M for Masters

I guess we are influenced by the environment in which we are brought up in. For the first time in this series, I use a letter for an author who was one of my favourites as I grew up. He is John Masters who wrote a series of books about India under the British Raj which he served as an officer in the British Indian Army of those times. 

In those days it was the tradition for many young Englishmen particularly with family links to India to serve in the Army. They came out to India to officer the troops here. Masters was one such. He served with the 4th Prince of Wales Own Gurkha Rifles after he graduated in 1933 from Sandhurst the famous institution which prepared young men for a career in the Army.

Masters wrote “Bugles And A Tiger”  in 1956 which was autobiographical and spoke of his Army years in India. I felt he was one of the few British authors of that time who captured the essence of India, the sights and smells, in his descriptions of life here. Later the Second World War broke out and Masters fought in Burma as part of Field Marshal William Slim’s 14 th Army, often called the “Forgotten Amy”. His experiences were captured in another book he wrote in 1961 called  “The Road Past Mandalay”. Masters had fought the Japanese in the jungles of Burma and served under Gen. Orde Wingate who was a very colourful character.

After the War ended, it was clear that it was a matter of time before the glorious British Raj would fold up.  Masters was then a Lt. Col. He retired and subsequently settled in the US where he began his career as a prolific writer. The first part of his writings were inevitably set in India but much later he did write a trilogy about the First World War in Europe. This was in the late 70s and early 80s.

The book that I enjoyed especially was ” Bhowani Junction”. It captured so beautifully the struggles of the Anglo-Indian community just before India became independent. For long the loyal followers of the British in India, this community had to come to terms with themselves in a new India that would no longer give them pride of place, second only to the British.

As an author, I must confess I was very much influenced by Masters. In my book It Can’t Be You, I have followed the same model adopted by him in Bhowani Junction which is largely in the first person narrative. There Col. Savage, Victoria Jones and Patrick Taylor tell their stories in their own words. I have of course read most of his other books, prominent amongst them being ” Nightrunners of Bengal” and “The Deceivers”.

It was by reading Masters, amongst others, that gave me a liking for the military that has stayed with me for life. I am often asked how I chose to write about a career officer in the the Indian Army when I am not an Army man myself. The answer lies in the interest created in the Army thanks to books by Masters and others like him.

That era has gone. It will never return. But for those of us who love India, the writings of John Masters give great perspective of life in those distant times.

7 thoughts on “M for Masters

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