MORE than any of the other colonizers of the past two centuries, the British have produced writers who put down roots in the adopted country and so assimilate the foreign culture that in time they become not only its interpreters but spokesmen of greater eloquence than the native-born. In Arabia The Letters of Gertrude Bell, Doughty’s Arabia Deserta, and The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence; in India the novels and essays of E. M. Forster, the versatile works of Rudyard Kipling, the authoritative book, The Legacy of India, the novels of Rumer Godden and H. E. Bates — all are books that light up a land and a people. We could use more of such literary missionaries today, now that Nationalism and Communism have intensified the opportunities for misunderstanding.
In most of these English writers I detect a preference for the Muslim rather than the Hindu. It is as if the Englishman found the Muslim easier to understand and, for his warlike spirit, much easier to admire. To the foreigner the Muslim is direct where the Hindu is oblique; indeed, there seems to be a kind of darting illogic in the Hindu mind which throws the Englishman off stride. There has been little sympathy for the Eurasianthe Anglo-Indian; the “cheechee,” the “blackiewhite,” as they were contemptuously called by the British in India. These border people, intelligent, ambitious, hypersensitive, could with encouragement be so useful in the time of transition; their danger is that, having been looked down upon so long by their European kin, and having themselves turned away from their native background, they be left today without ties or trust. It is of them that John Masters writes in his hot, pulsing, engrossing novel, Bhowani Junction (Viking, $3.75).
The heat that comes out of this novel is the heat of India in conflict in 1946. The English were leaving and knew it, but independence was not yet definite. The Indian Congress was divided within itself, and the extremists to the left — the Communists — were working to perpetuate a state of anarchy even to the extent of assassinating Gandhi. The outbreaks were following the Moscow pattern: mutiny in the fleet, the murder of British officers, the fanning of fanaticism, railroad strikes, and the hope of general stoppage - all this in a temperature of 110° indoors, 135° in the cab of a locomotive. Not for a long time have I been so saturated by the heat, the overpowering heat of vivid, sensuous writing.
Bhowani Junction was a focal point because of the railroad, the troop trains and freight, trains, the ceaseless traffic upon which the little town lived. The more responsible jobs in the Delhi Deccan Railway — engine drivers, traffic superintendents, district engineers — were filled by Anglo-Indians, the menial jobs were done by Wogs, the Indians. Here over the years the Eurasians had built up a system of segregation modeled on the British, with their own clubs, school ties, separate waiting rooms in the stations, and sense of superiority. They could not believe that the English were getting ready to pull out, nor imagine what would happen to them, the halfcastes, when at last India would be run by the Congress. Tension in Bhowani becomes acute when a Communist, K. P. Roy, moves into the district to engage in sabotage and train derailment. On his heels and to preserve order comes the 1st Battalion of the 13th Gurkha Rifles under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Rodney Savage, M.C. So the friction and violence begin.
The situations revolve about two Anglo-Indians, Patrick Taylor, six feet two and the boss of the Junction, and Victoria Jones, also of mixed blood, passionate, long-legged, and more ready for a change. She was on terminal leave as a WAC subaltern and had been called back into uniform for the emergency. The story is opened for us in Patrick’s own words. “I had to have Victoria,” he says; “I had to grovel in front of Savage; I had to fight the Indians for my rights.” Patrick is stupid and brave and seldom really feels what other people are feeling, missing because of his inferiority, because of his resentment, because of his perpetual readiness to be insulted. Still, Paddy is quite a man.
When Victoria takes up the story she makes us see her changing world. Because of her beauty she can have any man in the place, even the Colonel, but what she yearns for is a deeper affinity. “This the English have spoiled for me; sneering at me, they have brought me up to sneer at myself.” Under the urging of her Hindu lover and his mother, the Sirdarni; under the lash of the words, “Why don’t you see that you’re an Indian, and act like one?" she tries to abandon her English standards.
When Colonel Savage speaks, we see how well he deserves his name, how rude and quick-minded he is, how he has survived his many lights, and why he adores his Gurkhas. He is old-school India, and though he knows he is on the way out, he too will never find England as Home. Each of these three, Patrick, Vickie, and the Colonel, is drawn to the flesh. They are alive, true to themselves, courageous, and their destiny is inevitable. These people move through their turbulent days and through scenes which could only have been drawn by an author long steeped in India.
Occasionally the author overdoes it. K. P. Roy, the Communist leader, is credited with so much villainy that at the end he becomes a figure out of melodrama. Patrick is too much the blunderer, and when he pushes Birkhe under the train, the act is so implausible that death loses its sting. But when you have so many riotous colors to deal with, it is no wonder if some of them get too thick. This is a spectacular story.
The Crystal Palace of the sea
A hundred years ago, at the Isle of Dogs on the River Thames, they were building an iron steamship which was to be five times the size of the biggest vessel then afloat. She was to carry four thousand passengers, twice as many as the Queen Mary houses today. She had six masts named Monday through Saturday, and five funnels; she had a flat bottom; she had two hulls, and her iron plates required three million rivets, all driven by hand. She had 60-foot side wheels and was 693 feet long. After three years’ work and three million dollars’ expenditure, she was launched and christened the Great Eastern. She ate money, hopes, and men. The record of the men she killed, the captains she disgraced, and the backers she bankrupted is an incredible chronicle now told in a brisk, slangy style by James Dugan in The Great Iron Ship (Harper, $3,50).
Intended as a luxury liner, the Great Eastern ran into the Civil War and the secession of tourists. Her excursions seem always to have been cursed by had management. But as a freighter she did better; and as a ship from which to unspin a transatlantic cable, she was perfect; she laid Cyrus Field’s Atlantic cable, a second cable around the Cape to India, and still a third for the French. It was her habit to smash piers, other boats, and herself when badly steered. Louis Napoleon bought her, with a syndicate of friends, under the nose of the Sultan of Turkey, who wanted her for a floating harem. Half a million people visited her as a great showboat off Liverpool in 1886. Mr. Dugan has written of her adventures and mishaps with a good eye for the lively detail and the contemporary quotation. “A vast toy,” Herman Melville called her. “Durable materials but perishable structure. Can’t exist a hundred years hence.”He was right; but as one reads, one is filled with sympathy for this ungainly, mismanaged lummox of a ship.
Writer at work
From the twenty-six volumes of hand-written diary that Virginia Woolf left behind her at her death her husband, who was also her publisher and editor, has selected those passages which have most relevance to her development as a writer. The first entry is August 4, 1918, and the last in that bleak winter of 1941 when London was suffering the Blitz and when the dread of invasion was still in mind. War was abhorrent to her. She was a lover of peace and above all a lover of literature. She lived to write; she worked over her books with fastidious industry; she was never bored, and the pulse of her intensity we feel again in A Writer’s Diary, edited by Leonard Woolf (Harcourt, Brace, $5.00).
She tells of having tea with Katherine Mansfield, and of how Middleton Murry, Miss Mansfield’s husband, “sat there mud-coloured and mute, livening only when we talked his shop.” She finishes James Joyce’s Ulysses, and thinks it “a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of the inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious.” She has a delightful tea party with Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hardy and recaptures practically every word of it. She describes her last visit with Aunt Anny (Thackeray’s daughter, Lady Ritchie) and the portrait speaks. She tells of her special joy in talking with the Stracheys (“their minds remain a source of joy to the end; so sparkling, definite and nimble”) and of the free-wheeling conversations she has in tandem with Tom Eliot. Here we see her as critic and characterizer, sensitive, inquisitive, and one of the shrewdest readers of our time.
Her self-portrait as a novelist is much more a matter of moods. Now on the peak of exaltation when Mrs. Dalloway or The Waves is going well and she feels assured; now in the valley of despair when four months’ work — 30,000 words of Flush — had to be discarded ("It’s too slight and too serious”). She is sometimes the victim of protracted dulling headaches, but for the most part the mechanism of her brain was dependable—“At forty I am beginning to learn the mechanism of my own brain — how to get the greatest amount of pleasure and work out of it. The secret is I think always so to contrive that work is pleasant.” How much her books may mean to another generation we cannot say, but they spoke with an intricate intimacy to us, and still do.