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)