Bhowani Junction by John Masters.

Bhowani Junction was a book written by John Masters in early 50s. It is set in the backdrop of the dying days of the British Raj wherein people are sure that the inevitable will happen sooner than later and a free and independent India will arise on the world stage.

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Ava Gardner in Bhowani Junction                                                                       Image Courtesy – Alamy Photo

The book represents the insecurities and anxieties of Victoria Jones, a spirited Anglo-Indian daughter of a railway driver, who has savoured the independent life while serving as an Officer in the British Army. She is drawn irresistibly to Colonel Savage much to the chagrin of Patrick Taylor, an old friend and a fellow Anglo-Indian and an engineer in the Deccan Railways, who is still very much in love with her.

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Ava  Gardner and Stewart Granger starred in the movie by the same that was distributed by MGM – it interesting to note that the climax was changed possibly keeping the commercial potentialities in mind.

John Master was an old hand in writing about British India and the lives of Anglo-Indians. In fact the Savage family was a device he used to write many novels based on the lives of the British Army in India. In doing so he had an advantage of relying his own personal experiences as he held various positions in the British Army and came from a family that had a tradition of serving in the Army.

Set in turbulent times just before India gained independence from the British, the story has a perfect railways setting. The story revolves around Victoria, who is an Anglo-Indian and a daughter of a railway man. She has served in the British Army and is shown to be a liberated woman who wants to live life on her own terms. Patrick Taylor is a fellow Anglo-Indian friend and a Railway Officer who competes for her affections with Colonel Rodney Savage, a dashing British Army Officer.

The story has a rather unique format wherein it has multiple sections that are narrated by each of the three Principal characters. The events look as different as the patterns made by a kaleidoscope and it helps the reader develop a composite picture of the narrative, far better than the characters themselves as they are bound by their own perspectives.

But the focus of the story remains on Victoria and how she matures as an individual and becomes conscious of her own personality. And the author is quite keen on giving credit where it is due – he ascribes this growth due to her accidental choice of joining the British Army in the role of a WAC Officer (Women’s Army Corps). Her assignment brings her in close contact with the serving officers and she is able to compare them rather favourably to the men she met at home including Patrick.

And now on her return to home she sees everything through a prism wherein much appears to be provincial and tawdry. This does not help Patrick at all as he doesn’t quite grasp the change in her and tries to renew their previous ties. Victoria can’t help but resist his overtures and this drives him to further frustration and boorish behaviour. In fact the writer draws a cruder version of Victoria in her younger sister who is shown to be petty and narrow-minded. Victoria, of course, would not have realized this but for  having stepped out and seen the world.

In the interim, on account of her confusion, she turns to Kasel, a Sikh and suddenly decides to even marry him. This is possibly the bizarre part of the narrative that just makes no sense and even makes her seem promiscuous. Certainly from the plotting point of view this was a needless diversion that diverts the attention of the reader.

Her relationship with Colonel Savage is complicated – she resents being ordered about by him and thinks that he has low regard for Anglo-Indians including Patrick. However she observes his work from close quarters and realizes that here is a man capable of handling tricky situations and delivering the goods. In contrast Patrick continues to cut a poor figure in many episode.She is inevitably attracted to Savage and ends up by having a brief relationship with him.

The story is set in the back drop of the railway operations being affected by a terrorist plot to create law and order problems. Savage is able to overcome the challenge with the help of Patrick and Victoria and the matter draw to end. Victoria has to choose her man now.

Initially it seems to be choice between a bumbling boy and a mature man and we are sure that Savage will win the day. But the final twist has Victoria opt for Patrick as an acknowledgement of her roots and in the hope of providing her children a more coherent identity that will help them to assimilate themselves in the new Republic. She seems to be willing to also ‘mother’ Patrick a bit as well for his own good.

Interestingly this meaningful end was not acceptable to western audiences who could not stomach a British Officer losing out a commoner and so the end was suitably altered in the movie.

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