Read Pilgrim Son: A Personal Odyssey Online

Authors: John Masters

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Pilgrim Son: A Personal Odyssey

BOOK: Pilgrim Son: A Personal Odyssey
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JOHN MASTERS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pilgrim Son

 

 

A PERSONAL ODYSSEY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the bone of England, which bred us,

 

and the star of America, which led us

 

 

 

First published in Great Britain by
MICHAEL JOSEPH LTD
1971

 

© 1971 by Bengal-Rockland

 

 

 

Portions of this book first appeared, in slightly different form,

 

in
Holiday
and
Esquire,

 

and are printed here by kind permission of those magazines.

 

FOREWORD

 

In two previous volumes of autobiography
Bugles and a Tiger
and
The Road Past Mandalay,
I told how an English schoolboy became a professional officer of the old Indian Army, and how the young soldier matured as an officer and as a human being in the flames of the Second World War. In
Pilgrim Son
I shall try to tell how and why this English fighting man became an American writing man. In the course of the telling I hope to open to the British reader a view of America by a man who was not visiting it but living in it; and to the American reader something of that special insight into one's own country given only to foreigners.

Two words of warning and explanation: first, in the writing it has often been difficult to decide, as between English and Americans, who is 'we' and who is 'they'. The reason for the confusion, of course, is that my position and points of reference changed, but gradually, so that until the end of the time covered in this book I was always aware of being two people, of standing in two places, of being 'we' and 'they' simultaneously. So forgive me; the confusion is a part of the tale.

The other point is that I am preparing this book for simultaneous publication in Britain and the United States. Readers who find me explaining matters they already understand perfectly well should pass on a few lines: the explanations are muttered asides for the benefit of those ignorant fellows the other side of the Atlantic.

To avoid unwarranted intrusions into other people's privacy I have disguised a few names and other tell-tale circumstances.

 

 

J.M.
Santa Fe,
New Mexico

 

Chapter One

Barbara and I settled ourselves more snugly in a nook among the lifeboats. Tarifa Point passed on the starboard side, the mighty mass of Djebel Musa fell back to port and the
Empress of
Scotland
surged out into the Atlantic. Three more days to Home.

Home...
H
o
me? I
repeated the word to myself with alarm. Was England really Home, after five generations of service in India? My great-great-grandfather had gone out in 1805 and now it was 1946. 141 years behind and only three days in front, for surely there would be no return. I didn't know much else, but I knew that. So I was at an end, just as we had passed through the Mediterranean; but I was also at a beginning... the Atlantic spreading ever wider ahead and to both sides. Browning's poem ran in my head and I recited it aloud:

Nobly, nobly Cape St Vincent to the north-west died away; away;

Sunset ran, one glorious blood-red, reeking into Cadiz Bay;

Bluish 'mid the burning water, full in face Trafalgar lay;

In the dimmest north-east distance dawn'd Gibraltar grand and gray;

'Here and here did England help me: how can I help England?' — say,

Whoso turns as I, this evening, turn to God and praise and pray,

While Jove's planet rises yonder, silent over Africa.

 

After a while Barbara said, 'The point now is, how can England help us.'

She was right. I and a few million others had been helping England for seven years, but now we were lost, and we needed help. For most, it was because they had known only war, and it had passed. For me, it was because I had known only Imperial India, and it was about to pass. What would become of us?

The Atlantic swell deepened and lengthened and the
Empress's
stays creaked as she plunged into the north-west. Three days, I thought again. Well, no use worrying. I'd just have to stand ready for anything, mentally armed at all hours against whatever might befall, ready to protect and advance my own and my little family's future.

Barbara said, 'Don't forget to write to the Rawal when we get settled. He wanted to keep in touch.'

I nodded. For us, the world began to turn upside down in the Rawal's little house in Joshimath, but we had not realized it then, seeing only the enormity of the message on the newspaper he was holding out to us:

ATOMIC BOMB DROPPED ON JAPAN.

That was August 19, 1945, for we had been trekking in the Garhwal Himalaya, and for weeks had heard no radio and seen no papers. I remember the Rawal pressing us to stay for tea and cakes. Were we not hungry and tired after our long walk down the valley from Tapoban? With regret we refused, for we had much to think about and, bowing, left him. A slight, dark man from South India he was one of the holiest men in India, for until recently he had been the head priest of the temple at Badrinath, the most sacred of the several sources of the Ganges.

We walked slowly up to the
dak
bungalow. Until half an hour earlier we had intended to camp the night on the lawn there, spend the next day stocking up our food supplies, and then trek up to the Bhyundar Valley, known for self-evident reasons as the Valley of Flowers. There, 14,000 feet above sea level, we hoped to spend three or four days. Then we would return over the mountains to Ranikhet, taking about two easy weeks on the trail. In Ranikhet we would be reunited with our little daughter, whom we had left there in the care of friends. For me, the next item would have been a return to the war. I had been offered the chance to raise and train a new Indian airborne brigade. It was hard to guess where it might be sent when it was ready — Malaya, probably, if that was not in our hands by then; Sumatra, perhaps; or China; possibly the Japanese homeland. For political reasons we would want to have Indian troops associated with the final battles there.

But now Barbara said, 'I suppose the war's over, then?'

We were at the
dak
bungalow. To the north, cut by the trench of the Vishnuganga Gorge, the Himalayas walled the horizon, from the square bulk of Kedarnath on the left to the feathery Mana Peaks on the right. Such long views were rare; usually it was just the clouds billowing around us, and the slanting rain. Almost any other time of year would have been better for our trek, but the beginning of August was when leave was offered to me, and I needed it, and took it. I had been in action, with a short break for intensive training, for a year and a half. The rainy mountains had their discomforts, but after months crouched in slit trenches with radio sets buzzing around me and shells bursting above, months of driving dusty tracks lined with menacing red MINED signs — this, to be with Barbara, physically exhausted but unafraid, was heaven.

Barbara said again, 'The war's over... isn't it?'

'I suppose so,' I said.

I didn't really believe it. When the war began I was twenty-four years old, a lieutenant, the adjutant of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Prince of Wales's Own Gurkha Rifles, then stationed on the western frontier of India. Now I was thirty, a lieutenant-colonel, and my last job had been as G.S.O.1 (Chief of Staff) of the 19th Indian Infantry Division in action in Burma. The Burma campaign was over, but the war? Impossible. It had been the background of my life for six years. More — the foreground, centre, wings, stage, lighting, everything. Also the past, and the future.

But Barbara was right. If the war wasn't over yet, it soon enough would be. This new bomb marked the end of the war as definitely as it marked the end of an era.

'We must get back to Ranikhet,' I said.

Barbara thought there was no urgency now. Let us just go on walking, climbing, searching for flowers, stalking the Himalayan pheasant across the gigantic slopes, laughing with chance-met shepherds by day, and by night with our porters round the camp fire. But I insisted that we return to Ranikhet. Now I sensed that the world would begin to turn upside down. The war might be over, but there would be other crises growing to face me, my family, my regiment, and my country. We must turn back. Tonight we would celebrate the simple fact of survival.

The porters straggled in and I told the jemadar to buy a goat, or, if he couldn't get one, a sheep. They were Nepalis — fellow citizens of the Gurkhas with whom I had served for eleven years; but these were hereditary porters, Dhotials from the western part of Nepal. Only one was an ex-soldier (by giving a false tribe and caste he had got into the Gurkhas), but they all spoke Gurkhali, and danced the same Gurkha dances as the men of my regiment and sang the same songs, and accompanied them on the same little drum, the
inadal.
We had got on well together, and this night we all ate and drank a great deal, and afterwards they asked many questions. The end of the war did not interest them much, but the bomb did, and they asked me more about it than I could answer. A few attempts to understand the theory of relativity and a pragmatic knowledge that E equals mc
2
make a weak base from which to explain nuclear fission to men who have never seen a train, a plane, a radio, or the workings of electricity.

I did not sleep. I had eaten well, but... The atom bomb was wonderful, but... The war was over, but... I felt lonely, and anxious.

The next morning we set off for Ranikhet. On the second day we camped again on the Kuari Pass, and in the afternoon came out of our tent to look at the view. The thought that it might be for the last time oppressed me, and I felt much as another officer of Gurkhas felt, when he crossed this same pass eighty years earlier. By an eerie chance this man, Donald Macintyre, V.C., had actually raised my regiment in 1857. Returning from his last hunting trip into Tibet before retirement, he wrote:

During the day the clouds had been dull and lowering, veiling the mountain-tops deeply in mist, but towards evening they began to lift and disperse, and never in my wanderings over many parts of the globe have I seen anything to equal the marvellously grand and expansive panorama which the rising curtain of sun-illumined, rose-tinted vapour gradually disclosed to view. It was indeed a splendid final transformation scene, so to speak, in this vast theatre of nature I was leaving, and will ever remain deeply engraved on my memory. Eastward, to the right, over a rugged foreground of huge fragments of grey rock, and the irregular line of pointed plumes of the dark-green pines shooting up, tall and straight, from the mountain-side below, rose the noble snow cone of Doonagiri in bold relief against an intensely blue firmament; whilst the more distant crest of Kamet (25,400 feet) reared itself among a medley of frozen peaks, glaciers, and vast untrodden snow-fields lying in dreamy magnificence away northward. Nearer, and more westward, across the profound hazy depth of the intervening valley of the Doulee, mighty phalanxes of rock-panoplied giants, mantled in violet, purple, and blue, and helmeted with eternal snow, stood resplendent in the golden glory of the sunset, keeping watch, as it were, around the sacred precincts of the Badrinath shrine lying latent in one of the deep dark gorges below them.
(The good general's prose has become a little violet and purple itself; but I cannot blame him. The prospect from the Kuari Pass is so inhumanly grand that one loses one's human faculties, the power of expression first.)

We trekked on south. Day after day the triple peaks of Trisul, their snow plumes blowing away to the north, gradually swung away and behind us on our left hand. Day after day the porters trudged into camp sweating and slow, their neck muscles bulging, to lower their 80-lb loads from the headband on to a tree stump. One day we found wild strawberries by a hidden waterfall, and one night we heard the sawing of a panther near the tent. Every day we were attacked by leeches, and twice we passed flocks of pack sheep trotting down from Tibet, each animal loaded with 20 lb. of borax. The rains slackened, the sun shone, and on September 7 we reached Ranikhet. We had been out 33 days, had walked 203 miles, and had climbed 52,000 feet. Susan, aged one, greeted us with momentary alarm, then delight, and we enjoyed a short, lazy domesticity.

BOOK: Pilgrim Son: A Personal Odyssey
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