on 9 September 2013
Memoir of a Military Education: John Masters's Bugles and a Tiger
In his foreword to Bugles and a Tiger (1956), the first volume of his autobiography, John Masters defines his book clearly:
This is a factual story but not a history. [ . . . The] purpose is to tell the story of how a schoolboy became a professional soldier of the old Indian Army [. . . and to give] an idea of what India was like in those last twilit days of the Indian Empire, and something more than a tourist's view of some of the people who lived there.
As heir to Kipling, a much greater writer though Masters has genuine writing talent, and to lesser-known figures like Jim Corbett, Anglo-Indians in love with India and having the double perspective of Englishmen born in that country, Masters succeeds in his purpose. Bugles is a classic of its genre, a memoir of a military education but also a homage to India, its flora and fauna, its peoples and cultures, with particular attention to the Ghurkhas of Nepal.
Bugles covers the years 1933-39, moving from Masters's training and education at Sandhurst, through his experiences on the North-West Frontier of India, first with a British infantry regiment and then with the Ghurkhas, to a brief visit to Japan and a journey across North America, return to India and the outbreak of World War Two. A large part of the impulse behind these experiences is what Kipling describes as "for to see and for to behold, ever the world so wide," a desire appropriate to youth and to the first volume of an autobiography.
Such adventures give Masters a mass of experience made exotic to most readers by time and distance. For a writer, vast and varied experience is a great resource but poses the problem of structure: How to select from and represent such multiplicity in a clear, coherent way? At one point Masters remarks that impressions "were received not in a continuous chain [. . .] but in separate cameos," and this provides a structural principle based on the anecdote or episode, inset into the larger, chronological narrative. Such anecdotes, for example about Pathans' night sniping or the withdrawal of picquets under fire, give a lot of detailed, expert information but present this in action, with an emphasis on showing rather than merely telling. Smaller episodes take their place within the linear narrative of Masters's life, which they partly comprise, and the whole is framed by frequent reference to the long historical perspective which reaches back, say, to Alexander and forward to an independent India. This almost Russian-doll structure works wonderfully to enable Masters to move from the specific detail of his individual experience to the larger issues of Indian and world history.
Much of what Masters describes is directly relevant to our period and its political problems. When, for example, he writes of the difficulties of "the Indo-Afghan border" with its armed tribes "fanatically adhering to the Moslem law, addicted to blood feuds and vendettas" and "owning no king or central authority," we recognise the currency of the description in the early twenty-first century. Specific details like the hunt for the Faqir of Ipi, an enemy tribal leader who lives in a cave, immediately invoke the more recent version of Osama bin Laden. Even though from 75 or 80 years ago, the situation Masters describes is depressingly familiar and relevant, placing our experience in a longer historical perspective, too.
On some issues, political and social change has overtaken Masters's world and views and this is perhaps where a modern reader feels the difference of period. Friendship with an Anglo-Indian causes Masters "for the first time to consider the political aspects" of his position in India: "they wanted us to go and I at once saw the justice of this." Masters is very critical of the Indian Congress party and his paragraphs on Indian nationalism hardly constitute an in-depth analysis, but that is not the purpose of his narrative and it's clear he is far from being a blinkered, Colonel-Blimp-type imperialist.
Despite the continuing relevance of the political situations and issues Bugles describes, the book's heart is not political but personal, informed by extensive first-hand experience. When Masters describes the Central Provinces, for example, the country of Kipling's Jungle Books, the specific detail of the flora, fauna and geology carries the authority of lived experience. Masters is not a tourist but has near-native knowledge while, as part-outsider, he has the careful and recording eye of an observer, and his descriptions are dynamic because they represent the landscape and its inhabitants in action.
Also, the language of his descriptions shows a talent for the perfect word choice. So he describes the Frontier as "a tilted wilderness of rock and scrub," a phrase in which the adjective changes a near cliché to something original and striking. Similarly, a phrase like "the ether stillness of the hospital" immediately conveys the smell, the near silence, the deadness. Occasionally, Masters tries too hard, as in his description of a ship's wake as "like a knurled white scarf, embroidering the darkness with points of violet fire," where the poetical prose tends to the purple, or violet, but the scenes Masters describes are colourful and he doesn't usually stray too far into the technicolour.
Masters's descriptions also gain power from native terms, used more substantially and authentically than as mere local colour. His eye, and ear, produce a text tinged with the polyglot, a feature in common with Kipling's work and, to a lesser extent, the writings of that great lover of India, the hunter and conservationist, Jim Corbett, whom Masters had surely read. These writers, with their interest in the languages of India, have long since anticipated the macaronic of the postcolonial novel.
If Masters shows his attention to and love for the landscapes, the flora and fauna and peoples of India, their languages and cultures, the heart of that love is his relationship with his regiment, the 4th Ghurkhas. Throughout, he gives a lot of information about Ghurkha culture and customs, individualising this with specific portraits of named soldiers, whose photographs are the only ones in the book. Masters doesn't prettify their culture as, for example, when he describes in full detail their ritual execution of animals. But his respect and admiration for the Ghurkhas' knowledge, intelligence and courage are clear, and we believe Masters when he tells us, of Ghurkha Gumparsad: "He was a man whose honesty of purpose shone through his speech and his silence alike. I loved him and could have hugged him then." Masters uses that wonderful phrase from Henry V, "band of brothers," to describe the regiment and it's clear that he genuinely believes in a brotherhood that transcends cultural, racial and national distinctions though, for him, that brotherhood is forged partly through the extremes of a soldier's life, as is self-knowledge.
Bugles ends, appropriately, at the beginning of a local military action, a figure for the larger war to come, with Masters no longer the novice but part of the "spiritual unity" of the battalion, his apprenticeship as a soldier and a man complete.