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Sunday, September 29, 2013

John Masters

Born in Calcutta on 26 October 1914, John Masters was of the fifth generation of his family to live, serve and work in India. He was the son of John Masters, a Captain in the 16th Rajput regiment, and his wife Ada (nee Coulthard).

After being educated in England at Wellington (1928-33), where he won a prize cadetship to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst (1933-34), he returned to India in 1934 as a 2nd lieutenant with the 1st Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, a year later joining the Prince of Wales Own Ghurka Rifles, then serving on the North-West Frontier. He saw active service in Waziristan and Razmak in 1936-38, in Baluchistan in 1939 and, after the outbreak of war, in Iraq, Syria, and Persia.

He left his division in 1942 for training at Staff College and became a Brigadier Major with General Wingate's Chindits in Burma in 1944. Later, as Chief of Staff to the 19th Indian Division, he fought at the Singu Bridgehead, the capture of Mandalay and at Toungoo, and on the Mawchi Road.

After the war he was assigned to teach mountain and jungle warfare at the Staff College, Camberley. Masters retired from the Army in 1948 as Lieutenant-Colonel with the D.S.O. (awarded in 1944) and O.B.E. (1945), and shortly afterwards went to the U.S.A., which he had visited in 1938 and liked.

He lived for a while forty miles from New York City. He turned to writing and soon had articles and short stories published in many well-known American magazines. He had previously written a book on angling in India in 1938, published by Country Life. Despite this, he embarked on a wildly ambitious project – a series of thirty-five novels covering the 350-year history of the British in India and linked by the fortunes of the same family, the Savages, although he eventually wrote only nine. The first of these novels, Nightrunners of Bengal, about the Indian Mutiny, was published in 1951. It was followed by The Deceivers (1952), about the Thugs (about whom Masters had a good deal of detailed knowledge), and The Lotus and the Wind (1953), about the Russian scare of the early eighteen-eighties.

He is probably best known for Bhowani Junction, which dealt with the dilemma facing Anglo-Indians on the eve of Independence, and which was made into a popular film starring Stewart Granger and Ava Gardner.

He became an American citizen on 9 August 1954 and settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Masters died, aged 68, on 7 May 1983 in hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, following complications after he had received heart surgery. He was married to Barbara Phoebe Allcard (1910-1998), who served with the Women's army Auxiliary Corps in India, in March 1945 had had two children, one son and one daughter as well as a son and a daughter from her previous marriage.

John Brook, in The Guardian, recalled that Masters "once said that he was not a philosopher, a pamphleteer or a reformer. he was quite simply determined to tell the truth about men and war, and if the critics sneered that his characters were cardboard, they had no idea of the men he had lived, fought, and got drunk with." (9 May 1983)

The Times noted that "His knowledge of India was profound ... and drawing on his Indian experience [he] wrote eight best-sellers on which his reputation is largely based. In later years his theme was judged by some to have worn thin, but there was no doubt about the popularity of his story-telling. He showed the same proficiency in the world of books as he had shown professional skill as a soldier." (9 May 1983)

Masters wrote three well-received volumes of autobiography: Bugles and a Tiger, The Road Past Mandalay and Pilgrim Son.

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