Wednesday, February 24, 2010
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
The place is India, the year, 1857. In the first few months of this year of destiny, a number of strange events has officials of the East India Company baffled: the friendly rajah of Kishanpur has been assassinated (to all appearances, by his wife); a guru sits beneath a tree in the town of Bhowani, uttering dark prophesies; above all, there is the mystery of the nightrunners, native men who move along the jungle trails and across the dry plains, from city to village to cantonment, carrying chupatis, small unleavened wheatcakes that serve as a sign, inscrutable to the English, of a conspiracy that is rapidly reaching the point of its terrible fruition.
John Masters, whose biographical Bugles and a Tiger I reviewed in an earlier Shelves feature, takes up the Sepoy Rebellion in his novel, Nightrunners of Bengal. It is an incisive fictional treatment of the tangled relationship of England and India in the mid-19th century, a fascinating look at the clash of cultures and the combination of ignorance, cupidity, ambition, and divided loyalties that came together at a moment in history to create a whirlwind of horror and destruction - but a moment that also led to astounding displays of courage, determination, generosity and self-sacrifice, among both the English and native Indians.
The story centers on Rodney Savage, captain in a regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry based in a cantonment near the fictional town of Bhowani. Upon the assassination of the Rajah of Kishanpur, he is ordered to make a show of force in the independent princedom, where he is beguiled by the Rajah’s widow (the Rani). He both fears and admires her, and strongly suspects that she is the author of her husband’s death. She eventually offers him the command of her army, going so far as to physically seduce him, but he ultimately turns down her offer.
Returning to Bhowani, Savage is caught up in the tedious rounds of life in a cantonment, filled with the malicious gossip of its womenfolk, the heavy drinking, the sense of purposelessness, the ennui somewhat ameliorated by the pride he has in his regiment of sepoys. He is plagued by the attentions of an earnest, forward and (apparently) priggish young woman named Caroline Langford, who has come out to India to visit, and whose eagerness to understand the country greatly tries his patience, largely because she asks intelligent questions about the larger picture of the relationship between Britain and India that he has ceased to think about (he will later come to see her in a much different light, as he witnesses her compassion and selfless hard work during an outbreak of cholera).
While life on the surface continues as usual, there are all kinds of ominous portents. Rumors abound among the sepoys that the new cartridges they have been issued are greased with pig and cow fat, the strange nightrunners with their chupatis are fanning out through central India, and a small wagon train of weapons bound for Kishanpur is discovered by accident after a wild, late-night horserace by drunken English officers.
When the blow finally comes, the English are taken completely by surprise. On May 10, the sepoys mutiny, killing all of the English they can find - men, women and children. Rodney’s wife is bayoneted, his young son severely injured and left for dead, his fellow officers and their families cut down before his eyes, the cantonment is burned. He and his son are helped to escape by two sepoys who refused to join the mutiny, and he later meets up with Caroline Langford and Piroo, a wiry little native carpenter and “retired” assassin of the thuggee cult. Together, they recuperate at a village, where they experience the pity and hospitality of the natives who are as horrified by the rebellion as they are. They eventually make their way to the city of Gondwara, where a small force of Queen’s troops and a loyal detachment of Bengal cavalry prepare to meet the onslaught of the mutineers.
The novel is rich in period detail, possesses an exciting plot, and delves far more deeply into the psychology of the principal actors and the turbulent relations between Britain and India than can be conveyed in a brief summary such as this, so get hold of this book and treat yourself to a great read.