on a Sunday. He said, ‘Fer God’s sake sit down. It’s too bloody hot fer parade-ground manners.’

Perron, who stood over six feet in his socks, chose the deepest of three available chairs in deference to Major Beamish whose trunk was short in proportion to his legs and who therefore sat lower at his desk than seemed either fair or suitable for a man of his domineering temperament. Satisfied that his eye-level was now a flattering few inches below Beamish’s, Perron met the officer’s gaze with soldierly frankness.

‘D’yer have yer civvies with yer?’

Before Perron could answer, the other officer – who was now sitting with his eyes closed and his arms folded broke in. ‘Shouldn’t advise civvies in this case.’

‘I have my Army Education Corps gear, sir,’ Perron said.

‘Those’ll do,’ Purvis said.

‘You fill ’im in, Purvis, or shall I?’

‘Would you? I’ll interrupt if I don’t think you’ve got it right. Could we have that fan on more?’

Perron got up and went to the board of switches and turned up the dial that regulated the ceiling fan. Irritably, Beamish re-allocated weights to keep the papers moored to the desk top, then lit a cigarette but did not offer the tin.

‘It’s about security fer Zipper and loose talk here in Bombay,’ he began. Perron listened attentively for the ten seconds it took Beamish to pass from the informative to the opinionative mood and then tried to tune in what he called his other ear: the one that caught the nuances of time and history flowing softly through the room, a flow arrested neither by Beamish’s concerns nor his own sense of obligation to further them by putting himself at Beamish’s disposal. Glancing at Purvis he wondered whether that officer also heard the whisper of the perpetually moving stream or whether the expression of concentration was due to the compelling effect of the brown pills. When Purvis’s brows suddenly contracted he decided it must be the latter.

‘Are yer still with us, sergeant?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Right. Tell ’im about the party, Purvis.’

For a moment Purvis neither spoke nor moved. Then he opened his eyes.

‘God!’ he said, got up and went out of the room.

‘Feller’s got squitters,’ Beamish explained.

‘Who is Captain Purvis, sir?’

‘Damned if I know. Brig didn’t say. Never met ’im in me life till half-an-hour ago. Seems a bit of a wash-out ter me. Chap should be able to keep ’imself fitter than that!’

A chaprassi came in with a foot-high pile of folders tied up in pink tape and put them by the side of a similar pile on the In side of Major Beamish’s desk. There was a single file in the Out tray. The chaprassi took this with him when he went. Beamish poured himself a glass of water then took the top folder from the nearest of the two piles.

‘Smoke if yer want ter,’ he said. ‘While we’re waitin’.’

Perron murmured his thanks but did not do so. Beamish read the note in the file, initialled it, flung the folder in the Out tray and reached for the next.

Ten minutes later Purvis came back. Beamish was reading the minute in the last folder of the second pile. Without glancing up he said, ‘Feelin’ better?’

‘Frankly, no. I think the sergeant will have to come back to my billet. I’ll put him in the picture there. In any case he’ll need somewhere to change and freshen up for this evening.’

‘All right, sergeant, get along with Captain Purvis. Are yer goin’ back ter Kalyan ternight?’

‘That was my intention, sir.’

‘Ring me from there in the mornin’. We’ll decide if there’s anything ter follow up.’

Perron stood, put his cap on, stamped to attention and saluted. As he turned he caught the tail end of a wince on Captain Purvis’s face.

‘Shoes, sergeant! Have you got shoes?’ Purvis asked.

‘In my pack, sir. With the uniform.’

‘Thank God for that. What are you on, a motor-bike?’

‘I’ve got a jeep today, sir.’

‘We’ll dump it at my office.’

Outside in the corridor Purvis maintained his distance a couple of paces ahead. They passed a long bench on which a line of chaprassis dozed, like figures on a frieze in bas-relief, awaiting employment. The building – currently at the disposal of the army and navy – belonged to the port authority and smelt of rope, gunny sacks and the dust on old bills of lading. Through the immense windows in the main corridor into which they turned came that other pervasive dockyard smell of oily water: Bombay, Bom-Bahia, an island swamp, part of the dowry brought by Catherine of Braganza to Charles II which it took the British five years to persuade the Portuguese Viceroy actually to hand over. Perron stemmed the stream of thought before it could disorient him; apart from which Purvis walked very fast and Perron didn’t want to run the risk of losing him in the labyrinth. He concentrated on Purvis’s back and noticed that the officer’s shoulders were hunched – probably against the ringing sound of Perron’s studded boots on the stone floor.

Descending by a broad stone staircase they reached the main entrance hall on whose marble flags stood a profusion of poles on heavy plinths which bore directional signs. None of the officers and NCOS passing to and fro glanced at the signs and Perron wondered how long it would take for the place to be reduced to a state of hopeless confusion if someone ever took it into his head to move the signs round. Perhaps no one would ever notice.

He smiled and at that moment Purvis stopped and faced him. They nearly bumped into one another. Whatever Purvis had intended to say he forgot.

‘Something amusing you, sergeant?’

‘No, sir.’

‘I mean if there is, do share it.’

Perron told him his thought about the signs. Purvis glanced at them. Without another word he led the way into the open: a fore-court normally crammed with vehicles but today fairly empty. In the minute or so since they had left Beamish’s office the sun had come out. The heat struck Perron’s eyelids.

‘Where’s this jeep of yours, then?’

Perron indicated it.

‘No driver?’

‘Only me, sir.’

Purvis went down the steps. ‘Mine’s that fifteen hundredweight Chevvy. Follow me and for God’s sake keep up. Right?’

Jeep-borne, Perron followed the truck through the archway which was blocked at night by a white pole but at present open to all comers and goers under the eye of a stick-guard who was supposed to inspect identity cards but was taking people on trust. They drove along a road parallel to the docks. At the end of it Purvis’s truck turned left. Caught in the midst of Bombay’s traffic – buses, cyclists, hooting taxis, overladen trucks, horse-drawn doolies and jay-walking pedestrians – Perron concentrated on not losing contact. The truck braked sharply to avoid an obstacle Perron couldn’t see. He slammed on his own brakes and stopped a foot or two short of an impact that might have snapped the tether Purvis seemed to be near the end of. Possibly the nest of spies, fifth-columnists and loose-talkers Perron gathered Purvis thought he’d uncovered was totally illusory. Driving on, but allowing more distance (and noting that the cause of the abrupt halt had been a handcart piled high with crates of live fowl, hauled by a half-naked coolie) Perron decided that so long as Purvis wasn’t at his elbow the entire evening, hissing warnings, the party might be supportable; or even enjoyable.

*

Purvis’s billet turned out to be a flat in one of the modern blocks opposite the Oval – that elegant, coconut-palm fringed rectangle of open, grassed, space; or maidan; brilliantly green at this wet time of year. They reached the block in Purvis’s truck, having left Perron’s jeep in the courtyard of a house several streets away which was guarded by sentries but otherwise unidentifiable as a military office. Purvis had instructed the guard-commander that Sergeant Perron was to be re-admitted on production of his identity card at whatever time of night he returned, in whatever kind of clothing or uniform, and be allowed to collect and take away his jeep; but – short though the journey was – the route then taken from Purvis’s office to Purvis’s billet seemed to Perron, in the back of the truck, so complicated that he had doubts about finding his way back to his jeep unaccompanied. This had not bothered him much because he assumed they would go to the party in the fifteen hundredweight and be brought back from it by the same means, after which he would be taken to retrieve the jeep; but when they dismounted in Queen’s Road Purvis signed the driver’s log book and dismissed him until morning.

‘Is the party being given nearby, sir?’ Perron asked as they approached the entrance to the block of flats. Purvis didn’t answer. He was in a hurry. Reaching the two steps that led to the open doorway and a dark hall he stumbled up them, bumped into and almost knocked down a servant who was coming out ahead of a young English woman.

‘For God’s sake look where you’re going!’ Purvis shouted.

If he was aware of the girl he gave no sign of it. He brushed past the two of them and disappeared into the dark.

‘I do beg your pardon,’ Perron said to the girl.

‘Why?’ she asked.

‘I’m afraid the officer isn’t well. He couldn’t have seen you.’

She studied his uniform briefly, taking everything in at a glance as young English women in India were trained to.

‘It wasn’t me he bumped into, it was Nazimuddin. But thank you for apologizing for him.’

He waited for her to add ‘–sergeant’, but she smiled instead, an ordinary friendly smile, then put on the hat she had been carrying. The movement released a little wave of delicate scent. She came down the two steps and made for the pavement and the road where the ill-used bearer was flagging down a cruising taxi. She was a bit thin, a bit bony, but she walked well. He judged her to be in her early twenties but found it difficult to place her. Accent, style of dress, forth-rightness: these proclaimed her a daughter of the raj, but her manner had lacked that quality – elusive in definition – which Perron had come to associate with young memsahibs: a compound of self-absorption, surface self-confidence and, beneath, a frightening innocence and attendant uncertainty about the true nature of the alien world they lived in. They were born only to breathe that rarified, oxygen-starved air of the upper slopes and peaks, and so seemed to gaze down, from a height, with the touching look of girls who had been brought up to know everybody’s place and were consequently determined to have everybody recognize their own.

Waiting until she had completed that movement – charming in a girl, especially in her – of climbing into the taxi, he shouldered the pack containing his Army Education Corps disguise, went into the building and through the gloom to an inner only slightly better lighted hall where there was a lift shaft and a flight of stone steps leading up. A notice, askew on a piece of string suspended from the handle of the trellis-work gate, informed him that the lift was out of order, but in any case he would not have known which floor to go to. There was no sound from above of Purvis climbing. The door of the flat immediately to his right had a dark-stained strip of wood above the bell with gold-lettering on it saying Mr B. S. V. Desai. To the left a similar notice read H. Tractorwallah. Both these doors seemed unlikely ones for Purvis to be on the other side of and neither had the look of having been opened recently.

Perron ascended. On the next floor the two flats were occupied respectively by a Lieut.-Col. A. Grace and a Major Rajendra Singh of the Indian Medical Service. The Indian medical officer’s name seemed to have been painted on its strip of wood longer ago than Colonel Grace’s. Perron hesitated, but then, deciding that if Purvis was billeted on this floor one of the two doors would have been left open, started on the next leg up and as he did so heard a voice above call, ‘Sahib?’

Purvis’s servant, he supposed. The man salaamed, stood back as Perron reached the next landing, and indicated the open door of the flat above Rajendra Singh’s. As he entered he heard a groan. The servant closed the door and went quickly down a corridor to a curtained doorway. The groan was repeated. A tap was turned on. Perron put his pack down, went in the opposite direction to the one the servant had taken and entered a dining-area. This was separated from a living-room by a wide uncurtained arch. The living-room was elegantly furnished, filled with aqueous light of sunshine filtered through a set of louvred shutters. On a wall behind a long settee hung a series of what looked like paintings from the Moghul period, which upon close inspection Perron identified as genuine. He was still admiring them when the servant came in and invited him to go along to Captain Purvis’s room.

This room, although large, was barrack-like by comparison. Apart from an almirah and a wooden table littered with books, papers and some discarded shirts, there was nothing else in it except a rush-seated chair and the camp-bed on which Purvis was lying, one hand over his eyes, the other hanging free, almost touching the floor. But an open door afforded a glimpse of a well-appointed green-tiled bathroom.

Purvis said, ‘I’m not going to be able to make it, sergeant. You’ll have to go by yourself or forget the whole thing. I wish to God I’d kept my mouth shut. It’s all an utter waste of time. Every bloody civilian in Bombay knows where Zipper’s going and why it’s going and how it’s going. We’re the exceptions. We know where. But they know where better. They can even name the damned beaches. It’ll be a shambles, a complete and unholy utter bloody cocked-up shambles.’

Suddenly Purvis uncovered his eyes and stared wildly at Perron.

‘You are Field Security?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Beamish isn’t. What the hell is he?’

‘He has certain responsibilities for liaison between intelligence and operations.’

‘But he’s not your officer?’

‘No, sir. My officer is in Poona at the moment.’

Purvis shut his eyes.

‘Poona,’ he said, almost under his breath. ‘It scarcely seems possible.’

‘Poona, sir? Or that my officer is there?’

But Purvis didn’t say. Outside the barred but open window there was a sudden piercing contest of crows and then a human voice below in the courtyard raised in what to an untutored ear must sound like a protracted cry of pain but which Perron knew was only the call of an itinerant tradesman. Purvis groaned and turned on his side, the side away from the window. At that moment the sun went in and the sluice-gates of the wet monsoon re-opened. Purvis’s lips began to move but Perron could hear nothing above the noise of the rainstorm.

The bearer parted the curtains and came in with a tray of tea for two. Perron assisted by clearing a space on the table and when the bearer had gone he looked at Purvis intending to say, ‘Shall I be mother, sir?’ but the officer’s eyes were open, fixed and unreceptive – in fact, glazed. For a moment Perron thought he was dead, extinguished by the single clap of thunder that had heralded the arrival of the tea.

*

Refreshed, bathed and now disguised as a sergeant in education, Perron walked – shoe instead of boot-shod – along the tiled passage to the living-room where he found Purvis standing on a balcony that had been revealed by the folding back of shutters and windows. It was now a beautiful evening with a sky the colour of pale turquoise. The coconut palms framed a view of the Law Courts and clock tower on the other side of the maidan.

‘I appreciated the bath, sir. I’m afraid I used some of your Cuticura talcum.’

Purvis had a glass in the hand that rested on the balustrade.

‘Help yourself to a drink, sergeant. You’ll find everything on the tray.’

There was, if not everything, a generous selection: Gin, whisky, rum, several bottles of Murree beer and various squashes and cordials. The spirits were country-distilled so Perron – not caring much for rum of any kind – chose the gin which he found more palatable than Indian versions of Scotch. He added lemon-squash and – luxury for him – a cube of ice from a zinc-lined container.

‘Cheers, sir.’

‘I’m an economist,’ Purvis said, irrelevantly to everything except his private train of thought. ‘It’s enough to send you round the bloody bend.’

He came in from the balcony, refilled his glass with rum and lime and sat on the long settee under the priceless paintings. After drinking a stout measure he shuddered, closed his eyes and put his head back.

‘Can you guess how long I’ve been ill, sergeant?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Since I got off the boat. And that’s three months, two weeks and four days ago.’

‘Bad luck, sir.’

Purvis raised his eyelids a fraction and looked at him. Perron was standing with his feet apart, one hand behind his back, the other at waist level holding the tumbler steady.

‘How long have you been in this bloody country?’

‘Since ’forty-three, sir.’

‘And in the army?’

‘Since ’forty-one, sir.’

‘Before that?’

‘Cambridge, sir.’

‘Doing what?’

‘I rowed a bit. And read history.’

‘What was your school?’

‘Chillingborough, sir.’

‘How the hell have you avoided getting a commission?’

‘By always saying no, sir.’

Purvis shut his eyes again. His face began to contort.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but that is extremely funny.’ He did not say why but took another long drink, set the glass on a low table in front of the settee then leant back with his hands clasped behind his head.

‘The party,’ he said, changing the subject and ploughing straight into the new one, ‘is in the apartment of an Indian lady living on the Marine Drive. I’ll write her a note, so you’ll have the address on the envelope. There should be no difficulty about your going in my place. I was there the other night and she doesn’t seem to care how many people turn up or whether she knows them or not. You’ll see what I mean when you get there. Judging from the other day there’ll be a lot of non-commissioned men so you won’t feel out of place. The fact is, it seems to be the kind of flat where officers and men fraternize, not to mention white, black and in-between. Sexually I’d say some of the company was on the ambivalent side.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Will that worry you?’

‘I don’t think so, sir.’

‘You may even be taken for a special sort of friend of mine.’

‘I think I shall be able to cope in the event of a misunderstanding arising, sir.’

‘Not that I care a fig about my own reputation. I shan’t go there again. In any case you’ll find lots of girls, if you can sort out the ones who’re only interested in men.’

Perron finished his drink but retained his glass.

‘Apart from unambivalent girls, sir, what precisely should I look out for? Any special person or group of people?’

‘So far as I’m concerned, sergeant, you can just go there and get stoned or laid, as our American allies so picturesquely put it. I told you. The whole thing’s an utter waste of time. You’re not going to arrest anybody. At least, not for spying.’

‘Major Beamish seemed to think otherwise about it being a waste of time, sir.’

‘Think? Think? He’s a professional soldier. They’re all alike and worse out here than back home. Totally automatic. Touch a button by accident and they go into action. I’ll tell you, Perron –’

Perron was surprised to find that his name had registered.

‘– how this bloody farce you’re up to the neck in started.’

Three days ago Purvis had encountered, in circumstances not clear, an old friend – obviously a breezy, hectic sort of man – who had whisked him up from whatever he’d been doing, dined him at the Taj and taken him off to the apartment in Marine Drive which Purvis’s friend had described as ‘always good for a lark’; as indeed it had proved, in so far as an uninterrupted flow of drink, food and merrymaking was concerned. Although Purvis did not say so, Perron understood that the larkiness had been infectious enough to make Purvis forget his chronic internal disorder and become expansive with his hostess to whom in a weak but hospitable moment he had promised one of two remaining bottles of whisky he’d managed to get hold of in England and bring out to India for personal consolation. She had declined but he’d insisted and then been invited to come to another party with or without the bottle on the evening of August 5.

‘I could have forgotten the whole damned thing,’ Purvis said, ‘if I hadn’t stupidly made a casual remark next day to the bloody fool officer I work with about the amount of careless talk going on in Bombay. He said – where for instance? And instead of shutting up I said “Well, take this odd party I was at last night where the Indian civilians were actually telling us that the Zipper invasion fleet wouldn’t sail for Malaya until the end of August because of the tides on the beaches around Port Swettenham,” and the next thing I knew the bloody man had reported it and I was hauled in front of that Brigadier Whatsit and congratulated on keeping my ears open. When he heard I’d been invited to the same flat tonight he was like a cat with two tails and before I knew where I was I was under strict security routine and told to say nothing more until I had instructions, and that was this morning when I was ordered to report to this Beamish fellow of yours. When Beamish told me I had to go to the party with a Field Security chap in disguise I thought he was joking. I tried to tell him you can hear that kind of talk anywhere in Bombay but he wouldn’t listen.

Perron put his empty glass on the drinks table.

‘Are we landing on beaches near Port Swettenham, sir?’

‘How the hell do I know? I’ve got no personal interest in Zipper. I’m not going, thank God. Are you?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Oh.’

Purvis noticed Perron’s drink was finished. He said, ‘Help yourself, sergeant.’

‘Thank you, sir. But I think a clear head might be advisable this evening.’

‘Advisable? In this country?’

Purvis became restless and Perron momentarily allowed himself to stop thinking of him as an officer with an officer’s responsibilities for getting the war over and done with and think of him as a man, one whom in other circumstances he might even like.

‘Well if you’re on Zipper,’ Purvis said, ‘I suppose you have to take all this incredible lack of security seriously. I don’t suppose you want to be shot out of the water by the Japanese before you’ve even set foot in the damned country, especially at this stage in the war.’

‘I should prefer not to be, sir.’

‘Does it bore you to call people sir?’

‘No, sir.’

Purvis got up. He refilled his glass.

‘What is your actual job, sir, if I may ask?’

is.