The sentiments of Ronny Heaslop

November 13 2012

Bihar, circa 1922. Ronny Heaslop, city magistrate at Chandrapore, and his mother:

“‘We’re not out here for the purpose of behaving pleasantly!’

“‘What do you mean?’

“‘What I say. We’re out here to do justice and keep the peace. Them’s my sentiments. India isn’t a drawing-room.’

“‘Your sentiments are those of a god,’ she said quietly, but it was his manner rather than his sentiments that annoyed her.

“Trying to recover his temper, he said, ‘India likes gods.’

“‘And Englishmen like posing as gods.’

“‘There’s no point in all this. Here we are, and we’re going to stop [ie stay], and the country’s got to put up with us, gods or no gods. Oh, look here,’ he broke out, rather pathetically, ‘what do you and Adela [his fiancée] want me to do? Go against my class, against all the people I respect and admire out here? Lose such power as I have for doing good in this country because my behaviour isn’t pleasant? You neither of you understand what work is, or you’d never talk such eyewash. I hate talking like this, but one must occasionally. It’s morbidly sensitive to go on as Adela and you do. I noticed you both at the Club to-day – after the Burra Sahib [the Nawab Bahadur, a local Muslim dignitary, loyal to the British; but the scholarly Abinger Edition has substituted “the Collector” at this point – ie Turton, the British tax collector] had been at all that trouble to amuse you. I am out here to work, mind, to hold this wretched country by force. I’m not a missionary or a Labour Member or a vague sentimental sympathetic literary man. I’m just a servant of the Government; it’s the profession you wanted me to choose myself, and that’s that. We’re not pleasant in India, and we don’t intend to be pleasant. We’ve something more important to do.’

“He spoke sincerely. Every day he worked hard in the court trying to decide which of two untrue accounts was the less untrue, trying to dispense justice fearlessly, to protect the weak against the less weak, the incoherent against the plausible, surrounded by lies and flattery. That morning he had convicted a railway clerk of overcharging pilgrims for their tickets, and a Pathan of attempted rape. He expected no gratitude, no recognition for this, and both clerk and Pathan might appeal, bribe their witnesses more effectually in the interval, and get their sentences reversed. It was his duty. But he did expect sympathy from his own people, and except from newcomers he obtained it. He did think he ought not to be worried about ‘Bridge Parties’ [social events intended to bring Indians and British together] when the day’s work was over and he wanted to play tennis with his equals or rest his legs upon a long chair [see the picture in this post].

“He spoke sincerely, but she could have wished with less gusto. How Ronny revelled in the drawbacks of his situation! How he did rub it in that he was not in India to behave pleasantly, and derived positive satisfaction therefrom! He reminded her of his public-schooldays. The traces of young-man humanitarianism had sloughed off, and he talked like an intelligent and embittered boy. His words without his voice might have impressed her, but when she heard the self-satisfied lilt of them, when she saw the mouth moving so complacently and competently beneath the little red nose, she felt, quite illogically, that this was not the last word on India. One touch of regret – not the canny substitute but the true regret from the heart – would have made him a different man, and the British Empire a different institution.”


EM Forster, A Passage to India (1924).

“Them’s my sentiments” is a quotation from Vanity Fair, though not said in a passage which touches on India.

Britain announced last week that it would end financial aid to India by 2015.

A collection of photographs of British India c 1912 was found recently, wrapped in copies of the Statesman from 1914, in the archives of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Samples herehere and elsewhere.

Calcutta, High Court in background

Office in Madras


Buildings on southeast side of Lal Dighi (BBD Bagh, formerly Dalhousie Square), Calcutta, lit at night for the 1912 royal visit (compare the picture of Berlin here)

Chandpal Ghat, Kolkata; bathers reached the river through tunnels under the railway line

Probably Calcutta

2 Responses to “The sentiments of Ronny Heaslop”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Here is that scene in the not very good David Lean film. Peggy Ashcroft, Nigel Havers:

  2. […] The sentiments of Ronny Heaslop […]

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