The ‘Good’ European and his ‘Disinterested Mistress’: Mimicry and Aporia in John Masters

Sayantika Chakraborty, Independent Researcher, Kolkata, India


This paper is an attempt to critique John Master’s representation of India by analyzing three of his novels and his autobiography. As a member of the Indian army, Masters lived in India for a long time in the final phase of the British Raj. He wrote great many books based on his experiences in India, and the four texts chosen for this paper are central in this regard. This paper isolates Masters’s own emotional trajectory, especially how his initial disinterestedness changes into a passionate engagement with India, which he later describes as his mistress. The underlying dualities in the autobiographical narrative are linked to those in his fictional accounts of India, since in all his writings he deliberately blurs the factual and the fictional. However, such attempts to blur binaries are critiqued from Master’s own subject position to show how notions like mimicry and interstice, in the colonial context, define not only the colonized subject but implicate his colonial superior as well who has his own ways of encountering aporias.

[Keywords: Mimicry, Aporia, Imaginary, British Raj, Colonial India, Orientalism]

‘It was awful trying to be an Indian. No one understood me.’

Bhowani Junction (Masters, 1956, p.238)


John Masters (1914-1983) was a fifth generation English settler in India, who served in the Indian Army in the twilight phase of the British Raj in India. He was not just a soldier. He was somebody who initially felt compelled to work in the Indian Army, then gradually fell in ‘love’ with India while working in the Army, and finally decided to passionately write down his experiences in the form of ‘factual story’. In his autobiography The Bugles and A Tiger: A Personal Adventure (1956), Masters states his initial reluctance to join the Army: ‘I was destined for Indian infantry. I use the word “destined” with intent. I did not want to go to Indian infantry – I thought myself far too clever to waste my life in that backwater’ (35). However, for financial reasons he eventually joined the Army. ‘The Indian Army got more pay…And as I have said, we were broke…’ ( 37) Pages after, Masters’s attitude towards India would completely change as he would narrate his sense of rootedness in India and his newly developed love for India: ‘If there was a justification for my family’s long guestship here, for my making so free with the Indian wood in the fire…We removed many fears… I was in love with India, and she’d have the hell of a job getting rid of me’ (314). His self-proclaimed love for India would grow to such a degree that he would acknowledge his unavoidable ‘Europeanness’ to be a bar. He would describe India as his ‘lusty, disinterested mistress’, since she could not be his ‘mother’ (314).

An analysis of Masters’s autobiographical narrative would indicate how his attitude towards India changed from disinterestedness to a sort of passionate engagement accompanied by a feeling that India herself might be ‘disinterested’ in him. His artistic urge for ‘story-telling’ to a great extent derives from this new found love, and in his ‘fictional’ narratives one discovers similar emotional trajectories on the part of the protagonists. In terms of studying three of his novels based on his experiences in India – Nightrunners of Bengal (1951), The Deceivers (1952), and Bhowani Junction (1954), this paper would accordingly examine Masters’s attitude to, and representation of, India.

Critiquing Fictionalised Histories

To begin with, one of the primary aspects of Masters’s fictional accounts of India is that his narratives reveal a deliberate blending of the imaginative with the factual and autobiographical. Such a blending blurs the binary of fact and fiction and generates what Masters himself calls the ‘fictionalised histories’. In the ‘Foreword’ to The Bugles and A Tiger, Masters states: ‘This is a factual story, but not a history. Please do not pounce on me with scorn if it turns out there were seven, not eight, platoons of Tochi Scouts on the Iblanke that night of May 11th-12th, 1937.’ He adds: ‘In the course of the story I hope to have given 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’. If this is how he writes his autobiography which should be strictly historical, he has similar ways of dealing with the fictional. In the ‘Postscript’ to his novel The Deceivers, Masters notes:

In a story of this sort the reader has a right to know how much was fact, how much fiction. My purpose in this book, as in Nightrunners of Bengal, was to recreate the ‘feel’ of a historical episode rather than write a minutely accurate report. To do this I had to use the novelist’s freedom to imagine people and create places for them to live in… (Masters d. 80)

The risk of this deliberate mixing of history and story is manifold. Such an admixture could certainly be considered a postmodernist gesture (the famous notion of ‘historiographic metafiction’ as described by Linda Hutcheon) to indicate that both history and fiction are human constructs. However, insofar as John Masters’s own subject position is concerned, such a representation of colonial India could be read in conjunction with the colonizer’s motivated rewriting of the colonial past (Crane 3). On an obvious level, one could talk about a specific form of ‘projection’ of India on the part of Masters as he exploits and exaggerates the facts and colours them with his own imagination. For example, in his first novel Nightrunners of Bengal, the character of the Queen of Kishanpur, Sumitra, is only loosely based on the historical figure Jhansi ki Rani. Masters in this novel also exaggerates the chapati events that played an instrumental part in building up the tension in the early months of 1857 (Crane 16)….Access Full Text of the Article

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