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Some Books Never Get Old: John Masters

I have just finished reading for the second time (courtesy of blocks of time provided by Covid 19) the three volumes of John Masters autobiography: Bugles and a Tiger (1956), The Road to Mandalay (1961), and The Pilgrim son (1971). I first read these books after being guided to them by an equally minded book fiend many years ago. Because they are an autobiography, they can be read as history and so in that sense are not dated. He has written all told, more than twenty novels and seven non-fiction, but for me, his books with India as the background and especially the raj, have never been surpassed. Bhowani Junction, Night Runners of Bengal, The Lotus and the Wind, Coromandel, should be on any Indian afficionados bucket reading list.

John Masters was born in Kalkota, India, the son of British lieutenant general. After graduation from Wellington College in Berkshire, he went to Sandhurst (the British West Point) in 1933 at the age of eighteen. He was commissioned into the 4th Gurkha Rifles, in time to take part in some of the last campaigns on the turbulent north-west frontier of India (present day Pakistan/Afghanistan). He was the fifth generation of his family to serve his country in India and grew up amid the echoes of the world Rudyard Kipling had immortalized. At the age of 33, he attained the rank of brigadier. His depiction of garrison life, combat and campaigning on the North-West Frontier has never been surpassed. Masters’ story of shooting a tiger provides the basis of why the Gurkhas called him “the man that shot the tiger.” He was very much a soldier before he became a bestselling novelist.

BUGLES AND A TIGER is a matchless evocation of the British Army in India on the eve of the Second World War. Still very much the army depicted in the writings of Kipling, it stands on the threshold of a war that will transform the world.

Masters comes off as quite lonely through his youth and early career, speaking very little of family or friends. By tradition, children of colonial military families are sent back to the UK for schooling to be instilled with the proper class consciousness, moral deportment, and loyalty to the empire. He had already gone “native” it seems and didn’t appreciate the games of the aristocracy. Awkward and shy, he took to literature for escape and achievement in the Wellington boarding school, and at Sandhurst used his smarts to compensate for modest physical prowess and manly grit. When it came time to pick a permanent placement, he already knew he wanted to serve with an Indian regiment instead of a regular British unit. When he picked the 4th Gurkhas (and they picked him as part of the process), he didn’t know how much joining their society would abate his long sense of isolation. His regard and respect for these people extraordinary people permeates the book.

He writes with perspicacious detachment on growing up, on becoming a man, on valor and discipline and honor, and has a lot of interesting commentary both positive and negative regarding the British rule of India. There is no whitewashing here. The book is also full of charming and lurid anecdotes on the life of the memsahib in India, the trysts of the soldiers, the foibles of the officers, and detailed description and admiration for the hardiness of the Gurkha troops. The book is sparse in its purely military aspects: it’s big on the customs and polish of Indian Army officers’ codes. A more pertinent and topical issue is the tantalizing glimpse he provides of the martial attributes of the nomadic Afghan fighters – Pathans, mostly – they fought against on the eve of WWII.

Stylistically, Masters has a remarkable gift of words and uses his skill to vividly detail the countries, customs, behavior and war fighting tactics of tribesmen and armies of India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Waziristan. ‘Buggles’ is an easy, fascinating and entertaining read. The Indian writer Khushwant Singh “remarked that while Kipling understood India, John Masters understood Indians.”

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