I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.
Nightrunners of Bengal – John Masters, 1951
This interesting and colorful historical novel is based on a revolt in India in 1857. It was written by John Masters who was born in Calcutta in 1914 and soldiered for fourteen years in the Indian army, a member of the fifth generation of his family to serve in India. When academics have bothered to notice him as a writer who achieved popular success, they criticize him for being unsympathetic to Indians and not critical enough of Empire. One professor in 1971 criticized Masters’ use in this novel of
… the various tried-and-true elements of the Victorian period's imperial melodrama: a revolt-fomenting "holy man" (leprous, as it happens); shadowy, duplicitous sepoy conspirators; raped and mutilated bodies of British women; and finally, a grim and atrocious act of retributive justice - more precisely, a gruesomely detailed "blowing away from guns" of rebel ringleaders.
It should be noted here that "blown from cannon" was a traditional Mughal punishment in which captured rebels were tied over the mouths of cannons and blown to pieces when the guns were fired. When this book was published in 1951, book reviewers in newspapers deplored the grisly depiction of scenes such as this. I must concede the point. Even for me, quite graphic were the scenes that featured the savagery during the night the revolt began and the British and the Rebels’ going toe to toe in the battle of Gondwara.
Anyway, now that the obvious is out of the way and we’ve made allowances for novelists that were writing under the burden of their own prejudices and notions and not illuminated by our enlightened 2015 philosophies, let’s focus on the central character. Captain Rodney Savage, of the Bengal Native Infantry regiment, is stationed in the city of Bhowani, a fictionalized version of the town of Jhansi. He is restless with garrison life, low pay, and slow promotions but feels devoted to his regiment and its Indian soldiers (sepoys). He is unhappy in his marriage. His wife Joanna’s method of contraception is abstinence and she spends money quickly in order to keep up with the other expatriate wives. Masters’ portrayal of complacent, bigoted, dull Anglo-Indian life is scathing and will be enjoyed by a reader who liked a similar description of that narrow culture in J. K. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur.
When the revolt starts, Savage feels especially betrayed because he took for granted that the sepoys felt as loyal to him as he felt to them and so he didn’t see the revolt coming at all. Most of the British officers and troops of the Bhowani garrison and their families (including Savage's wife) are murdered in their beds on the first night of the revolt or are tracked down and slaughtered. As I mentioned above, this strong meat would not be for every reader.
With his two-year-old injured son Robin and two English women, Savage escapes the massacre. He is helped by Piroo, a former Thuggee (hired killer) who was almost hanged by Savage’s father in the 1830s. Among many other services, Piroo kills a rebel to procure Savage a hat for a disguise. The refugees are sheltered and fed by poor Indian villagers who are impressed by the two English women. Proto-feminist Caroline Langford is respected for her medical knowledge (she nursed with Ms. Nightingale in Scutari). And Mrs. Hatch is respected for her down to earth readiness to deal with anything that comes her way – born and determined to survive as we’d expect in a Cockney.
Savage suffers PTSD after the rebellion, becoming clinically paranoid and anxious. The women have to get over their sense of loss and shock because they have people to take care of. Caroline and Mrs. Hatch have both Robin and Savage to nurse back to physical and mental health.
The book puts the protagonists through many rousing adventures, making the book well worth reading for those into break-outs, chases, and fight scenes. Captain Rodney Savage survives to right another day. In a short scene, he puts in a cameo appearance as quite an old guy in The Ravi Lancers, a novel of Indian troops in the trenches on the Western Front in 1915.