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Patrick Mercer, John Masters, Daniel Macklin

Mastering the Mutiny

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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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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 contentedly, delighting in the knowledge that their efforts will please the children of the European officers. Now, however, something is wrong – the men are sulky and uncooperative. Savage’s shock at his men’s truculence is beautifully drawn. The tension builds as it is revealed that chapattis carried by terrified runners, who are ignorant of their hidden message, have been intercepted by the intelligence department, and that pieces of meat are being passed from hand to hand: ‘Three pieces of goat’s flesh, with the skin still on them and the hair and outer layers scraped off, so that they’re shining white on one side and raw red flesh on the other. One piece is always large, one a little smaller, and the other very small.’ They are a code for the white men, women and children who are to be butchered, just as the goats have been. Savage himself speaks the local language fluently and understands local customs. So he is able to talk freely to everyone and to grasp better than any of his contemporaries why the rumours of the overthrow of the British may turn into reality. He also has a complex relationship with the mystic Silver Guru – a former British soldier who has gone native and become a soothsayer. In fact, Jhansi was a long way from the main centres of the rebellion when it broke out in June 1857, first at Meerut and then in towns across the northern Gangetic plain and central India. The Europeans in Jhansi thought their isolation from the roiling horror of the blood-letting in places such as Lucknow and Cawnpore would be their salvation. So they were taken completely by surprise when the 12th Bengal Native Infantry rose up against its officers and ritually slaughtered almost every man, woman and child. Indeed, the killings in Jhansi became a byword for treachery in Victorian society, and the well down which the murdered bodies were thrown was carefully preserved after the Mutiny had been suppressed. Masters perfectly captures that sense of shock. Certainly, there have been hints of trouble from some of the more outspoken sepoys, but nothing that can’t be sorted out – or so the British think. However, when a fire is deliberately started in the soldiers’ lines and the white officers rush to take control, matters soon take a very different turn. The commanding officer Colonel Bulstrode can’t understand what’s amiss: he calls out to the men of his regiment by name.

Rodney had never seen sepoys behave so stupidly. They turned their heads this way and that, as if looking for somebody; their faces shone in the irregular glare, and were dark and frightened. They had become strangers, Hottentots, and there was no way of making contact with them.

Masters conveys the increasing dismay of the officers as they see their faithful, trusted men turning into monsters.

All the 88th were firing – the sepoys in the crowd and the sepoys on the guardroom veranda . . . He saw a naik shoot Colonel Bulstrode in the back. A spatter of shots struck Cornet Jimmy Waugh, and he knelt down and died. A scarlet octopus of arms pulled Max Bell off the veranda. The arms rose and fell, the bayonets flashed. Others fired in the air; all shouted an incoherent crazy chant.

Then, as mass lunacy takes hold, the whole pace of the story changes. Ordered, regimented life turns into mayhem as Savage’s unloved wife is bludgeoned to death in front of him and he fleeswith his injured baby son in his arms. All trust has gone. Savage can depend upon no one. Who are his friends and who are now his enemies? At his side is Caroline Langford, the rebellious belle of bungalow life after whom he has long lusted, but there’s an even more interesting contradiction in his other companion. Piroo is neither sepoy nor servant. He is the ageing regimental carpenter who on several occasions saves Savage’s life. But he is also a Thug, a member of an organized gang of assassins who murder their victims by strangling them with a noose. The irony is that Savage’s father had dedicated himself to ridding the country of these murderers. The descriptions of violence jump out with stark simplicity, and here it seems clear that Masters has drawn on his own experiences in Burma in the Second World War. Bullet, bayonet and rifle butt perforate flesh and crunch bone with bloody abandon. But the novel goes much deeper than simple blood and guts, for Masters’ characterization is spellbinding. One of the great figures of the Mutiny was the Rani of Jhansi, a brave and beautiful she-warrior who is still an icon in India today, for she was one of the very few rulers who emerged from that period with her honour intact. Imaginary Bhowani has the same woman at its head and Savage has a complicated relationship with her: we never quite know if she’s at his throat or at his feet. One moment she seems ready to become Savage’s mistress: ‘she opened her arms, stumbled forward and pressed her wet body against him’; while in the next paragraph, she springs back, ‘eyes glittering, lips spitting’, and raises a pistol to shoot him. It’s compelling stuff, a heady cocktail of lust and danger. The bloodshed, the sheer horror of events as formerly trustworthy men turn on their officers drives Savage to the brink of madness. Again, I’m sure this is drawn from life, for Masters witnessed some of the most harrowing episodes of the war against Japan where the fighting was bitter and frequently at very close quarters. At the start of the tale, Savage is noble, compassionate, a natural leader who is loved by his men. But the brutality makes him feral – he kills and kills again, and only Caroline’s humanity saves him from becoming as bad as the blood-drunk mutineers. Masters knows all about fear – his descriptions make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Surprisingly, there are some inaccuracies in the book. A handful of dates are wrong and there is the odd technical slip. And Masters writes about the casual racism of the time with a candour that would be unacceptable today. But neither of these aspects diminishes the skill of the writing. I love this period. It’s an epoch that’s now neglected, often buried by revisionist thinking, but one in which so much happened to change British attitudes in India that it deserves to be written about more. John Masters knows how to make his pen charge and how to make it walk; he knows how to make his readers leap to attention and when to let them stand easy. And, undoubtedly, he is at his best when translating his own experiences into those of his hero. Read this and sweat; read this and understand fear.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 38 © Patrick Mercer 2013


About the contributor

Patrick Mercer has been a regular soldier and a BBC correspondent, and has written three novels. He is now the MP for Newark.

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