There are many wonderful, interesting, absorbing novels that have slipped off the radar of popular books. One of them is Bhowani Junction, by John Masters.
Perhaps the name was just too difficult to pronounce, but it never seemed to receive the attention it deserved.
John Masters was born in Calcutta, India. The fifth generation of his family to have served in India. After being educated in England he returned to India in 1934 and joined the Prince of Wales’s Own Gurkha Rifles, then serving on the North-West Frontier.
The partition of India was set forth in the Indian Independence Act 1947 and resulted in the dissolution of the British Indian Empire and the end of the British control. It resulted in a struggle between the newly constituted states of India and Pakistan and displaced up to 12.5 million people with estimates of loss of life varying from several hundred thousand to a million.
The violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of mutual hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan. This is the background to the novel. The story is related first-hand in three separate narratives by the main figures: Patrick Taylor, Victoria Jones, and Rodney Savage. It is through their eyes that we see some of the personal and social problems of modern India.
From Wikipedia: “The book is set in 1946/1947, shortly before India gained independence. Victoria is an Anglo-Indian, the daughter of a railwayman. Patrick, also an Anglo-Indian, considers himself her boyfriend, but her feelings towards him have become ambivalent since her experience of British Army culture.
In vigorously defending herself from a British army officer who is attempting to rape her, Victoria unintentionally kills him. She is persuaded not to report the matter by a subordinate of Patrick’s, a Sikh, Ranjit, who hopes to marry her and whose family and friends help her to avoid detection.”
Victoria finds the Anglo-Indian community too restrictive. She joined the British Army during the Second World War, but now that it has ended she returns home. But she is no better off, because it is clear the British are preparing to leave India, she is not English, so she decides to marry Ranjit and move into Indian society. She is not comfortable with the Sikhs and becomes involved with a British Officer, Rodney Savage, commander of a Gurkha battalion. They become lovers during the end of the British rule, but their relationship is doomed to fail when it dawns on her that her origins, race, culture suit her only to be an Anglo-Indian.
The theme of the novel is the isolation of the Anglo-Indian society; they will never be accepted as English, nor accepted as Indian. The cultural and racial gaps are too wide, and all the groups are racists, whether it is the Indian cast system or a British one.
It is not only the physical aspects of the story that make it interesting. The use of multiple first-person accounts gives the novel the ability to shock the reader. Each section presents their side of the story, which looks astoundingly different from the previous viewpoint. It is like reading Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, the panels sliding effortlessly aside to present a totally different view of events, characters, and emotions.
Each character, tells their story so convincingly that we do not suspect that there could be a different side to the events we are witnessing. Not until the end, when we start to know Patrick Taylor’s idiosyncrasies.
This is a story rich with interesting characters, beautifully written, with a background set in a period of revolution. A lost Gem.