In any case, Bernard would have had to leave the meeting for his guard duty, watching the door of the plane hangar. Supplies have to be guarded at all times, because local people, whom Bernard calls “loose wallahs,” are prone to stealing them. Bernard is suspicious of all Indians, because he can’t tell people who are friendly from those who may be thieves or bandits.
Bernard sees the rampant thievery as evidence of the Indians’ low moral character. In fact, it’s only logical that disadvantaged members of an exploitative colonial regime should fend for themselves any way they can. This moment emphasizes Bernard’s utter ignorance about life under colonial rule.
Tonight, Bernard shares guard duty with an Indian soldier named Arun; he likes this man because he “took orders well” and is eager to learn about mechanics. There’s also a new soldier named Ashok, who asks Bernard if he likes India. Bernard says it’s too hot, and that he misses London. Ashok asks Bernard if he’s angry to be kept in India, as well as asking about the men who want to strike for demobilization. Bernard becomes suspicious that Ashok is trying to pump him for information.
Bernard judges Indian men solely on their willingness to submit to his authority as a white member of a colonial regime. While Bernard usually seems timid and ineffectual, his urge to dominate others emerges when he’s around men to whom he feels unequivocally superior, or whom he feels certain he can get away with exploiting.
Ashok begins to muse on all the “useful things” the British have given India. Bernard approves of this show of gratitude, but becomes uneasy when Ashok mockingly remarks on different British innovations, like tax and cricket—so much better than things India created itself, like the Taj Mahal. Ashok concludes ironically that he admires Britain’s strong repulsion of the German invasion; he appreciates that the British understand how “dreadful” it is to have “foreign muddy boots stamping all over your soil.”
While Bernard is slow to catch on to Ashok’s irony, the Indian man delivers a scathing indictment of British hypocrisy. Pointing out that British innovations pale beside Indian traditions, like the Taj Mahal, he emphasizes the inconsistency of fighting to maintain national sovereignty even while imposing foreign rule on other countries. While Ashok is ostensibly talking about German boots, it’s clear he’s actually referring to the British presence in India.
Meanwhile, Bernard is telling Ashok to be quiet because he sees smoke rising from the camp and wants to discern what’s happening. Ashok converses with Arun in their native language, and Bernard realizes they’re talking about him. Bernard is offended because he realizes they’re recalling the time when all the men were showering in a monsoon rains and Bernard got soaped up just as the skies cleared—a story that still embarrasses him. He orders the men to stop talking.
Just as when Pierpont tormented him before, Bernard begins to dislike the men even more because he’s worried that they’re exposing a moment of weakness. Because he feels anxious about his own character, he immediately becomes harsher toward the men, showing how much his insecurities inform his behavior.
Suddenly, two men from Bernard’s unit arrive in a hurry and tell him that his barracks in on fire. Knowing that Maxi is still inside, he runs from the hanger to the burning building.
Despite his many flaws, Bernard is occasionally capable of surprising courage; moments like these are reminders of the contrast between Bernard’s selfishness and his deep attachment to a few loved ones.