A Bit of a Smash in Madras Summary
The flippant title of this story about an Englishman who seriously injures an Indian laborer in a drunken automobile accident is the first clue to its ironic social criticism. The very fact that the central character and narrator of the story calls such an accident merely “a bit of a smash” says more about the British arrogance and indifference to native Indians that led to the crumbling of the British Empire than do volumes of history or social commentary.
The story begins with the narrator’s admission to his unidentified listener that he was so drunk when the accident occurred that he knew nothing about it until told about it by his roommate the next morning. His prejudicial attitude toward the Indians is made obvious when the police inspector arrives and the narrator identifies him as an Indian but a “nice chap” anyway. Adams’s white acquaintances are equally indifferent to the feelings of native people. All are eager to “fix” things for him—his roommate, who buys off his bar bill so there will be no evidence that he was drunk; his drinking buddy, who pays for his bail; and his boss, who retains the company lawyer for him.
Native figures influenced by British rule fare no better in this story. Adams’s first act is to retain an Indian lawyer whose main claim to fame is that he once defended an Englishman who crashed into a Muhammadan funeral, killing five; the lawyer was able to get for him a sentence of only three years. After Shankran the lawyer reassures Adams not to worry, he goes off thinking that, except for his skin, Shankran is much whiter than many Englishmen in India. The one witness to the accident, Krishnaswami, is interested only in extorting money from Adams, but he masks this by insisting that he believes the caste system should be abolished and that all men are brothers, even the poor laborer who was injured. He tries to ingratiate himself with Adams by suggesting that he should play middleman and take money from Adams to give to the laborer’s family.
The British influence on Indians is further criticized by Adams’s description of the company lawyer, Menon, and Krishnaswami, who negotiate a deal about the amount of the proposed payoff, both talking in Oxford English and trying to outdo each other. Shankran, who corrupts the courts and witnesses, ironically accuses Menon of corruption when the company lawyer tells him to get as much out of Adams as possible. In fact, the entire story is a complex and distasteful web of corruption, prejudice, and indifference by Englishmen and English-educated Indians alike. The only time Adams himself shows any sign of regret for his injuring the Indian laborer is when he visits him in the hospital and sees the man’s family weeping and wailing around his bedside. Adams’s prejudice is so deep-seated, however, so much a part of the British attitude toward the Indians, that his telling his listener that he “bloody near wept himself” rings false.
By the time the actual trial comes up, after Shankran has postponed it by fixing Adams up with a false doctor’s report that he has dysentery, Shankran has frightened off Krishnaswami, has bribed another witness, and has promised to pay off the Inspector, all the while cursing his Indian countrymen as being corrupt and thinking only of money. The final judgment of the trial judge is that Adams pay 350 rupees to the injured man as compensation and two hundred rupees to the court as a fine for not stopping after the accident. He also must pay the Inspector three hundred rupees as a bribe, as well as his lawyers’ fees. Instead of being chastened by his experience, Adams goes on a drinking binge for a month, is finally fired by his boss (although he is given good references), and goes back to England. His last line shows how oblivious he is of the moral weakness of his character: “Don’t know of any good jobs going, do you?”