Bhowani Junction: A book review

Amongst the numerous books written about the British colonial era in the Indian Subcontinent, we have the well-known classics like A Passage to India by E.M Forster and books by Rudyard Kipling. However, there is a John Masters too, who after being considered at par with Forster, Kipling and many of his other contemporaries who wrote about similar topics as him for a certain period of time, eventually went out of print and thus became an unrecognised, almost unknown author.

Masters’ novel, Bhowani Junction (1952) is set during the last few years of the British rule in the Indian Subcontinent and the tumultuous atmosphere of those times is incorporated perfectly into the story. The novel is set in a fictional central Indian town of Bhowani which is an important town on the railway network of the surrounding areas. The town boasts a sizeable population of Anglo-Indians, as well as other Indian ethnic groups. As it is a major railway town, it becomes an established centre for commerce, politics and military movement.

The novel is narrated from the point of view of the three protagonists: Patrick Taylor, an Anglo-Indian young man who is a native of Bhowani and works in the railways, Victoria Jones is another Anglo-Indian from the town who had joined the women’s wing of the military during the Second World War and spent about four years in Delhi. Patrick, being the young, conventional man that he is, considers himself to be Victoria’s boyfriend. Victoria, on the other hand, after living and working in Delhi for the last four years, has changed greatly and she constantly experiences certain ambivalence towards Patrick as she receives a severe jolt of reverse culture shock when she returns to her hometown. Shortly after Victoria returns to the town, a Gurkha regiment headed by Colonel Rodney Savage (the third protagonist) arrives in town. Patrick and Victoria are both required to be working with Col. Savage due to their experience in the railways, and specifically in Victoria’s case for her military experience.

The interactions between these three characters are set against a backdrop of a turbulent Indian society where different parties are fighting for power which will go to the natives when the British withdraw from India. So accordingly, we have a railways clerk called Ranjit Kasel who is torn between his job where he is technically working for the British and his politically inclined mother, the Sirdarni Sahiba. He is also torn between adopting his religion of birth, Sikhism and remaining secular. His mother, on the other hand, is intent upon immersing herself with her religion and politics which seem to be becoming one and the same thing at certain points throughout the story. Due to their opposing ideologies, there is a simmering conflict between the two. However, one can also sense the underlying compulsion in Ranjit to submit himself to his mother’s wishes as per the Indian culture. Therefore, when we are introduced to Ranjit in the narrative, it is at a point when he is nearer to resolving his inner ideological-cum-identity conflict by submitting to his mother’s wishes. Of course, the fact that the British are about to leave soon enough and then one will have to assert and engage with his or her “Indian” identity is constantly drummed into Ranjit’s mind by his mother and her political associates.

The action that determines the course of Bhowani Junction’s narrative is, however, based on a slightly different aspect of the political turmoil in the 1940s’ India. Elsewhere in the world, Communism was beginning to spread and it had reached India as well. The British were attempting to have Indian National Congress and/or the Muslim League takeover the country after they left in order to prevent a threat of a takeover conducted by the Communist parties in the country. Masters represents this conflict in his novel through a character called K.P Roy, a “terrorist” with Communist leanings, who does not particularly appear throughout the narrative except once or twice in disguise, which may or may not be apparent to the reader at the first reading. It turns out that Roy is an associate of Ranjit’s mother who is attempting to shield him as he is on the run from the authorities in Bhowani.

However, the biggest and the most important theme of Master’s novel is the identity crisis of the Anglo-Indians. Victoria and Patrick, the two Anglo-Indian protagonists of the novel, explore their own personal identity as Anglo-Indians through the course of the book, albeit in different ways. This identity crisis of belonging to a mixed race descent creates a strange sort of “reality” for the Anglo-Indians, which, as the term suggests are neither truly British nor Indian. And it is at its lowest point in the novel as the story is set during the months just before the British left India. The community, as portrayed in the novel, is dealing with the additional pressures of the impending socio-political change that is going to occur in the only place that they have ever known as “home” in its truest sense. They have been brought up to hate the natives, who they call wogs, creating a certain sense of superiority within them. But it is shattered when they interact with the British officers and their families as they are suddenly put into a role reversal situation where they become the inferior ones. They begin to feel that they don’t belong to either of the two groups.

With such complex issues to be discussed, Masters uses each protagonist’s perspective to move the plot forward, without any skipping forwards and backwards within the time frame of the novel. The best part about this technique is that we get useful, in-depth insights into Patrick’s, Victoria and Rodney Savage’s minds. We only see the characters’ own personal perspectives on the events of the novel. There is no involvement of the man called John Masters within the narration, only of Patrick, Victoria and Rodney. Masters flits in and out of these characters’ consciousness so easily that it comes across as a surprise as their mindsets are completely different from each other. Each of these characters is different from each other; their problems, their identity crises all differ from each other, as well as their wishes, hopes, desires and dreams.

Bhowani Junction is said to be the best, the most famous work by John Masters. Yet, it is one of the most underrated novels of the British colonial and post-colonial era, mainly because the Anglo-Indian community happens to be the main part of the book. This ethnic community has largely remained an ignored subject in post-colonial literature and literary criticism. Even Hollywood imposed its own conventions upon the film adaptation (1956) of Masters’ Bhowani Junction, just like the literary critics did with the novel, by drastically changing the ending of the film version. In the film version, Patrick dies in the climax and Colonel Rodney Savage gets the girl, as it was impossible for Hollywood and its audiences to come to terms with the fact that it was possible for the handsome European officer to actually lose the girl.

Originally published here.

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