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Paul Scott’s Johnnie Sahib : A Study
|by Dr. T. S. Chandra Mouli|
Paul Scott’s novels are judicious, wise and well-informed. Consistency and completeness are the remarkable features of his achievement. With the possible exception of The Bender, he has not written a single novel which is not a fully serious and accomplished work of fiction. As he gets into his stride the scope of his interest widens, the depth of his understanding of human nature becomes more profound, and his technical resources grow more sophisticated as the subjects on which they are brought to bear grow more complex. The English in India are the heart of Scott’s novels, and it would be hard to forget any of them [Jean.G.Zorn : ‘Talk with Paul Scott’, New York Times Book Review. Aug,21, 1977. P.37.]
In so far as the characters are concerned, Scott’s early novels are remarkable for the insight they show in male psychology. Like Conrad and Kipling, he succeeds in creating convincing pictures of men at work, subject to the strain of conflicting responsibilities but also involved in the practical business of getting on with a job – whether that involves loading aircraft with supplies of ammunition, or running a model farm, or governing a province. Scott never underestimates the importance of work as a context within which the men in his novels enter into their emotional involvements, and this work is usually work in the sense that it is commonly understood by the word, i.e., not some kind of artistic or literary profession.
As Scott himself confesses it was only after the eighth novel and a visit to India in 1964 to ‘recharge the batteries’ that he actively turned to the history of Britain in India. ‘In the eight previous novels, the common factor that emerges clearly is this obsession with the relationship between a man and the work he does’ … ‘without work the vessel of life has no ballast’ [Paul Scott : My Appointment with the Muse. P.117] True to his conviction he was always keeping what he called ‘my daily appointment with the muse’, a phrase he adapted from Henry James to embody his sense of obligation.
According to his own account, he spent six hours and thirty minutes a day on his writing. Johnnie Sahib In this first published work of Paul Scott we find the narration straight forward, with the operations related to the air service described vividly. This novel deals with the characteristic interest of Paul Scott – a man in relation to his work.
Captain John Brown dominates the entire novel with his charismatic presence as well as his conspicuous absence. The men and officers in the Company have been magnificent ; one and two sections could always be relied upon, just as three section, but in a different way. If the other two sections worked well, three section had worked with ‘style’, for that was part of Johnnie’s influence upon it. The Major knows that ‘Johnnie could not be shaped into a pattern for the sake of pattern’ [ Paul Scott : Johnnie Sahib P.12.]
Three section was loyal to a man. As the Major confides Brown may be a bit unconventional, but he’s a damned good section commander. The men in the section were picked personally by Johnnie. He remembers: The electric shock of recognition that passed through his own body as his hand clasped a shoulder so that it seemed that another reached out and touched his own. On that hot, parched afternoon there has been no uncertainty, no half-felt fears for the future or regret for the past, only the direct communication between himself and the man he picked’ [P.26] . Whenever he was with them, the communication remained intact. As the Major rightly opines, “Johnnie is large than life…Johnnie is Johnnie”. Even during his absence the people with whom he worked remember him. The American Mitchell bombers which looked arrogant and aggressive make the Major feel that ‘the Americans do things with style – like Johnnie’. Before he proceeded on leave Johnnie advised Jim, his second-in-command, not to allow the Major to run him round. If it happened then he was likely to take it on his men. Moti Ram rightly explains the effect of his commander’s absence: It was the first time Johnnie Sahib had been away, and without him something more than friendliness lacked – unity and coordination and comradeship – the things Johnnie sahib inspired’[P.73].
It is not paternalistic responsibility or attitude that binds Johnnie with his men. It is his concern for their welfare and recognition of them as individuals first and foremost that casts a magical spell over them. The men don’t work for the war ! They work for me, for Bill or for whomever it commanding them’ [P.102] he tells the Major. He is interested more ‘in making a section rather than getting a section’. Proudly he declares, ‘The blokes belong to me’. ‘My men always follow me whatever happens’.
People like the Major, who are dedicated to their assigned task and function like robots without establishing personal relationship, are bound to feel desolate and forlorn at times. As the Major contemplates: Men were not connected. There was no communication between them. Sometimes the duplication of action and desire would make it seem as if it existed. But it was there superficially; emotionally; It did not go deeply to connect up the cores of their isolation’ [P.133]
When the Major orders loading operations at dead of night, Johnnie bluntly tells, ‘there is no need to wake up tired men at this time of the night’. It is this humane attitude that has endeared him to one and all he works with. But his concern for his men is not viewed kindly by his superior. He is transferred to Marapore, as the Major pointedly says, ‘to hurt’ him. Johnnie is told it is the section that is commanding him, not he that is commanding them. For him it makes no difference as he has never seen his men as his subordinates. He has treated them as individuals deserving human dignity irrespective of the cadre they belonged to.
Jim, who is leading the section in the absence of Johnnie, complains to the Major that Moti Ram and his men are not cooperating with him. When the latter is reprimanded he tells Jim he felt humiliated as every one knows what happened. All men are knowing. This is indignity. I am a simple man but also a proud man… I am a viceroy Commissioned Officer, Sir. But this you don’t care about. I am marched in front of all clerk, all sweeperwallas at headquarters. All throughout company hear of my disgrace” “What am I supposed to do about that?” retorts Jim. “Sir you must be compassionate”, he replies.[ P.156]
Moti Ram further implores: Without respect they will not follow me Sir, or without love … only now they follow strict, hard discipline. And this is no good … This harsh discipline is no good”. He vivifies the situation: They are like children. They need love … like love of captain Brown Sahib”. He frankly declares: You are a poet in your mind. Poet in your speech. But you are a cold man. We do not understand a cold man’s poetry. [P.157]
The V.C.O. walks back crest fallen, for ‘a man disgraced is a man fallen’. Though Johnnie is away on leave, his memories haunt the men in three section as Das, the havaldar, blurts in an inebriated state: “Johnnie Sahib is tired of us. See how he looks at us some times. He is going away. He will become big officer Sahib and we shall be forgotten as sands in desert”. Men like Das and Moti Ram look to Johnnie for support, encouragement and they cherish his informal style of functioning and personal relationships he had established. In fact, Moti Ram wanted to tell his master: Sir, you have gone away, from us and without you Tamel is unbearable. Why is this ? It is perhaps something we have done? Is it because this new officer has come between us? But is he not your friend? Like Bradley Sahib? Should we not be friends? [P.159]
Johnnie is part of the irretrievable past The Major himself confides with Brad, “I always like Johnnie…It is we who’ve lost”. As Brad tells him ‘he has got Johnnie on his conscience’. Jim feels the phantom of Johnnie confronting him every moment. He forces Jan Mohammed to fly with Ghosh for an emergency drop. Moti Ram pleads with Jim to spare Jan Mohammed because he is the only one in the entire section who never flies, for he suffers from air sickness. He also informs that once in Marapore he beat Jan Mohammed for not flying and Johnnie exempted Jan from flying as he was already punished. On Jim’s insistence Jan Mohammed gingerly boards the air craft. As the plane taxies and is picking up speed to be air borne, Jim feels contented, ‘The plane was carrying the last of Johnnie with it. He was sending Johnnie away’. ‘Without gaining altitude, the plane crashes and explodes into a ball of flames’ … a moving pillar of flame detached itself from the inferno and ran across the field towards him and he heard the anguished unrecognizable cry that came grotesquely from it; saw the sudden flinging out of its arms that made it look like a burning cross before it crumpled and fell into shapelessness’.
At last Jan Mohammed becomes the scapegoat. He is sacrificed at the altar of arrogance, inhumanity and unsurpassed jealousy. Ghosh, the second-in-command to Scott, too perishes in the crash. Scott enquiries as to who it was that tried to run away from the flames. Jim remembers, ‘the image of a man crucified; consumed by fire’.
Colonel Shelley, representing the imperialistic attitude of the British derides the Indians: “They are primitive. Give me British troops every time. Those wogs look as if they just fallen from the trees!’ and concludes, ‘Indians are all alike”. Stung to the quick Scott confronts, “I suppose that includes Ghosh”, Sensing the hurt feelings of Scott, Colonel Baxter administers a mild rebuke: “You should be careful what you say, Shelley. You know Ghosh was Scott’s second-in-command.“
The Company does not abound in racists like Jim and Shelley, there are humane officers like Baxter and Johnnie. Jim, finally, realizes that the section does not belong to him. He writes to Johnnie of his intention to leave for Marapore. The Novel Johnnie Sahib portrays the inter-racial relationships exquisitely as viewed from different angles. The novelist discusses the Eurasian issue also, though he is to elaborately deal with the problem in a subsequent novel The Alien Sky.
Nina Mackenzie, girl friend of Johnnie, and Johns, an officer in the company represent the dilemma faced by the Eurasians. Johns, second-in-command to Bill Parish, used to talk of London and days back in ‘home’. Arrival of Bill, who knew well of Buckingham from where Johns said he comes from ‘had put a full stop to it’. Bill saw through what he said. Johns is torn between two worlds.
Nina, a Eurasian nurse working in the General Hospital, is Johnnie’s girl friend. With the Japanese invading Burma, she came to Calcutta and was hurled into the night life of Chowranghee, danced at the Grand Hotel and had many lovers. She met Johnnie at Comirtala and was in love with him. She knew how he was worshipped by his men. She had seen the love and understood she could have no part of it except by being a part of Johnnie. When Jim meets her and Brad at a bar in Imphal she proudly says, “I am Johnnie’s girl”. Jim feels that Nina has betrayed Johnnie. But she is steadfast in her love for Johnnie even after his departure.
“All love is possessive”, declares Jim. “Love changes like every thing else . . . It goes through stages”. Then Nina postulates: “It does not end… not love… Love does not end, Jim, but becomes unselfish.”[P.206] The greatest gift of God is love. Johnnie loves all and his humanistic temperament ennobles what all he says and does.
As Patrick Swinden feels, several of the themes of Paul Scott’s work have already emerged with some force and clarity. No other novel of his is so unremittingly concerned with men at work. E.M. Forster’s administrators are scarcely ever seen doing anything essentially concerned with administration. ‘Scott almost invariably enters the lives of his characters from the opposite end of the work leisure spectrum. First and foremost his characters have to earn a living. In the process of earning a living they create for themselves needs and ambitions out of which the plots of their novels grow’[Patrick Swinden : Images of India’. P.17]
Work, then, in Scott’s fiction, is a very important context for characters to exist in … The exigencies of their work often have much to do with the formation of their moral characters and brings out the peculiar qualities of their psychological strengths and weaknesses. This is what is shown in the portrayal of Johnnie and Major in Johnnie Sahib. It is the work on the airfield that provides Johnnie and Jim Taylor with their opportunities for success or failure with the men under their command. It is their attitude towards what they judge to be their success or failure at work which allows relationships to develop that provides the narrative with a plot.
Similarly, the Major’s responsibility for his company, bringing him into conflict with Johnnie not over abstract principles, but over the actual details of the ‘turn around’ and the deployment of his men in the airstrips is a function of his working life. It affects the direction of the narrative by virtue of that fact. Johnnie’s assumption that there is an intrinsic meaning and value in his relationship with the men contrasts with the Major’s withdrawal from personal satisfaction, even from a sense of stable personal identity, in the interests of the larger context of the operation for which he is responsible; in the suspension of judgement over the attitudes of the two men, it is possible to sense Scott’s passionate concern with how lives are given meaning and how absolute the meanings given can ever be. Most of Scott’s important concerns are present in this first novel. ‘Man and his work’ is the theme of this novel, which is dear to Paul Scott, who believed in working with dedication and a purpose. Thus, this first novel enables the reader understand some of the major concerns of the novelist magnificently amplified in his magnus opum The Raj Quartet followed by its coda and Booker Prize winner Staying On.
Arun Chacko. ‘English man’s Love for India’ Indian Express. Feb. 9. 1972.
Charles Allen. Plain Tales from the Raj. London: Futura Publications,1985.
Frank Anthony. Britain’s Betrayal in India : The Story of the Anglo-Indian Community. Bombay : Allied Publishers, 1969.
Jacquelin Banerjee, ‘An Indian View of Paul Scott’s India,’ London Magazine, April/May, 1980.
Jean.G.Zorn, ‘Talk with Paul Scott’ New York Times Book Review.Aug,21, 1977.
Paul Scott Johnnie Sahib. London: Eyre & Spottiswood Ltd., 1952.
---, The Alien Sky. London: Eyre & Spottiswood Ltd, 1958.
---, My Appointment with the Muse’.Ed. With an Introduction by Shelley C.Reece . London: Heinemann, 1986.
Patrick Swinden. Images of India’.London: MacMillan, 1980.
Walter Clemons. ‘ Paul Scott’s Indian Obsession’ Newsweek. Dec.17,1984.
[Parts of this paper were published in ‘’Literary Musing’’, July, 2011]
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