I came across Bhowani Junction years ago, in the shape of the spectacular 1956 MGM film starring Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger and directed by George Cukor. I guess I first saw it on Sunday afternoon television, watching with my mother who was a great film fan and brought me up to be the same. The dramatic title above is taken from a tie-in paperback of the novel, and a poster for the movie is even stronger: ‘Love, lust and violence in the last days of British India’.
It was years before I read the novel, by John Masters (1914-1983), on which the film is based, and I did that only because I am interested in the translation of books into films (in this case, as so often, there is a major plot change). The novel is available second-hand and there is a Kindle edition but I am betting that it is not much read now. John Masters was in his day a popular author of often historical epics set in India but is largely forgotten today. Post-colonial fiction is now rightly recognised and its subject matter is fascinating; colonial fiction is often frowned upon, but it can be revealing.
John Masters had long experience of India – a now vanished India, distorted by the British Raj. He was born there, to a British family which served the Raj, and followed its tradition by becoming a soldier in India and Burma. Several of his novels, including Bhowani Junction, tell the story of the Savages, a military family, over the many years they have lived in India, and it seems likely that Masters was drawing in part on his own family history and experiences.
Bhowani Junction is a case in point, with one of its principal characters, Colonel Rodney Savage, commanding a brigade of Gurkhas during WWII and after, just as Masters did. The novel is set in 1946, at the very time when the British are preparing to leave India, but when neither they nor the Indians quite know the time or manner of the leaving. The war is not long over, with the chaos that implies, and all India is agitating for freedom. Everyone is tense. But there are many factions, and the only thing they agree on is ridding themselves of the British. After that, India might become a democracy, a Communist state or be partitioned. All this is seen in the novel, with the various factions arguing and plotting, while the British try to keep the order they have always imposed.
The focus of Bhowani Junction is the Anglo-Indian community (apparently, like many others, John Masters had an Anglo-Indian ancestor). In this context, Anglo-Indian means a person of mixed descent, usually descending from the British on the male and Indian on the female side, and can be traced to the early days of British rule, when there were few British women in India and soldiers settled down with Indian women. Of British and Indian blood, stuck in the middle, Anglo-Indians belonged to neither race. Over the years, they played a major role in the country’s infrastructure (in Bhowani Junction, this means the railways) and, in their isolation, developed a strong sense of community (based on Britain rather than India). There are still Anglo-Indian communities in India but, after independence in 1947, some people chose to emigrate.
As independence comes closer then, the Anglo-Indians in Bhowani Junction are particularly uneasy – the Indians see them as loyal to the British and indeed many do think of Britain as ‘Home’, even though they have never visited and are unlikely to be accepted there. The British see them as a useful underclass, working with them but routinely using racist terms like ‘cheechee’ and ‘blacky-white’ and barring them from British clubs etc.
I felt her taking a good look at me. Her own skin was the same colour as mine, perhaps a little browner, less yellow. We didn’t look like English people. We looked like what we were—Anglo-Indians, Eurasians, cheechees, half-castes, eight-annas, blacky-whites. I’ve heard all the names they call us, but I don’t think about them unless I’m angry.
In turn, Anglo-Indians are appallingly racist about the Indians, and have their own institutions from which Indians are rigidly excluded.
The crew were all Wogs. They like to be called Indians, especially nowadays, but I always call them Wogs in my mind still. … Perhaps I ought to say too that ‘Wogs’ is a word for Indians, and when I say ‘we’ or ‘us’ I mean the Anglo-Indians. Sometimes we’re called Domiciled Europeans. Most of us have a little Indian blood—not much, of course.
That ‘not much, of course’ is the key to the collective Anglo-Indian character.
Bhowani Junction explores the racial conflict through the character of Anglo-Indian Victoria Jones (notice her very British, imperial name). About to leave the wartime army, she has returned to her home town but is posted during the emergency to work temporarily for Colonel Savage. Against the background of local in-fighting, Victoria explores her loyalties through her relationships with the Colonel, a family friend Patrick and the young Sikh Ranjit – in other words, Britain, Anglo-India and India. To whom or which does Victoria belong? What or whom is she willing to betray? Where is her place?
John Masters describes a society which is often repellent. With the occasional exception, Anglo-Indian, British and Indian characters show themselves variously to be venal, malicious, sexist, brutal and violent. One of the British officers, for example, tries to rape Victoria, while some of the Indians are willing to kill their own people in the name of freedom. Contempt for each other and even oneself seems to be the default position, and no-one emerges with much credit. In part, all this is due to the immediate uncertainty about the future which everyone feels, but it is also a consequence of history. This is a shattering portrait of what years of Empire and conquest have done to everyone involved, and at that time at least there is no way for the three communities to come together.
In his dedication (which is in effect to the Anglo-Indian community), John Masters described his novel as a ‘work of history’. He said he tried to give the ‘feel of the times and a sense of historical perspective’. He wrote it less than ten years after the date it is set, which is early for the writing of history. Masters is usually seen now as an apologist for the Raj and no doubt he did have sympathy for it, but the judgement is perhaps too easy, for he does also criticise the people running it. Looking back from a Western viewpoint and over a 70-year period during which India has changed immeasurably, it is hard to say how historically accurate Masters’ fiction is. But as a portrait of an unhappy, tense and rootless community, true or not, it is devastating.