I was bemoaning my lack of interesting but not too demanding books to reads whilst out with some friends. One of them suggested rereading the John Master’s books, assuming I’d read them as a teenager since we seem to share a similar reading history. I’d never come across him before so my friend lent me Bhowani Junction.
The book is set in India just before independence and mainly concerns 2 Anglo-Indians trying, in their different ways, to come to terms with India’s changing culture and their place within the new India.
The story is told from 3 perspectives: Patrick Taylor, a very Anglo, Anglo-Indian who works for the railway. Victoria Jones, who is trying to work out whether she is English or Indian. Rodney Savage, the British Colonel of the local Garrison. Victoria is the link between the different strands of the story.
As well as being about people the story is also about the politics of the time and how it impacted on people going about their own daily routines; those who want a peaceful transition, those who want to hasten it with violence and those who would prefer no change at all.
The book took a while to get going and, if I was a person who didn’t finish books, I would probably have stopped reading halfway through Patrick’s first section of the book. However, I’m pleased I persevered.
It had never occurred to me how the Anglo-Indian population of India would live in pre-independence India. I had never thought of them as being a sub-group of the population with their own rules and norms. It didn’t occur to me that they wouldn’t be fully accepted by either the British or the Indian communities, or that they would see themselves as being somehow better than “the Indians”. Perhaps that says something about Britain being a more tolerant world when it comes to multi-racial or multi-ethnic people, even if it doesn’t always appear that way?
I loved Victoria’s story; I loved her independence, the way she tried out different versions of herself to work out where she fitted and what she wanted out of life.
I was sad about the murder of Mr Surabhai, who was doing his best find a collaborative solution to the political differences. I was also sad that Savage’s batman and friend had to die to resolve the story threads. And I was disappointed that Colonel Savage couldn’t be honest about his feelings and so remained a lonely man.
Overall, the book brought small-town India, an India on the brink of huge change, to life. I recognised small-town life and I enjoyed meeting the characters.
I probably won’t rush to read any more of John Master’s books but if I find one in a charity shop, at a car boot sale or in a second hand bookshop I’ll probably buy it.