February 04, 2010

Bhowani Junction : The Novel

The Hotel Faletti in Lahore, now undergoing a major renovation, had until recently a suite called the ‘Ava Gardner Suite’. For the lucky few who stayed in Room 55 of the hotel it must be an experience of unparalleled charm and nostalgia, with a large monochrome portrait of Ava Gardner smiling down from the wall, as though saying “Oh hello! I too stayed here a long while ago…” The legendary Hollywood actress who passed away in 1990 had indeed been here, for, over fifty years ago, when John Masters’ Bhowani Junction was being made into a film, the cast had stayed at the Faletti. Much of the shooting was done in and around Lahore, and after filming was over and the crew had departed, the hotel proudly named the room where the leading actress stayed, the ‘Ava Gardner Suite.’
.
Bhowani Junction, released in cinemascope in 1956 had Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger, Bill Travers and Francis Mathews in the leading role, and is based on a screenplay that roughly runs parallel to the original plot of the novel. Masters was a lieutenant colonel in the British Indian Army who retired in 1948 and settled in the US devoting the rest of his time to writing. Bhowani Junction, first published in 1954, is set in the final tumultuous years of the Raj and presents an authentic picture of the tensions and conflicts, particularly amongst the Anglo-Indian community, that accompanied Britain’s withdrawal from the subcontinent.
.
Masters has written a thundering fine novel with a swift moving narrative that carries the reader through drama, suspense, romance and nostalgia. The story is often quoted as being the only work of its kind that evokes forgotten images of India’s steam age. Masters had done his homework well; his portrayal of railway detail is both accurate and well observed. Travel writer Bill Aitken observes: “For the most genuine railway flavour of India’s steam age, John Masters’ novel of Anglo-Indian life ‘Bhowani Junction’ is unlikely to be bettered. He gives you the authentic clangour of the bucking footplate as the crew, amidst prodigious sweat, rhythmically perform their parts. His characters are as recognizable as Forster’s.”
.
Clearly, Aitken had chapter twenty eight in mind when he spoke these words, where Victoria and Colonel Savage accompany Mr Jones on the footplate of a locomotive, hitching a ride from Bhowani to Shahpur. The story, as a matter of fact, is a blend of two distinct ways of life – army and railway life, and focuses on the outcome when the military steps in to provide railway protection to a sensitive, riot torn district at a time when independence was becoming a certainty. And set against this backdrop of violence and unrest is a pretty, young Anglo-Indian lady, who finding that life is narrow and confined, reaches out to three men in turn, an Anglo-Indian, a Sikh, and an English colonel, searching for identity, fulfillment and romance, eventually realizing the utter folly of trying to be anything other than what she actually is—an Anglo-Indian.
.
THE PLOT
.
India 1946. The scene is a crowded town set amidst the dusty plains of India called Bhowani. The war is over, there is change in the air. Ordnance depots around the country were closing down with tonnes of explosives, now rendered superfluous, being carried in trains to the coast where they are loaded into ships and drowned in deep waters. Many a Tommy had sighed with relief as he sat playing cards with his chums in a crowded troop train, dreaming of the voyage that would take him home, far from the sweltering heat of the Indian plains.
.
Patrick Taylor, District Traffic Superintendent on the Delhi Deccan Railway is standing in the sun debating whether to step into Victoria’s home. He is in love with her; she’s tall, beautiful, and like him, an Anglo-Indian. Her father, Mr Jones, is a senior railway driver; he has known the family for years, and believes Victoria loves him too. He steps into the home to find that Victoria has changed a good deal: four years of service as a Subaltern in the WAC(I) in Delhi seem to have opened up new pastures for her. Life in the railway colony, in contrast, seems to be hopelessly dull and outfashioned and she's all set to explore the world on terms of her own.
.
They kiss each other and plan to leave together for a picnic when news comes that Patrick is needed at the station. A goods train has derailed at Pathoda, so leaving his office in charge of his assistant Ranjit Singh Kasel, Patrick hurries to the site of the accident carrying Victoria along on his Norton. At Pathoda, the breakdown train from Bhowani has arrived, the engine of the goods train standing a little way off with its wheels digging into ballast.
.
Back in Bhowani, the derailment is a cause for concern to the administration, and on his return from Pathoda, Patrick is summoned by Govindaswami, the Collector of the District, but no one has the slightest idea who’s behind the mischief, and Govindaswami lets him off asking him to keep an eye on anyone suspicious.
.
Shortly afterwards, Patrick Taylor and Victoria accompanied by others arrive at Bhowani station to receive Sir Meredith Sullivan, the Anglo-Indian leader. Sir Meredith is going to stop over at Bhowani to discuss with his people the future of St Thomas’ School, an Anglo-Indian school in Gondwara which is facing a threat of closure. The man steps down from the train and is given a warm welcome. Arriving by the same train are two Englishmen—a Colonel Rodney Savage who commands the Thirteenth Gurkha Rifles, and his Adjutant, Lieutenant Graham Macaulay who have arrived in Bhowani for security and railway protection duties. Patrick is summoned and Savage tells him of his battalion which is shortly going to arrive in two or more troop trains. The men have begun to act superior and Patrick is in no mood to oblige. He tries to act tough, quoting railway rules and regulations, but finds that he is no match for Savage, who with typical conceit and arrogance persuades Patrick to receive his trains in the yard, while dictating orders to the Sikh assistant, Ranjit Kasel. No one dares raise a voice against Savage now. Finding that Victoria had been with the WAC(I), he even arranges a telegram to be sent from the WAC(I) Directorate in Delhi ordering her to assume charge as a Special Liaison Officer between the railway and the army. Patrick and Victoria find themselves in a fix—they know they are going to have to work with a man who is ‘hard, conceited, cocksure and insulting.’
.
The first of the troop trains carrying Gurkhas arrives a few days later, and Patrick and Victoria are in the yard for its reception where Mr Jones, Victoria’s father, is chatting away easily with Colonel Savage. Macaulay with his dull eyes and red lips and wet moustache is around, and Patrick has found him eyeing Victoria with a lewd stare. Just then a telegram arrives—RAF had been flying rail patrol and had spotted some men moving suspiciously near Dabgaon on the line. Savage orders a motor trolley, and taking along Patrick and a few Gurkhas, the party sets out to comb the area, while Victoria, Ranjit and Macaulay are to remain in the station Traffic Office awaiting further orders. The party searches the area around Dabgaon, and Patrick suspects that K P Roy, a dreaded terrorist, is on the prowl, but the search proves fruitless. They return late in the night to find Ranjit and Victoria in the Traffic Office sitting in a daze: during their absence, Macaulay had tried to rape Victoria while Ranjit was away having his dinner below in the station refreshment room.
.
Meanwhile a railway strike is brewing over an issue concerning the working of goods trains. Anglo-Indian drivers were, until then, excused from working on shunting and van trains where a separate running room for them wasn’t provided. This meant an extra load of work for Indian drivers, and the Union of Railway Workers of India had pressed the demand that running rooms be made common to all communities, a proposal which the railway board found far from attractive.
.
Colonel Savage is in Mr Jones’ home partying when news of the strike comes. He rushes with Victoria to the battalion offices where a report has arrived telling of a goods train carrying explosives and ammunition being looted near Malra. A guard has recently been shot at a level crossing near Bhowani, and to make matters worse, Surabhai, a local politician, is leading a large crowd towards the station to protest against the supposed killings of sailors in the RIN mutiny. Govindaswami, Savage and Victoria reach the station with a platoon of military men and find Surabhai and his volunteers lying on the line obstructing the passage of a troop train driven by Jones. Prompted by a comment by Govindaswami, Savage comes up with an idea—he orders his Gurkhas to line up at the edge of the platform, unbutton their pants, and pass water on the protestors stretched on the track below. Jones opens his regulator and steam hisses below the cylinders. The men hastily rise, defeated, humiliated and filthy, and the troop train gathers speed and is out on the line towards the south.
.
The whole affair is a sickening one—the lathis, the blood, the broken bangles and torn clothes strewn around—and Victoria finds herself reeling with nausea and disgust. Later when railwaymen on strike had assembled at a street square, Savage had subdued them as efficiently using his 'methods', sending them back to work at bayonet-point. The Colonel is a cruel bully, she thinks, and tells him so.
.
The turning point in the story comes when Victoria is returning home one night after a day’s work in the Traffic Office. Tension is mounting in the city even at this hour, and a procession can be heard chanting away in the distance as it marches along the streets. Macaulay had earlier apologized to Victoria for his advances, and feeling somewhat unnerved by the simmering unrest in the city, she reluctantly accepts his offer to escort her back. On their way through the yard, Macaulay, unable to restrain himself, again molests her, and a scuffle ensues during which Victoria picks up a fishplate and strikes him a blow on the head. Sensing something might have gone foul, Ranjit hurries out of the Traffic Office and appears on the scene, and when he sees Macaulay’s lifeless form, he knows what has taken place. He drags the corpse under a wagon and takes Victoria to his home where his mother, Sirdarni Kasel looks upon the girl with sympathy, and employs a local acquaintance named Ghanshyam to dispose Macaulay’s body. Though dressed in a loin cloth, Ghanshyam seems intelligent enough; he even thinks up of an alibi for Victoria should the police question her about her whereabouts during the night. Victoria now learns to dress in a saree. She finds she is a welcome guest in the home and the Sirdarni takes her under her wing seeing in her a prospective wife for her son.
.
Victoria now finds time to think about the men in her life. Colonel Savage has shown himself to be arrogant, conceited, a cruel bully, while Macaulay gave her the creeps. She had always admired the English, imagining herself to be more English than she really was. When Macaulay tried to rape her, he broke that chain. Patrick claimed that he loved her, but often acted in a stupid and unreasonable manner. While the second had tried to molest her, the latter often sought her mouth in a lingering kiss. Ranjit was refreshingly different—he was a fine, clean young man who seemed to adore her in his own quiet way. Now she begins to spend time with Ranjit. She goes to the pictures with him dressing up in a saree. Ranjit has proved to be a courteous young man who’s in love with her, and Victoria promises to marry him.
.
Soon afterwards Macaulay’s body is discovered under a dungheap in the town with a ‘Quit India’ sign on it. Govindaswami shows Victoria a picture of K P Roy, the terrorist who is believed to be the mastermind behind the unrest. Victoria instantly notices a striking resemblance to Ghanshyam but keeps the knowledge to herself. The Collector now orders a search for the ammunition stolen at Malra and when they reach Ranjit’s house they discover a fishplate with blood stains on it. The Sirdarni is questioned and later arrested as she has refused to comment.
.
Victoria has been going steady with Ranjit for some time but seems put off by his dependence on his mother. He is constantly making reference to her and if they ever marry they will be sharing the home with her in all likelihood. Becoming an Indian is not as simple as she had imagined and her friendship with the Sikh has been drawing unfavourable comment from those around her. The girl has somehow brought herself to accept these handicaps but there is yet another pressing demand – Ranjit wishes her to become a Sikh like himself. She prepares herself for the ordeal but the Gurudwara proves terrifying for the Anglo-Indian girl who runs away in fright. She hastens to the station where she is joined by Colonel Savage, and the two hitch a ride with Mr Jones on the footplate of an engine, getting off at a midway halt to board a first class carriage. Mr Jones was pleased that his daughter had broken off with the sikh, and so too is Savage. She stretches herself in the compartment and Savage offers her drinks and cigarettes. She confides to him the events that led to that fateful night when she struck down Macaulay in the yard. She tells him how difficult it was trying to pretend she was an Indian. The Colonel listens patiently, and Victoria is overwhelmed with a sense of relief after she has got it all out. That Savage admires her beauty she never had the slightest doubt, but now there is something in his manner which tells her that everything will turn out well as long as he is in charge. Being in the compartment together has brought them close to each other and as the train rattles on through the darkness they stretch themselves on a bunk and make love.
.
It is night when the train arrives at Gondwara. Patrick is in Gondwara on business and happens to be at the station at this time, and peering through the glass he finds Victoria lying undressed on a berth beside the Colonel. He enters the carriage in a fury and a brawl ensues, with Patrick threatening to shoot the colonel. They get off the train and Savage finds a telegram awaiting him from Collector Govindaswami asking for his immediate return to Bhowani. One of the reasons why Patrick has fallen in Victoria’s esteem is that he doesn’t act sensibly, often making a fool of himself. Luck doesn’t seem to favour him. This time he has made yet another grave mistake. There has been a good deal of anti-European feeling in Bhowani and as a Lieutenant in the Auxiliary Force India, Patrick Taylor has authorized members of the AFI to carry about arms for personal protection, a move that could lead to an inflammable situation. Savage returns to Bhowani, and lining up the AFI on the parade ground, orders them to deposit all firearms in the ammunition kote. Sir Meredith Sullivan the Anglo-Indian leader is dead, and on Savage’s insistence, Patrick rushes to Bombay to persuade the Presidency Education Trust to allow St Thomas’s School in Gondwara to continue untouched, and finds on his return that he is under a month’s notice of dismissal from the railways for being absent without leave.
.
Misfortune after misfortune seems to be piling up on Taylor, and even Colonel Savage is sensible enough to see this. Once when Taylor had thoughtlessly aimed his rifle at two Indian ruffians while on AFI duty at the station, Savage, watching from the window of the Traffic Office, picked up an inkwell and taking aim, he hurled it at Taylor bringing the man down with a wound on his head. Taylor recovered but would always look upon this as a deliberate act on the part of Savage to get him out of the way so that he could have Victoria for himself. Later that day taking Victoria aside, Savage tells her that he intends to apologize to Taylor; he had never intended to make a clod of him. Taylor is a most admirable man really and his intentions are above reproach but as Savage has seen, he seems to have a strong propensity to run into ill-luck all the time.
.
Tension is again mounting in Bhowani and a crowd has assembled at the Kucherry demanding the release of the Sirdarni. Victoria and Savage are around when a riot breaks out. Lathis swing, stones are hurled, and Surabhai the Congress leader is killed. Victoria says she has seen someone like K P Roy strike Surabhai. Police are now on the alert and guards have been posted at all avenues leading out of the city. Seeing that escape is impossible, K P Roy steals into Victoria’s home in the night when no one is around, and pointing a pistol makes her accompany him to the line where they halt a goods train and climb into a wagon. Meanwhile Savage has received information that a girl dressed in white was spotted speaking to the driver of a goods train leaving Bhowani. He guesses what has happened and taking Patrick along he rushes in a jeep. The train has halted at a cordon post for a search, and Roy is spotted, but as luck would have it, he makes good his escape and disappears into the nearby jungle.
.
Victoria and Savage are now in love and are contemplating marriage. They often find themselves with each other, and with Mr Jones’ permission even go out for a jungle safari together. But unlike Rosemary, her sister, Victoria is an intelligent girl; her visit to the Bhowani European Club in recent days after it had been thrown open to Indians had made it only too plain what kind of reception she could expect from English society. Patrick, for all his clumsiness, was one of her own people. He needed someone to look after him really, and if she married Savage, she would be abandoning him to his fate and therefore, in effect, deserting her own people. When at a railway station party, Patrick tries to lend support to Savage’s orderly who’s carrying champagne glasses, tripping him over so that he falls between two carriages and is crushed underneath a moving train, Victoria is visibly shaken by the thought of what a mess Patrick could get into if left to himself. It was so easy for bystanders to fasten the blame on Taylor, but Savage has seen and he knows Taylor thoroughly well. Later it was he who would recommend Taylor to William Stevenage, helping him find a job as Manager on the Cholaghat Cement Works Railway.
.
Patrick is awaiting discharge from the Delhi Deccan Railway when he receives a midnight call from the station. A party of muslim purdah women had boarded a night train at Pipalkhera with second class tickets to Chakraj Nawada, and had mistakenly dropped a gold bangle on the platform engraved with word ‘Kasel’. The stationmaster of Pipalkhera, wishing to return the bangle had phoned Chakraj Nawada station but was told that no such purdah ladies had arrived on the train. There is nothing Patrick can do about this, but after some deliberation, he decides to tell Colonel Savage. To Savage the whole thing is as clear as daylight—Mahatma Gandhi is to pass shortly this way, and K P Roy and his men have boarded the train dressed as women and got off in the Mayni tunnel where the train slows down on a grade. Savage accompanied by Patrick, Victoria, Govindswami, Ranjit Kasel and a battalion of troops drive to the site of the tunnel carrying along wireless sets and other equipment. A search through the Mayni tunnel reveals explosives strapped to the railway track which are deactivated and carried away. K P Roy and his men dressed as Gurkha soldiers shortly appear at the mouth of the tunnel and are shot dead after an exchange of fire.
.
This evening’s performance wouldn’t have been possible without Patrick’s intervention. Even the gunshot that brought down Roy was fired by him and Colonel Savage is pleased. “Your luck’s changed, Patrick. Congratulations,” he says. It is 5 o’clock in the morning when they prepare to set off for Bhowani. Victoria has scrambled into the jeep beside Taylor – she is Patrick’s girl once again.
.
Ravindra Bhalerao
.
Pictures: http://www.moviegoods.com/