Dialogue in Paul Scott's Johnnie Sahib

Jacqueline Banerjee, Ph.D

The germ of Scott's first novel, Johnnie Sahib (1952), was a radio play entitled Lines of Communication, which drew on his experiences on various Indian air-bases during World War II. The novel was followed in turn by a television adaptation of the original play. This media connection, which would continue after Scott's death with the popular radio and television adaptations of The Raj Quartet and Staying On, alerts us to one of Scott's particular skills: writing good dialogue.

Here is a brief exchange between the Major and Prabhu, who has been deputed to report the imminent arrival of a colonel:

The Major stared uncomprehendingly at Prabhu, who smiled sadly and shook his head from side to side as if to say, 'All this is without meaning'.

'Who the hell is Colonel Baxter?'

'This I am not knowing, sir'.

'Then what is Colonel Baxter coming for?'

'This I am not knowing either, sir.'

'This you are not knowing either!'

'No, sir. We just had message to meet him at airfield.'

Prabhu wilted under the Major's steady gaze. (Johnnie Sahib, 11)

This is effective not because of what it says, but because of what it doesn't say. Prabhu knows exactly why Colonel Baxter has come — to inspect the company — but is reluctant to cause a last-minute flap. The Major, on the other hand, realises Prabhu is hiding something, and shows it. By the end of the encounter Prabhu's composure has deserted him. This is Scott in his lighter vein, one which would find its best expression in the verbal skirmishes of his very last novel Staying On. Here as elsewhere, the failure of verbal communication is more than compensated for on a non-verbal level, and even in this first novel, Scott leaves his readers to tease out the various implications.

Does the humour here conceal more deep-rooted problems? Before reaching any conclusions about Scott on the basis of such a short excerpt, note also that he was fascinated and appalled by the way human relationships are skewed by the need to assert authority.


Scott, Paul. Johnnie Sahib (London: Panther, 1971).

United Kingdom Paul Scott

Last modified 26 July 2005