on 11 September 2013
Memoir of a Forgotten War: John Masters's The Road Past Mandalay
Previously, I was vaguely aware of John Masters as the author of Bhowani Junction (1954), a novel set in the late 1940s at the end of the Raj and known to me only via the mediocre film adaptation starring Ava Gardner. More recently, I wanted to read something about World War Two in Burma, the theatre of war my father experienced and in which I was therefore particularly interested. By chance I came across Masters's The Road Past Mandalay (1961), the second volume of his autobiography and primarily about the war in Burma. I have just finished reading it and find it an honest, well written and informative book based on first-hand experience of a sometimes visceral intensity.
Masters is well qualified to write about the war in the East. Though educated at Wellington College and Sandhurst, he was born in Calcutta in 1914 and served on the North-West Frontier in the 1930s, first with a British infantry regiment and later with the Gurkhas, experiences described in the first volume of his autobiography, Bugles and a Tiger. Such a life follows tradition, for Masters's family had a long genealogy of military service in India. He is both insider and outsider, knowing the country well but as a member of the imperial caste. This doubleness has advantages but also limits. Masters is a knowledgeable and perceptive chronicler of both the war and the last days of the Raj, but there is little if anything radical in his thinking and his limited sympathy with Indian nationalism may now seem very much of its period, though his remarks about British rule in India do call attention to achievements which it's currently fashionable to ignore.
Mandalay begins with Masters serving as a temporary captain in a regiment of Gurkhas fighting in the Middle East in 1941-42. From there he goes for training at the army Staff College in Quetta, in present-day Pakistan but then within the Raj, and later takes part in the Burma campaign as a Chindit, a soldier fighting against the Japanese behind their lines. The account of his intimate personal life, a phrase that could apply equally to his army experience, such is the intensity of its relationships, appears in the background and comes to prominence at the end of the book, when Masters, now a brigadier, makes a pilgrimage with his wife through the Himalayas and discovers that the war has ended.
Masters's narrative is primarily linear, a chronicle studded with anecdotes. Such a structure enables a balance between the large picture and the tiny but telling detail. Masters gets the mix of close-up, the wider view of the action in which he's involved and the bigger picture of the whole campaign exactly right. Tiny vignettes with, apparently, the actual spoken words, ghastly details like the problem of overcrowding in the Main Dressing Station at the base in Burma being solved by "two direct shell hits," and the relentlessly close-up pictures of the terminally wounded who, in a nadir of horror, must be executed, are placed in the larger, more generalised narrative of the fight, making it vivid and shocking. Masters does not romanticise military action or its consequences, emotional as well as physical, for the participants, and the reader can well believe that the author remembers the very words and tiniest details at the time of writing even 15 or 20 years later. No account, however powerful, could really give the war-virgin reader full empathy with the intense experiences Masters describes, but his use of stabbingly vivid detail within the larger narrative comes close.
Masters's use of language or, more accurately, languages enhances the telling of his story. Like many Anglo-Indians, he is polyglot, speaking Gurkhali and Hindi, and the presence of words from these and other Asian languages colours the text, adding to its strong sense of authority and authenticity. The language of Mandalay is further enriched by army terms, for example, a listing of ranks in the Indian Army, which gives a flavour of that wonderful compendium of the language of the Raj, Hobson-Jobson, and the then not-so-long-lost world of Kipling's India. Period terms, such as "flicks" for films, a usage familiar to my parents' generation, further enhance the sense of another time and place.
Towards the end of the book, and the war, Masters goes on a journey with his wife through the Himalayas. High up, they find "one of the rarest and quite the most beautiful flower in the world, a Himalayan Blue Poppy." This flower, reminiscent of German Romanticism's Blue Rose, is a symbol of Masters's quest or pilgrimage to transcend the war and the horrors of it, to connect with something beyond the ephemera of human history, with some essence of existence beyond words. Masters manages to convey the reality of this desire without indulging in fortune-cookie philosophising like, say, Somerset Maugham in The Razor's Edge. The pilgrimage, in fact, occurs elsewhere in Anglo-Indian literature, in Kipling's Kim, for example, and Masters is following that tradition. Similarly, escape to and challenge by the mountains has a long history in English autobiography and the lives of military men, as in Robert Graves's Good-bye to All That or, more recently, as documented in Wade Davis's Into the Silence. As the title suggests, Masters's novel, Far, Far the Mountain Peak (1957) has a similar focus. In the end section of Mandalay, the reader may feel the novelist's shaping hand, though events themselves may be as neat as fiction's patterning, and autobiography and the novel are, inevitably, overlapping genres. Mandalay ends with Masters's discovery that the A-bomb has been dropped on Japan. This is the way the war ends, not with a whimper but a bang.
Like all of us, Masters is a product of his time and place, though he isn't the prisoner of these. His love for India and its people and for the men he serves with is clear. Mandalay is a vividly written, informative account of the Burma campaign, one that has received less attention than the European war. There are good histories of the Burma campaign such as Louis Allen's Burma and Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper's Forgotten Armies. These don't ignore the soldier's eye view but a well written personal account is unmatched at conveying the first-hand experience. Along with George MacDonald Fraser's Quartered Safe Out Here and Julian Thompson's anthology of oral history, Forgotten Voices of Burma, Mandalay is essential reading for anyone interested in that campaign and the reality of war.