Wednesday, June 25, 2008

From the Shelves of the Paco Library

To the extent he is remembered at all, these days, John Masters is probably best known as a popular novelist (his Bhowani Junction was made into a movie in 1956, starring Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger).

But he was also an officer in the British Indian Army, and his memoir, Bugles and a Tiger, is a fascinating look at his service on the Northwest Frontier between the world wars, as well as an act of homage to his beloved Gurkha troops.

As you might expect, one of the book’s aspects that most strongly appeals to me is the gold mine of hugely amusing anecdotes, of which the following two incidents are characteristic examples:

“He was the colonel of an Indian battalion, and after a celebration…his officers had been aroused in the early hours by cries of agony from his room. His second-in-command and dearest friend rushed to his room, along with others, and found him in bed, white but now calm, his forehead beaded with sweat. He had even forgotten his numerous affectations and said simply, ‘Pete, you’ll have to send for the doctor. Take over command. I’m paralyzed from the waist down’.

He sobbed a little. His officers went away, silent in the face of his affliction, to fetch the doctor. The doctor came and pulled back the bedclothes. He bowed his head for a moment while his face changed from its soothing professional calm to the rich, suffused purple of suppression – he was only a captain. Then he pointed down. George had both feet in one leg of his pajamas.”

* * *

“A Gurkha rifleman escaped from a Japanese prison in south Burma and walked six hundred miles alone through the jungles to freedom. The journey took him five months, but he never asked the way and he never lost the way. For one thing he could not speak Burmese, and for another he regarded all Burmese as traitors. He used a map, and when he reached India he showed it to the Intelligence officers, who wanted to know all about his odyssey. Marked in pencil were all the turns he had taken, all the roads and trail forks he had passed, all the rivers he had crossed. It had served him well, that map. The intelligence officers did not find it so useful. It was a street map of London.”

Bugles and a Tiger is a first-rate historical page-turner.

(Editor’s note: The photo is of an old Philco radio cabinet from, I believe, the 1940’s that I bought at a neighbor’s yard sale for 15 bucks. I refinished it and with the help of Mrs. Paco made shelves for it, so that it now has a second life as one of my favorite bookcases)


the_real_jeffs said...

Nice bookshelf! Those old radio cabinets were pretty classy. A nice way to recycle it; repairing the radio would have been a touch harder.

Anonymous said...

Be careful about the amount of recycling, Paco, you don't want to get a reputation as a greenie.


Paco said...

The radio part was already gone when I bought the thing; I think my neighbor used the cabinet when she was in college just to stack books in. I thoroughly enjoyed refinishing it, though. I've refinished some other items of furniture we have, too, and I find that I really like doing that.

If you click on the photo, you get an enlarged version, and you can see a little knob on the front near the top. There's a hinged cover that lifts up, and I've got some books in the upper compartment, also.

RebeccaH said...

I remember reading Bhowani Junction while I was still in high school (I picked it off the library shelf because I had seen the movie as a child). As I recall, the movie wasn't all that faithful to the book, but I could be wrong. That was a long, long time ago.

Lovely recycling. We've done a fair bit of rescuing and refinishing ourselves. What I wish I had is my grandmother's old stand-up radio. It was a Wurlitzer, believe it or not, and It looked like a juke box, and was almost as big (well, maybe not quite, because I was pretty short in those days).

the_real_jeffs said...

Ah, yes, I see the compartment! IIRC, this was a feature on some of the old style cabinet radios.

And I realize that this blog is going to be expensive to read; I've already ordered a couple books based on your recommendation, paco. Now I see I'll have to get another one, now that I finally finished this one.

TW: werfgi

Sounds like a great idea!

Steve Skubinna said...

trjs, I believe Werfgi was one of Beowulf's retainers. Unless he was a companion to Gimli, son of Gloin. If you don't have a copy already, find Seamus Heaney's recent translation, it's well worth it.

Incidentally, there is a Tolkein/Beowulf connection, in case you're not geeky enough to know it. Heaney describes it in his preface.

Skeeter said...

Your photo takes me back to when my two siblings and I used to sit on the floor up against a similar "wireless". There was always a struggle to determine who was sitting closest to the speaker for our favourite serials each evening.
In those pre hi-fi days, radios in sturdy wooden cabinets were known for their "lovely tone".

Thank you for introducing me to John Masters. I am going to enjoy reading his books.

nic said...

try a number of books by George Macdonald Fraser, firstly his war biography 'quartered straight out of here', an account of a boy soldier in Burma in WWII, as well as his Flashman series, particularly the two set during sikh uprisings in the 19th century.

Paco said...

Nic: I think I've read all of Fraser's books, except for his non-fiction work on the border reivers. There's nobody better for fast-paced historical fiction, that's for sure.

cac said...

Bhowani Junction is of course all about the Anglo-Indian experience. One thing I only recently discovered when reading a biography of Masters was that he was actually Anglo-Indian himself but in the India of the 1930s this was something he kept quiet - there's an oblique reference to this in Bugles where he refers to his father as "mysteriously suntanned". A lot of his works read somewhat differently in the light of this knowledge.

RebeccaH said...

cac, as Ava Gardner wailed in the movie per her half-caste persona: "Chi-Chi! Blacky-white!"

Which made her Indian mother cry.

Odd, what you remember about old movies.

Minicapt said...

1. You neglect the soldier tweeking the camel's balls.

2. Also the soldier kicked by a mule.


Paco said...

Captain: It won't do to give 'em all away!

Minicapt said...

The really salacious ones are in "Road Past Mandelay" ...


cac said...

I find "The Road Past Mandalay" very different, as I suspect Masters intended. Gone is the light hearted business of being a junior subaltern, replaced by the very grim business of senior command in hand to hand combat with the Japanese in Burma. The scene where Masters, commanding a Chindit Brigade, finally orders a retreat and has to order 20 of the most seriously wounded shot rather than leave them for the Japanese I still find heart rending each time I read it.

Boy on a bike said...

The TV that we had when I was a kid was in a cabinet not too dissimilar to this. Lovely piece of work.

Wimpy Canadian said...

What did you do with teh Philco radio works?

Wimpy Canadian said...

OK I see my Q has already been answered.

CAC, the British relationship with India was not all crushing and destroying imperialism, that was the Moguls.

When the British first arrived, in the form of East India Company traders, they were actively encouraged to merge and marry into the local population. That was the 17th century.

cac said...

Wimpy Canadian "CAC, the British relationship with India was not all crushing and destroying imperialism, that was the Moguls."

Quite agree and I think you may have misinterpreted my comments. However, even those who think the Raj was on balance good (which includes me and an apparently increasing number of Indians) would have to concede there was an unfortunate amount of racism. But as you note, that's not how it started.

At the risk of pre-empting, yet again, our host's reading material, can I recommend "The White Moghuls" by William Dalrymple which is about the time (pre 1800) when British officers married Indian women and their children were educated in both cultures. Unfortunately shortly afterwards, for various reasons, mixed race children started to become ineligible for commissions etc. It's interesting to speculate about what might have happened otherwise - perhaps India ruled by an Anglo-Indian ruling caste rather than officials from the UK.