I read this for the 2014 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations
The Ravi Lancers – John Masters
The premise of this WWI novel is that the Ravi Lancers, the private regiment of an Indian prince, goes to France in the autumn of 1914. This regiment from Ravi, a fictitious Himalayan state is based on fact: an Indian States Force regiment, the Jodhpur Lancers, did fight on the Western Front. After 1915, over a million Indians served with British forces, mainly in Mesopotamia and elsewhere outside Europe.
The two main characters are Prince Krishna Ram and Warren Bateman. Ram is an Anglophile due to a English tutor who was an expatriate teacher in Ravi. The tutor was gay, which was not a big deal in Ravi, but he was shunned once he returned to the UK. I think for a novel written in 1972, having a sympathetic gay character in a war novel was brave decision on the part of the writer.
Bateman is posted to command the Ravi Lancers. With his background in the old Indian Army, he speaks Hindi and enjoys army life, India and Indian people. His relationship with Krishna is at first warm and close. However, after the initial battles of 1915, the end of the war of movement, and the beginning of the stalemate, their relationship goes downhill. Warren becomes more narrow under the stress and exhaustion of battle, holding tightly to old standards as shields against the shock of the new.
Krishna’s experience of the European world tears down his respect for the standards by which the West claims to live. His own experience in the trenches of Picardy provides overwhelming proof for the assertion that Christians do not live by Christian standards. In the clash of military cultures, he comes to value more his native culture’s tolerance of human fallibility and variety (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would not be an issue, for example).
John Masters (1914 - 1983) came from a long line of those gave service in the British Imperial Army. He himself fought in the Burma campaign during WWII. He retired from the military, moved to the US, and wrote many novels about India. As we would expect, when academics have bothered to notice him, they criticize him for being unsympathetic to Indians and not critical enough of Empire. I, on the other hand, feel Masters wrote plausibly and sensitively about elitism, culture shock, battle fatigue and PTSD, anti-gay prejudice, and women choosing their own way.