Pyari Singh, proud daughter of a noble Thakur family, earns the sobriquet “Flame of the Forest” from her new husband, Gopal Singh, who admires both her headstrong character and her tawny beauty—that is, until he doesn’t. Shenanigans, financial as well as extra-marital, cause young love to turn sour. A fight between the couple ends with a shotgun blast that kills Pyari, and Gopal becomes the prime suspect in what may or may not be her murder. But while Pyari dies, India truly lives in this police procedural set on the North Indian plain during the twilight of colonial rule. The police consist of native Hindu and Muslim forces under British supervision, and their procedure combines a respect for the ideals of British justice with an allowance for the realities that prevail in a rural, caste-ridden society. The results of this effort to balance law and life are imperfect, to say the least.
With true naturalistic flair (there is no nonsense here about “the mysterious East”), Mason conveys just how different subcontinental mores are from those of dear old England. Taking his title from a line in Alice in Wonderland, he spins a nuanced, ethnographically deft study of what it means to be a witness in a land where seeing is rarely the same as believing. Nor, in India, is seeing ever just seeing. For an old Brahman nurse-maid, for a member of the gypsy-like Nat tribe who depends on a landowner’s sufferance, for a roadside peddler who longs to escape a shrewish wife, and for several others, what one “witnesses” unfolds within a dense pattern of religious assumptions and social expectations. “Truth” is whatever one’s destiny will bear, and no more. In early scenes, the clash of sensibility between British rulers and those ostensibly ruled by them plays out as comedy—as when members of a panchayat, or village court of elders, fabricate an entire docket of cases in order to satisfy a mandate from the Raj. In a late twist, however, amusement turns to revulsion: District Magistrate Christopher Tregard, upon witnessing the imposition of “justice” in the case of Gopal Singh, closes his eyes and dreams of England; there, he tells himself, the forces of state and society have a better-than-glancing relationship. Published on the eve of Indian Independence, this novel of strange manners made familiar sounds an implicit call for the separation of two great but anomalous peoples.