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Staying On

Staying On is a novel by Paul Scott, which was published in 1977 and won the Booker Prize.

Plot summary
Staying On focuses on Tusker and Lucy Smalley, who are briefly mentioned in the last book of the Raj Quartet, A Division of the Spoils, and are the last British couple living in the small hill town of Pankot after Indian independence. Tusker had risen to the rank of colonel in the British Indian Army, but on his retirement had entered the world of commerce as a ‘box wallah’, and the couple had moved elsewhere in India. However, they had returned to Pankot to take up residence in the Lodge, an annex to Smith’s Hotel. This, formerly the town’s principal hotel, was now symbolically overshadowed by the brash new Shiraz Hotel, erected by a consortium of Indian businessmen from the nearby city of Ranpur.

We learn about life as an expat in Pankot principally by listening to Lucy’s ponderings, for it is she who is the loquacious one, in contrast to Tusker’s pathological reticence. He talks in clipped verbless telegraphese, often limiting his utterances to a single "Ha!". He has been purposeless since being obliged to retire, and it is left to Lucy to make sense of the world herself. It is a sad story of frustration that she recounts to herself. She remembers how the young Captain Smalley came back to London on leave in 1930, visited his bank, where she, a vicar’s daughter, worked, and tentatively asked her out. She was swept off her feet by the thought of marrying an army officer and dreamt of a glamorous wedding with his fellow officers making an arch with their swords, but life turned out very differently. His job was dull administration, and his early attentiveness in bed rapidly waned. He prohibited her from fulfilling herself by taking part in amateur dramatics. Not only this, but she ranked fairly low in the social pecking order among the white women in Pankot and suffered numerous indignities. A symbol of this retrospection is that their preferred conveyance is the tonga, a horse-drawn carriage in which they choose to sit facing backwards, "looking back at what we’re leaving behind".

It falls to Lucy to navigate a path between her husband’s obstinacy and obtuseness and the increasingly pressing demands of India’s slow transition to modernity. The question of who pays the gardener, for example, requires the skilful management of human relationships. She also tries to maintain some continuity in her life, through correspondence with her old acquaintances (characters in the Raj Quartet), such as Sarah Layton, who have moved back to England.

It is clear she blames Tusker for insisting on ‘staying on’—at one point they could have retired comfortably to England, but he has been reckless ("nothing goes quicker than hundred rupee notes"), and now she has no idea if they could afford it. She entreats him to tell her how she would stand financially if he were to die. At long last, he writes her a letter, setting out their finances and also remarking that she had been "a good woman" to him. But he also tells her not to ask him about it, as he is incapable of discussing it face to face: "If you do I’ll only say something that will hurt you". Nevertheless, she treasures this, the only love letter she has ever received.

Meanwhile we see the new India that is replacing the British Raj, symbolised by Mrs Lila Bhoolabhoy, the temperamental and overweight owner of Smith’s Hotel, and her much put upon husband and hotel manager, who is Tusker’s drinking companion. The richly humorous context includes the engagement of servants, the railway service, poached eggs, hairdressing and the church organ. The intimate relationship between the Smalleys' servant Ibrahim and Mrs Bhoolabhoy's maid Minnie adds an "Upstairs, Downstairs" aspect.

Mrs Bhoolabhoy’s greed induces her to trade her ownership of the now shabby Smith’s hotel for a share in the competing consortium. She instructs Mr Bhoolabhoy to issue the Smalleys with a notice to quit the Lodge.

On receipt of this letter, Tusker flies into an impotent rage and drops dead of a heart attack. Lucy is downcast and puts on a brave face as she prepares for the funeral and a solitary life. But, at last, she is free to return to England. She will be able to scrape by on her £1,500 a year. She is a survivor, because she can adapt, as is shown by the fact that, at the last moment, she breaks a previously upheld taboo and invites her hairdresser, Susy, who is of mixed race, to dinner.

The novel is notable for its clear prose and evenness of style, the perfect tone of its dialogue, and the sensitivity with which it elucidates the unspoken underside of a marital relationship which has withered on the vine. This tragedy is leavened by the ironies that are thrown up by the clash of British with Indian expectations.

In 1980, it was turned into a television serial by Granada TV, starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. This paved the way for the television treatment of The Jewel in the Crown, based on Scott's The Raj Quartet, to which it is in fact a coda.

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