Rediscover: John Masters

Thirty years after his death, two novels by John Masters have been republished as ebooks by Souvenir Press, introducing Masters’ historical novels to a new generation of readers.

Nightrunners of Bengal, first published in 1951, and Bhowani Junction, first published in 1954, are two of his seven novels which followed several generations of the Savage family serving in the British Army in India. Notable for their treatment of the British Empire in India, these are recognised as classic historical novels which brought India to life in a way which no other writer did at that time.

One Indian novelist, Khushwant Singh, remarked that as E.M. Forster understood India, so Masters understood the Indian people. Drawing on Masters’ own experiences in India (he served in the British Army in India from 1934-1948), the novels explore crucial moments in the history of the British Empire in India.

Nightrunners of Bengal focuses on the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The central character, Captain Rodney Savage, is an officer in a Bengal Native Infantry regiment, based in the fictional city of Bhowani. When rebellion breaks out, the British community in Bengal is shattered. Savage’s empathy for the Indians is shaken, as the British try to discover who is loyal to them and who is not. This was the first novel that Masters wrote in the series, and is one of his best-known works.

Bhowani Junction is set in the wake of the partition of India, as the British prepare to withdraw from the newly independent country. Evoking the tensions and conflicts that accompanied the birth of modern India, the characters struggle to find their place in the new India that is emerging. Bhowani Junction is Masters’ most famous novel, and was made into a film in 1956.

Two of the great novels of India, Nightrunners of Bengal and Bhowani Junction combine John Master’s mastery of story-telling with an intuitive sense of history. Must-reads for anyone with an interest in the history of the British Empire, the British Army, or the British in India.

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