Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Just Read: "Nightrunners of Bengal" by John Masters

Nightrunners of Bengal by John Masters, 1951.

Very good book. I read a reference to this novel somewhere. I may have seen it when reading about Allan Mallinson's novels, a couple of which, like Nightrunners, are set in India.

John Masters wrote a series of India novels including The Deceivers, which seems to be his most famous. Masters was born in India and served in the Gurkha Rifles against the Japanese in Burma.

Nightrunners is set in Central India during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. The main focus of the story is the relationship between the English and Indians. The two sides share their lives in such close proximity but are distinctly separate. The English army officers have close relationships with the Sepoy soldiers but the civilians have little interaction outside of their boss-employee relationships. The separateness was enough for plotters to convince the Sepoys that the British were out to destroy them and defile both Hindus and Muslims. The plotters needed the Sepoys because the Sepoys' training and arms "held the key" to success.

The main character is Captain Rodney Savage of the East India Company Army and son of the main character in The Deceivers. I know from previous novels set in colonial India (Bernard Cornwell) that advancement in the East India Army was very, very slow for officers. After the Indian Rajahs were defeated by the Company there was little turnover in the officer ranks. After several years of duty Rodney is burning out on the political nonsense of the army and on the petty social battles fought by the officers' wives. That Savage and his wife no longer love one another makes things even worse.

The first half of the story sets the stage for the mutiny in the second half. In the beginning of 1857 Savage and a company of Sepoys are sent from Bwohani to Kishanpur, a self-governing neighboring kingdom, to assist after the rajahs death. As Rodney says:

"We the Company can't permit the endless succession-murders and civil wars that there used to be in the states. We don't allow any rajah to mount the gaddi until we have recognized him as the lawful heir to his state. Then we've forbidden many states including Kishanpur to have a big army; it might be dangerous. Well, when we prevent a rajah from defending himself, we have to undertake to do it for him and we do."

Savage and his company spend a couple months in Kishanpur keeping the peace and training the royal bodyguard. Rodney grows a close relationship with the rani, the dead rajah's wife and current ruler, and has a one night stand with her just before he leaves town. Receiving a job offer to be the rani's general Savage turns down the wealth and authority to stay with his British friends and colleagues.

On return to Bwohani Savage comes across a man running through the night with a cryptic message meant for another town. The messenger says he must deliver the message or risk the wrath of Shiva. This draws the Sepoys' attention and fear and the novel follows Savage and the growing anxiety of the Sepoys to the night of May 10th when almost all of the British - women and children too - are savagely and barbarously murdered in the middle of the night by Sepoys. Rodney and his young son Robin are saved by two loyal Sepoys and escape town through the aid of another Indian. Traveling to Kishanpur, Rodney and other British survivors are imprisoned by the rani and only Rodney, his son, and two others escape. Traveling through the jungle and lodging in a friendly village Rodney fights the madness brought on by the rebellion, a cholera epidemic in the village, attacks a rebel arms depot, and then participates in the final battle at Gondwara.

A really good story and well written.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you seen "The siege of Krishnapur" by JG Farrell?

Also deals with the Indian mutiny with a different point of view. Makes fun of some of the British attitudes of the time - some even call the book Marxist.

One person I knew struggled with it but others say it's the best book ever - and there is certainly a beautiful reading of it (by Tim Piggott-Smith) available. Highly recommended