A backward glance

Originally published in 1951, Nightrunners of Bengal, the first novel by John Masters, met with severe criticism due to its imperialist viewpoint and the pictorial depiction of the acts of savagery. Nevertheless, the novel was awarded the American Literary Guild’s ‘Book of the Month’ on publication and received good response from readers. Masters proved himself as a true storyteller with the deep knowledge of historical facts in recreating the horror of 1857.

Set at the time of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the novel introduces the fictional Savage family. The central protagonist, Captain Rodney Savage, is an officer of the 13th Rifles Infantry regiment. Even though extremely devoted to his regiment and its sepoys, Savage does not realise that the Indian soldiers were being driven by fear and resentment to form alliances with local rulers and other conspirators against the rule of the British East India Company. As the rebellion broke out, tension and violence destroyed the peaceful life of the British community in Bengal.

The novel projects the ruthless killing of many British officers of the Bhowani garrison and their families, including the family of Captain Rodney Savage. Surprisingly, Savage escapes the massacre along with his infant son and an English woman, Caroline Langford. Some sympathetic Indian villagers took the trouble of providing shelter to them. Savage  developed  an intense hatred towards all Indians due to betrayal. In this process, he killed his dear friend who happened to be an Indian officer. Gradually, Savage was able to recover as a result of the humanity and tolerance of villagers, and more importantly, his growing love for Caroline. He ultimately joined forces with other Britishers who were trying to suppress the rebellion and desiring to avenge themselves.

In the end, we find Savage fighting against his own former regiment. The thought-provoking title of the novel refers to the messengers who distributed chapatis shortly before the outbreak of the rebellion —  an extremely mysterious historical incident which remains unexplained till date.

Nightrunners of Bengal still remains one of the best novels of John Masters which brings the Raj era alive in the minds of readers. The author’s association with India for many generations enabled him to be truly sympathetic to Indians and also present his characters in a realistic manner. Being the fifth generation Britisher to serve in India, it was quite natural for Masters to develop a close bond with the country which he always considered as his second home. It was true that Masters was a Britisher, but the reader cannot miss the neutral tone of the author portraying the masters and the subjects with equal justice. He unsparingly portrays the mutineers and their overbearing British colonisers. Masters was one of those few Britishers who could understand how the Raj had not only colonised the Indians but also taken away their identity and consciousness. The common Indian was made to feel inferior in every possible way.

The novel contains a sympathetic portrayal of Indians, and at the same time highlights extreme tensions between the Britishers and the local nationalists. Such tensions bring to mind similar situations portrayed by E M Forster in his A Passage to India. The historical episode of 1857 has been brought to the forefront by many writers, but Masters presents a wholesome picture in representing not only the plight of Indians, but also the atrocities committed by the incensed Indian soldiers on several  innocent British women and children.

The first novel in the series, though of course not chronologically, Nightrunners of Bengal, sets the platform for the other books of Masters, mainly involving the Savage family. The author’s fourth novel, Bhowani Junction, was clearly intended as a counterpoint to his first one and the two books are definitely more closely related to each other than the other books dealing with the Savage family.

Nightrunners also play a dominant role in introducing several of the fictional characters like William, Rodney’s father; Sher Dil, William’s butler; Piroo, an ex-thug; Robin Savage, Rodney’s son; and so on, who feature in the later novels of the author. Simple narrative structure and graphic description, combined with an excellent command over the language seem to be the hallmark of Masters’ prose and even after 60 years, the Nightrunners creates an everlasting impact in the minds of readers by bringing alive an honest representation of the Raj. A must-read for those who are interested in giving a backward glance!

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