Book review by George Simmers:
The opening paragraphs tell us what to expect:
The men who govern India—more power to them and her!—are few. Those who stand in their way and pretend to help them with a flood of words are a host. And from the host goes up an endless cry that India is the home of thugs, and of three hundred million hungry ones.
The men who know—and Athelstan King might claim to know a little—answer that she is the original home of chivalry and the modern mistress of as many decent, gallant, native gentlemen as ever graced a page of history.
Athelstan King is not a standard Indian army officer. He is a taciturn loner who chews black cheroots and does his own thing. It is 1914, and all the other Army officers are scrambling for transfers to the Expeditionary Force in France, where a real war is happening. King is not interested, and a senior officer wonders:
“White feather? Laziness? Dark Horse?”
“Dark Horse” is the answer, because King knows he has work to do in India. Like John Buchan’s Greenmantle (also published in 1916) King of the Khyber Rifles is a novel of adventure based on the idea that the Turks might try to inflame Muslims into a jihad against the British Empire. (The book is available free, by the way, from Project Gutenberg.)
King begins his one-man mission to save the Empire in Delhi, among a crowd that is an ‘intoxicating splurge of colour, din and smell’;
Threading his way in and out among the motley swarm with a great black cheroot between his teeth and sweat running into his eyes from his helmet-band, Athelstan King strode at ease—at home—intent—amused—awake—and almost awfully happy. He was not in the least less happy because perfectly aware that a native was following him at a distance.
We learn that the key to the situation is a mysterious woman called Yasmini, supposedly in Delhi at the moment, but based beyond the Khyber pass, in the wild Afghan hills. If she supports the call for jihad, it will happen; if not, not. Yasmini is contradictory. She tries to have Athelstan King stabbed, but that may just be a test, because she also entices him, puts him in the care of Ismail, a servant, and gives him a golden bracelet that will ensure his safety among her followers.
With a troupe of her followers that he has liberated from prison, King heads north to the wild and perilous hills.
Khyber-mouth is haunted after dark by the men whose blood-feuds are too reeking raw to let them dare go home and for whom the British hangman very likely waits a mile or two farther south.
King stains his face dark brown, and disguises himself as a native hakim, or medicine man. His name is Kurrum Khan. He and his followers reach the strongly fortified mountain city of Khinjan. You are only allowed in if you have killed a man. Kurrum Khan the hakim is asked who he has killed:
“I slew an Englishman!” The boast made his blood run cold, but his expression was one of sinful pride.
“Whom? When? Where?”
“Athelstan King—a British arrficer—sent on his way to these ‘Hills’ to spy!”
“Where is his body?”
“Ask the vultures! Ask the kites!”
He is allowed in to the huge walled city and soon joins a huge crowd watching a hundred dancers performing a wild dance with swords. In the audience is the mullah who is going to lead the jihad, Muhammad Anim, ‘a man with a big black beard, whose shoulders are like a bull’s’. Then Yasmini appears and begins dancing. She is:
more lovely than he had imagined her even in his dreams—she stood there, human and warm and real, who had begun to seem a myth, clad in gauzy transparent stuff that made no secret of sylph-like shapeliness
At length King is admitted to the most secret part of the city. Under the floor of the city’s great mosque is an entrance to the caves. Here Yasmini, who has guessed that he is not a hakim, takes him to show the greatest secret. In a vast chamber two dead bodies, perfectly preserved, lie on a bed. One looks exactly like Yasmini; the other, dressed in the uniform of a Roman soldier, is the image of King. He had been stabbed. King is shown a magic mirror with a sort of silent movie of what went wrong two thousand years before. Now, it is implied, the pair are reincarnated. Yasmini explains that she and King together could conquer all India.
But of course for King the British Empire means more than personal power. He narrowly escapes with his life (again – I’ve read few novels with more narrow escapes). He gathers men that he has been cultivating – ex-soldiers whom he has told that there a wartime amnesty for deserters, with free pardons for all who return to the colours. One Indian ex-soldier ponders the joy of this:
“A pardon and leave to swagger through the bazaars again and make trouble with the daughters and wives of fat traders—a pardon—Allah! It would be good to salute the karnal sahib again and see him raise a finger, thus; and to have the captain sahib call me a scoundrel—or some worse name if he loves me very much, for the English are a strange race—”
When King escapes the city, he thinks that Yasmini’s men will soon be joining the brutish mullah in jihad. Not so. Yasmini joins King, and sends a signal to detonate the city’s dynamite store. A spectacular explosion obliterates the city and all the jihadis too.
You can definitely read the novel as an allegory of British rule in India. British and Moslems are battling for the hand of the infinitely desirable, but unpredictable and wayward India. The British will only deserve to keep power if they are as attuned to local ways, like King. He understands the culture and speaks many local languages (finally escaping the mullah because he can read and write Urdu, which the mullah can’t). King is able to blend in as an Indians; only Yasmini sees through his disguise – and she may have been tipped off about it. Crucially, he is able to disguise his feelings; he does not even react when he is given his own brother’s severed head to hold. This is an essential part of the Imperial myth – that the British deserve to control others because they can control themselves.
The idea that the future of India lies with Englishmen who know the country well enough to be taken for Indians was the essence of Kipling’s Kim (1902), and Mundy imitates Kipling in various ways, including little verses of Kiplingesque rhyme at the start of each chapter. When the book gets supernatural, the influence of Rider Haggard seems evident.
The book moves quickly from one exciting incident to another, and keeps on offering surprises, even at the end.
The book seems to have been a best-seller. Mundy wrote several other books, some about Africa. The one I want to read is Hira Singh : When India Came to Fight in Flanders. (1917) This is about an Indian regiment captured in Flanders, and sent as prisoners to Turkey, from where they escape and make their way back to India.
King of the Khyber Rifles was filmed twice. First as The Black Watch, an early talkie directed by John Ford. I’ve not seen this, but I’d like to. Myrna Loy plays Yasmini.
Then, in 1953 King of the Khyber Rifles, starring Tyrone Power, was one of the first CinemaScope spectaculars. Apart from the title and Khyber Pass setting, though, this film has little in common with Mundy’s novel. It is set in the 1850s, and King has the much less exciting Christian name of Alan. He is of mixed race, and shunned by the other officers until he quells an uprising led by his half-brother. Then he marries the colonel’s daughter, who is sweet, but not nearly as exciting as the glorious Yasmini.
There seems to be the role of Afghanistan as well and this is both a constant stone in the shoes of all would-be conquerors and the still unsolved crux of the fights of today. Of course, Moslems may be said to be Afghanistan. But country and inhabitants have always been a stumbling block from Alexander the Great until Russia, through the British Empire, a danger for India, and back again a stumbling block to the USSR and the Western Countries.
It is nowadays very common to say that this kind of novel describes its time and gives us keys to doors that had been left aside by the literary canon. They reveal also a continuity (particularly in this case) of some situations. All right, the British Empire is gone but it has been replaced by a coalition of countries and India has been impressed with the mark of the Empire. And Afghanistan remains a problem because its civilisation and culture have not/could not have been infiltrated and understood.
A most revealing book.
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