Nightrunners of Bengal
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Nightrunners of Bengal is the title of the first novel by John Masters. It is a work of historical fiction set against the background of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. It was published in 1951 in the United Kingdom by Michael Joseph, London, and in the United States (also 1951) by the Viking Press, New York.
The novel at first attracted criticism from some reviewers, who objected to what they regarded as its imperialist viewpoint and graphic depiction of acts of savagery. However, it was made the American Literary Guild's Book of the Month on publication, and was widely sold.
It introduced the fictional Savage family, whose history of service in British India rather resembled that of Masters's ancestors.
The novel is set in the Presidency of Bengal at the time of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The central character, Captain Rodney Savage, is an officer in a Bengal Native Infantry regiment, stationed in the fictional city of Bhowani (which is in about the same location as the real city of Jhansi). He is restless with garrison life, but is devoted to his regiment and its sepoys (Indian soldiers).
In spite of his empathy with the sepoys, Savage does not realise that fear and resentment are driving them to intrigue with local rulers and other conspirators against the rule of the British East India Company. The complacent life of the British community in Bengal is shattered by the Rebellion. Most of the British officers of the Bhowani garrison and their families (including Savage's wife) are killed in the outbreak or are subsequently murdered.
Savage escapes the massacre along with his infant son and an English woman, Caroline Langford. The small group of refugees are sheltered by sympathetic Indian villagers. For some time Savage's sense of betrayal and loss drives him into insane hatred of all Indians and he kills an Indian officer who was his friend. Eventually the humanity and tolerance of the villagers, combined with his growing love for Caroline, enable him to recover and to reach the British forces gathering to suppress the rebellion (who are infected with their own hatred and desire for revenge). In a final clash, an emotionally torn Savage fights against his own former regiment. A charge by Indian cavalry who have remained loyal to the British turns the tide of battle.
The "nightrunners" in the title are messengers who distributed chapatis shortly before the outbreak of the rebellion. This mysterious historic incident remains unexplained.
- Rodney Savage – captain in the fictional 13th Rifles, Bengal Native Infantry
- Caroline Langford – an Englishwoman visiting India who becomes Savage's new love
- Sumitra Devi, Rani (queen) of Kishanpur – female regent of the semi-independent princely state of Kishanapur
- Dewan of Kishanpur – chief minister under the Rani
- "The Silver Guru" – revered ascetic holy man (revealed towards the end as an Irish deserter from the British army and leper)
- Dellamain Mr – East India Company commissioner to Kishanapur and senior British civilian official in Bhowani.
- Risaldar Rikirao Purohit – a veteran Indian officer who leads the cavalry charge
Relations with other books in the series
The Deceivers is about Rodney's father, William, who suppresses the Thugee. William's butler, Sher Dil, also appears in Nightrunners of Bengal, now an old man, and working for Rodney. Piroo, an ex-Thug who was one of William's band in The Deceivers also appears in this book. He guides the English survivors to safety, amused at the irony that he is saving the son and grandson of the man who nearly had him hanged.
Rodney Savage appears as a middle-aged colonel in The Lotus and the Wind and in Far, Far the Mountain Peak as an elderly retired general. He also makes a final appearance in The Ravi Lancers as a very old but still vivid man in 1915, who meets his younger relative, one of that book's main two protagonists. The elder Savage speaks then with concern of the conduct of the First World War.
Bhowani Junction, set in 1946-47, seems intended as a counterpoint to "Nightrunners of Bengal", and the two are more closely related to each other than to the other books of the Savage series. The later book also takes place in the fictional Bhowani and its environs, and specific locations are seen again changed by the passage of the century (for example, the metalled road which plays a significant part in Nightrunners has been replaced by the railway which plays an important role in Junction). Moreover, one of the later book's protagonists is also called Rodney Savage (the great-grandson of the central character of Nightrunners) and in many ways seems the same character. He meets the descendants of Sumitra Devi in the same settings where his ancestor had met her.
Awards and nominations
American Literary Guild's Book of the Month on publication
- The Telegraph Calcutta, December 29, 2007
- Glossary entry for Bhowani, page 376 "Nightrunners of Bengal", Michael Joseph Ltd London