John Masters: 'Bugles and a Tiger', Michael Joseph, 1956


Chapter 17 includes, on pp212-3 of this edition: "Lawrence noted the tendency of the Arabs to homosexuality. It was the same among the Pathans. 'A woman for business, a boy for pleasure, a goat for choice' is an old Pathan proverb, and one of the most famous of Pathan songs, the 'Zakhmi Dil' ('Wounded Heart') begins with the words, 'There's a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach, but, alas, I cannot swim.' I do not know why homosexuality should affect various peoples so differently, but there was something startlingly incongruous about the idea when associated with these fierce men, physically the hardest people on earth - they use sharp stones for toilet paper - and with the vast, grim jaggedness in which they live. A Pathan walks with the grace of a man-eating tiger, in long and unhurried strides, with a lift to them. He carries his head insolently up and his shoulders carelessly back, but without any stiffness as from drilling. Pathans often have pale-blue eyes, untamed and
a little terrifying, and the young men's eyes are rimmed with kohl. Gritty dirt is ingrained in their skin, and soles of their feet are like cracked leather. They often wear roses in their long hair, and I frequently wish I could see a Pathan entering a gay cocktail party given by Manhattan fairies."

The above quotation is from Masters' first autobiographical book. His second is called 'The Road to Mandalay', and both relate to his life as a soldier before and during the Second World War. Lawrence is of course T. E. of "Pillars of Wisdom" fame.

The second volume also describes the necessity to execute wounded compatriots, by pistol, to prevent them falling into Japanese hands.

There is much more about the North West Frontier of India in those times, and I doubt much has changed. Makes me wonder whether we are told about all that goes on! These volumes, like books about Viscount Slim (Burma), are well worth searching for. Vivid history of the recent past and lots of lessons for the unwary.

Practice firing from the walls of a fort on the Northwest Frontier; photograph courtesy of the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge; 20th century. The Frontier was the loosely controlled area between British India and Afghanistan inhabited by various tribal groups. The British and Indian armies frequently operated in the region to maintain order and their small campaigns provided what was considered valuable military experience for the troops.

Much more here, about the British in India and here is an edited page that includes a number of relevant stories.

The third autobiography, Pilgrim Son, has, as its main subject, Masters' life in the USA, post WWII.

There are some excellent, highly perceptive, stories about his family life in Rockland, New York. Opinions, of high calibre, regarding McCarthyism and its effects, of Spain, of Chile (particularly Tierra del Fuego) and other parts of the USA. Surprising opinions abound, but necessarily to be related to the time of the writing (up to the mid fifties) but, nevertheless particularly apposite to what's happening today, regarding racism, sexual mores, and more. A lot about the writing of his early works.

What was really fine were Masters' tales of his trip on a boat around Chile's part of Tierra del Fuego.

John Masters was an admirable man, and a fine writer. He certainly knew India, and was able, in my opinion, to write about Indians, not just India. I have read all of his fictional work, and it is well worth searching out. A real liberal, sane and caring man, and, thankfully, his works remain.

Masters was born in Calcutta in 1914, went to England for education and back to India as a soldier. Died in New Mexico in 1983.