Paul Scott’s ‘Staying On’: Amid the Alien Corn
By: Ramlal Agarwal
Staying On is a very poignant novel about a British couple that decides to stay in India after the British have left India and returned home. It was not a joint decision but one taken by the male partner, Tuskar Smalley. Tuskar decided to stay on because he believed the English had held India together and he had invested his working life here, so he had a right to enjoy its benefits. Moreover, he thought that in India he would be able to have advantages like hiring servants and live well with his meagre resources, which he would not have in England. But he did not force his decision on his wife, Lucy. He wrote to her that in her retirement she would have a pension of $ 1500 and that with $ 2000 in the bank she could return home if she so decided. He added that she has been a good wife. Love, Tuskar. Lucy held this letter close to her heart all her life. Though she wanted to return, she could not do so without her husband, and hence she accepts Tuskar’s decision to stay.
Tuskar had come to India soon after getting married and joined the army at Pankot. Tuskar retired as a colonel and later joined a business firm in Bombay and Midnapur, and Lucy took up secretarial jobs. They lived comfortably, and whenever they went out, they took a tonga, and Tusker held Lucy’s and helped her while getting on or getting off it. On their retirement, the couple rented a bungalow, The Lodge, an annex of Smiths of Pankot. They hired an Indian servant called Ibrahim and had a mali tend the garden as an arrangement with the hotel management. Tusker got friendly with the manager, Mr. Bhoolabhoy, who was the fourth husband of Mrs. Bhoolabhoy, the proprietor of the Smiths. They shared drinks on Wednesdays, but with growing age, Tusker began falling ill and withdrawing into himself. On the contrary, Lucy feels the urge to keep herself looking beautiful and starts visiting beauty parlours.
Tusker knew that Lucy always hankered after a bungalow of their own, but he preferred The Lodge because it helped him blend unobtrusively with the background. Merging with the background and survival are his prime concerns. But Lucy is not hampered by these concerns. The more Tuskar withdraws into himself, the more Lucy becomes outgoing. She likes to hear from home and meet people. She is overjoyed to hear from Susan, her old friend, and looks forward to the visit of Mr. Templar, who will call on her during his study tour to India at her instance. She gets her hair done every month by Sisi, an Anglo-Indian whom she treats with love. In contrast, Tusker gets increasingly edgy and starts bickering. He loses his cool because the mali is missing and the garden is not tended properly. He quarrels with Lucy because Lucy wants to eat at the Smiths and he wants only poached eggs at the Lodge. He cancels his birthday party. Lucy protests, but Tusker remains stubborn. He dismisses Ibrahim. When he is in the most delicate state of mind, a fatal blow is dealt to him by serving him a notice to vacate within a week. Tusker clutches the notice and falls on the ground when Lucy was having her hair rinsed blue and was excited because she had invited Father Sebastian and Sisi for a get-together at the lodge.
Tusker’s death drew a number of people to the lodge, and each one sympathized with Lucy. All of them asked her to stay with them, but Lucy told them that Ibrahim would sleep at the lodge and would look after her.
That night, Ibrahim slept outside Lucy’s bedroom. After some time, he heard strange noises coming from the room. He rushed to the door and inquired whether she needed anything. Lucy assured him that she was alright and cleared her throat to reassure him.
In the dead of the night, Lucy remembered her outings with Tusker in Tonga and how Tusker would hold her hand lest she get lost in the melee, and the two thrones they had in their lavatory and how they had once used them simultaneously. She remembered how they lived arm in arm, throne by throne, and how they would live urn by urn. Lucy wails, “All I am asking, Tuskar, is, what did you mean when you said I had been a good wife? And if so, why did you leave me? Why did you leave me here? I am frightened to be alone, Tuskar, although I know that it is wrong and weak to be frightened; but now, until the end, I shall be alone whatever I am doing here, as I fear being alone amid the alien corn, waking, sleeping, alone forever and ever, Tuskar. I hold out my hand and beg you, Tuskar, beg you, beg you, to take it and take me with you. How can you not tusk? Oh, Tusker, Tusker, how can you make me stay here by myself while you yourself go home?”
What a painful and heart-breaking wail.
Among the British novels with Indian backgrounds, Kiplin’s Kim and Forster’s A Passage to India are the most outstanding and well-known novels. Paul Scott’s Staying On joins their ranks.