Staying On by Paul Scott
Maybe I found the ending so moving because I am married, getting old, and know how one can wind up unwanted at a place where one has spent several years. But this is a book which touched the hearts of others as well. It was the 1977 Booker Prize winner.
Though Paul Scott is best known for the Raj Quartet, a series of novels about the final years of the British raj in India, Staying On was the book which won the Commonwealth’s highest literary award.
Scott did not get to enjoy his success. He died a year after winning the Booker. The Raj Quartet was made into a television series,The Jewel in the Crown, six years later, in 1984.
Staying On is also set in India. It is about Tusker Smalley, a retired Indian army officer, and his wife, Lucy, who did not return to England when India became independent in 1947. They are in their old age when the story begins in the early 1970s. Lucy worries about her fate if her husband dies. She had not wanted to stay on. Though they live among friends in an Indian hill station where Tusker had been posted as an army officer, she has reason to worry. Tusker is sick and refuses to answer her questions about how much money he has: she knows it can’t be much.
But not even she can foresee the lightning that strikes without warning, with devastating consequences. Mrs Bhoolabhoy, their Punjabi landlady, serves them notice to vacate the bungalow which has been their home. She wants to sell the property and her adjoining hotel to a consortium which plans to redevelop the site. Tusker sees the letter and has a fatal heart attack.
Lucy, who was out at the time, comes home and is numb with grief. Earlier she had read a letter from Tusker explaining why he had stayed on when India became independent. He was already in his mid-40s then, too old to make a fresh start. He wrote about how little they had and why he could not save more. He did not want to talk about such things, so he was writing to her, he explained in his letter, adding that he was sorry for making such a mess.
Lucy goes to bed after taking the sleeping pill given by her doctor and seeing other family friends. But she can’t sleep. She gets up, drinks some brandy, thinks about the letter — the only love letter she had — and her life with Tusker. It is so poignant. This is how the book ends:
It’s all right, Tusker. I really am not going to cry. I can’t afford to…
All I’m asking, Tusker, is did you mean it when you said I’d been a good woman to you? And if so, why did you leave me? Why did you leave me here? I am frightened to be alone, Tusker, although I know it is wrong and weak to be frightened —
— but now, until the end, I shall be alone, whatever I am doing, here as I feared, amid the alien corn, walking, sleeping, alone for ever and ever and I cannot bear it but mustn’t cry and must must get over it but don’t for the moment see how, so with my eyes shut, Tusker, I hold out my hand, and beg you, Tusker, beg, beg you to take it and take me with you. How can you not, Tusker? Oh, Tusker, Tusker, Tusker, Tusker, how can you make me stay here by myself while you yourself go home?
What could be more moving than that?