During the war, soldiers viewed a trip to Calcutta as a treat, because the city had British-style hotels and restaurants, and plenty of cinemas. However, when they enter this time, each men is issued a rifle and a bayonet. Driving into the city on open trucks, they see burned and looted shops and destroyed streets littered with corpses. Bernard has no idea how this violence occurred, but the men on the unit agree it’s “nothing to do with us,” but rather some inexplicable feud between Hindus and Muslims.
The men’s attempt to distance themselves from the violence is ironic, given that the Hindu-Muslim conflict actually stemmed from unwise British policies in India. Moreover, the contrast between the Calcutta of Bernard’s memory and the terrifying spectacle he sees now shows that accessories of “civilization,” like hotels and cinemas, don’t change the fundamental character of a society—whether it is London or Calcutta—and don’t protect it from slipping into violence.
The truck stops, its wheels stuck on a corpse in the street. The officer haughtily orders two men, including one Communist “troublemaker” named Pierpont, to pick up the body, but Pierpont questions the order and refuses to get out of the truck. The officer charges them with insubordination and orders Maxi and Bernard to pick up the body, which they do without complaint.
Even amidst this scene of carnage, the officer is most preoccupied with asserting dominance over his men, while Pierpont is determined to balk him. For these men, the conventions of army life seem more pressing than the danger they’re probably facing.
As Bernard and Maxi climb onto the truck, a mob of men rushes down the street, brandishing homemade weapons. The men surround the truck and begin to rock it while the soldiers, outnumbered, try to look fierce. Just when they think all is lost, a police truck arrives and fires into the air, scattering the crowd. One of the soldiers asks jokingly if the mob was Hindu or Muslim, and everyone laughs.
Proximity to the chaos and violence that British colonial rule has caused should force the men to reevaluate their views of their country, but it actually makes them more entrenched in their existing prejudices.