Lieutenant Colonel John Masters, DSO (1914–1983) was an English officer in the British Indian Army and novelist. His works are noted for their treatment of the British Empire in India. Masters was the son of a Lieutenant-Colonel whose family had a long tradition of service in the Indian Army. He was educated at Wellington and Sandhurst. On graduating from Sandhurst in 1933, he was seconded to the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (DCLI) for a year before electing to serve with the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Prince of Wales's Own Gurkha Rifles.
He saw service on the North-West Frontier and was rapidly given a variety of appointments within the battalion and its regimental depot, becoming the battalion's Adjutant in early 1939. During World War II his battalion was sent to Basra in Iraq, during the brief Anglo-Iraqi War. Masters subsequently served in Iraq, Syria and Persia. In early 1942, he attended the Indian Army Staff College at Quetta. Here he met the wife of a fellow officer and began an affair. They were later to marry. This caused a small scandal at the time.
After Staff College he first served as Brigade Major in Indian 114th Infantry Brigade before being "poached" by "Joe" Lentaigne, another officer from 4th Gurkhas, to be Brigade Major in Indian 111th Infantry Brigade, a Chindit formation. From March, 1944, the brigade served behind the Japanese lines in Burma. On the death of General Orde Wingate on April 24, Lentaigne became the Chindits' overall commander and Masters commanded the main body of 111 Brigade.
In May, the brigade was ordered to hold a position code-named ‘Blackpool’ near Mogaung in Northern Burma. The position was attacked with great intensity for seventeen days and eventually the brigade was forced to withdraw. Masters had to order the medical orderlies to shoot 19 of his own men, casualties who had no hope of recovery or rescue. Masters later wrote about these events in the second volume of his autobiography, The Road Past Mandalay.
After briefly commanding the 3rd battalion of his regiment, Masters subsequently became GSO1 (the Chief of Staff) of Indian 19th Infantry Division until the end of the war. After a spell as a staff officer in GHQ India in Delhi, he then served as an instructor at the British Army Staff College at Camberley, but later left the army and moved to the United States, where he attempted to set up a business promoting walking tours in the Himalayas, one of his hobbies. The business was not a success and, to make ends meet, he decided to write of his experiences in the army. When his novels proved popular, he became a full-time writer. In later life, Masters and his wife Barbara moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. He died in 1983 from complications following heart surgery. His family and friends scattered his ashes from an aeroplane over the mountain trails he loved to hike. General Sir Michael Rose, the former UN commander in Bosnia, is a stepson of Masters.
John Masters; A Regimented Life by John Clay was published by Michael Joseph in 1992. Now out of print, it is a sympathetic but not uncritical biography. According to Clay, Masters possessed a strong and sometimes domineering personality, and could be impatient with weakness or incompetence. He could also be extremely warmhearted and generous. His outgoing and boisterous personality flourished during his long residence in the United States, with its greater social freedoms. Masters was impatient with the literary establishment, which faulted his Indian novels as unsympathetic to Indians, and he was impatient with editors who wanted to remove the rough edges from his characters. Masters strove for accuracy and realism, resenting it when people mistook his characters' views as his own. He was extremely hard-working and meticulously well-organized, both as a soldier and a novelist. Clay speculates that Masters may have been driven to achieve by rumors that his family was not pure English, but Anglo-Indian or Eurasian. In 1962 Masters learned what he had apparently long suspected, that he did indeed have a distant Indian ancestor.
Apart from the autobiographical works (mentioned above), Masters is also known for his historical novels set in India. Seven of these portray members of successive generations of the Savage family serving in the British Army in India in an attempt to trace the history of the British in India through the life of one family. In chronological order of events (but not in order of publication) these novels are:
One of Masters' last Indian novels, The Venus of Konpara, is notable for the fact that its principal characters are Indians. The Savage family play no role in the storyline, though it is hinted that a minor unidentified character is a family member. It is set in the nineteenth century during the Raj, but explores the history of Indo-Aryan and Dravidian identities in the country.
Unsurprisingly, considering the subject, Masters' works are not without their critics, many of whom simply reflect their own thinking about British imperialism rather than addressing the literary quality of Masters' work. Those who are hostile to the Empire criticise his work as revisionist - without specifying what is being "revised" - or as uncritical of the Empire. Typical are the observations of one Ronald Brydon: "For us, the saga of the Savages, heroes and conquistadors of the Raj, was a political pornography in which we savoured the illicit sensualities of imperialism."
Others have detected a greater sophistication in Masters' dealings with the British Empire. Both Nightrunners of Bengal and The Ravi Lancers contain sympathetic portrayals of Indian nationalists, and portray irreconcilable tensions between British and Indian characters that mirror the conflicts of the Raj in a manner comparable to E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (Penguin Classics). The descendent of the hero of the former novel (who is in practice manifestly the same character) experiences the Partition of India with a resigned detachment and later undergoes a deep personal crisis which ends with his staying on in independent India rather than returning to Britain. One Indian novelist (Khushwant Singh) remarked that while Kipling understood India, John Masters understood Indians.
Another recurrent theme in Masters' work is rock climbing. In the fifties and sixties his books sold in large numbers, particularly Bhowani Junction (which was also translated to various other languages). Some of his works are now out of print.