When John Masters’ Nightrunners of Bengal was first published in 1951, John Raymond in the Sunday Times described it as ‘the best historical novel about the Indian Mutiny that I have ever read’. In my view he’s right, although the power of the writing makes the subject matter almost irrelevant. As it is, the author has chosen one of the most chaotic and brutal episodes in the history of the British Empire in which to set his story – and he more than does it justice. It’s one of those novels that, once picked up, is almost impossible to put down. I’ve reread it many times and it still leaves me in a cold sweat of fear. It’s an old-fashioned book, written in an old-fashioned way, and it expresses old-fashioned values.
Masters’ family had served in India for several generations and he clearly draws on his forebears’ experience in telling his story. Rodney Savage is an officer in the Honourable East India Company’s Bengal Army, stationed in the fictional town of Bhowani (in reality the capital of the princely state of Jhansi). The book opens in the tranquil heat of a peaceful summer in a garrison town. Here an isolated European community lives side by side with sepoys of a native regiment and Indian princelings, and here the minor domestic troubles of the memsahibs and their children, and the petty envies and jealousies of mid-Victorian life are played out – the whole set against the tensions and frictions of the Indian community.
I love the texture and tempo of the writing. Unlike many modern novelists, Masters takes almost a quarter of the book to build up a picture of fear and unhappiness concealed by the apparently happy relationship between Indian soldiers and white officers. The pace is gentle, but there are hints of impending horror. The annual regimental garden party is about to take place, and Rodney Savage supervises the building of sideshows and amusements. In previous years the sepoys have always worked
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