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Book Title: Coromandel|
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Reader ratings: 6.3
The author of the book: John Masters
Date of issue: 1958
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Format files: PDF
The size of the: 536 KB
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He was twenty, and he could use bow, sword, sling, and halberd. He had fired guns and lain with girls. He could sing a madrigal and tune a fiddle, he could dance the Moorish dance at Whitsun and join in the Ring at the harvest fair. He could drink to King Charles in ale or brandy or wine - just as he wished. He could ride a horse and milk a cow and plough a straight furrow with two oxen at the plough. Sickle, billhook and scythe wrought comfortably in his hand, and his fingers could hold the bull by the nose. He could not read or write. He was a man.
In this manner the protagonist of the following adventure is introduced to us, in the great tradition of swashbuckling heroes from the pens of Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, R L Stevenson or Rafael Sabatini. Jason Savage may be at the start of the novel just a country bumpkin from Wiltshire, England in the year of Our Lord 1627, but you can tell he is destined to become famous by his very name: his quest is one to rival his namesake, the leader of the ancient Argonauts searching for the Golden Fleece, and his family name tells us something about his wild, unbridled, passionate temperament. The Savages are in fact the chosen protagonists of a very loosely connected series of novels about the history of the British in India, following the presence of one of the clan's members in every major turning point of the Raj. Jason is chronologically the first Savage to come to the subcontinent, even if his story was published after books set later in the timeline. Masters personal history is also tightly linked with the British military presence in India, and his passion for the land and for its diverse cultural heritage is one of the major attractions of the series, despite what I considered a biased view that looks kindly on the exploits of the European invaders and is extremely critical of the less appealing aspects of the Eastern culture.
In the author's mind, Jason Savage is the foundation empires are built on: the restless and courageous spirits that reject a safe and boring existence tilling the land and respecting the law for meagre returns, going instead out in the world to conquer some savage lands, bringing to the natives the joys of commerce and Western civilization. I am stressing this aspect of the story in order to warn potential readers not to expect a balanced and indepth analysis of the historical period depicted here and to be prepared for negative remarks about said natives:
They are shiftless people and drank too much and took no thought for the future. They must have had good years in the past. What had they done with the money they's got then? He knew the answer. They'd spent it on feasting and marrying off their children and getting into debt on account of their silly superstitions.
To finish with the potential turn-offs before I start with what I liked about the story: most of the feminine characters, if not all, are here only as sex toys for our hero Jason, who beds them and leaves them, concerned with his higher calling as a man of action. In a similar way to how HBO likes to spice up its TV shows with nudity, Masters is liberally sprinkling sex scenes throughout the novel. My really big complaint comes though not so much from the passionate scenes as from one instance of casual domestic violence where Jason lashes out at a woman who annoys him, only to have her afterwards grateful for the treatment:
I am glad you hit me, because I don't think I could have slept otherwise!
For readers who can put up with occasional racist and sexist content, not entirely unexpected in the historical context of the period described here, can appreciate Coromandel as an entertaining swashbuckling story that manages to aim for a higher spiritual awakening in its later stages. So I'll try shape my next comments not so much on the specific thrills and dangers of the voyage from Wiltshire to the secret valleys of Nepal, but on the coming of wisdom for Jason Savage.
When we first meet him in his village, Jason claims to be a man, but emotionally he is gullible, a daydreamer for whom reality holds less sway than his flights of fancy about fame and fortune waiting for him in exotic lands across the sea. His imagination is first awakened by tall tales from returning sailors, and later by a treasure map he buys with all his savings from the village poacher, a dubious personage who calls himself Speranza Voy (another fateful name that translates as hope).
No one knew he had gold, frankincense, myrrh and spikenard in one saddlebag, and turquoise, onyx, alabaster, jade, ruby, emerald and a grain of mustard seed in the other. His diamond sabre jerked at his side, or at the camel's flank, in a scabbard ...
These daydreams of Jason prove stronger than the loving arms of his village sweetheart Mary, more powerful even than the charms of the highborn maiden he later seduces. The final impulse for leaving the home county comes when Jason turns murderer (albeit in self-defense), caught with his pants down by an angry brother to one of the girls. Before setting sail for India, we spend some more time in London where our hero displays both physical prowess and an unusually high level of naivete as a popular exotic dancer in one of the capital's bawdy houses. More woman trouble, another criminal scuffle with a pimp, even a marriage proposal from a wealthy widow cannot stop Jason from finally embarking on a ship headed for the promised land marked on his treasure map:
But the sun of Coromandel shone too strongly on the crinkled sea, and comfort and good food and kindness were not for him, nor could he lie to her or to himself a moment longer, saying that he loved her.
The promise of the treasure map survives even the first shocking contact of our young man with a completely foreign civilization, where opulence and starvation are walking hand in hand, mostly because Jason is too obstinate and naive to comprehend that he is a pawn in the hands of more powerful and cynical players. Caught in a power game between the British commercial expedition, the already established Portuguese mission, a Dutch warship, the local rajah and his three devious neighbours, Jason sees himself as the saviour of the local people, but ends up once again a pennyless fugitive with a price on his head. Of course, a good part of his education in the local traditions is handled by a voluptuous concubine named Parvati, and he adds to his lists of conquests the half blind daughter of the Portuguese ambassador. For me the most telling scene of Jason's obsession is the perversion of his sense of right and wrong as he takes advantage of a friendship with a family of pearl divers and decides that he must become more ruthless than everybody else if he wants to succeed. By this point in the narrative, the portrayal of the women improves, as both Parvati and the girl Catherine try to guide Jason towards a more morally acceptable path.
The third and for me the best part of the story sees Jason traversing the whole subcontinent from the Eastern seaboard to the high Himalayas and beyond, with detours at the court of the Shah Jehan in Aggra and at a Buddhist monastery. One episode on the road involving a sect of mystic assassins called thugee will be developed in more detail in another Masters novel (The Deceivers). A new character introduced rather late but with great success for both comic relief and wise counsel is Ishmael of Multan, librarian to the great Mogul, and living proof that the call of adventure can be heard just as strongly by the elderly as by the young:
He is an old man; during his life he must have seen a hundred thousand birds in flight. Why does he suddenly dart out to see another? Yet of course it was wonderful, and why should the hundred thousandth be any less exciting than the first?
and in another place:
What is the matter with you? I'm sure you need a purgative. There are a thousand things to see, and you moon along like a stuffed duck. Look, the hills! This is the place where the Ganges comes out into the plain.
The matter with Jason is that he is finally starting to think before he acts, he has discovered both responsibility and concern for the feelings of others, in particular for the woman who devoutedly and patiently has followed him on his quest. And since our hero is approaching the top of the world and the places of meditation and inner peace, he is struggling to come to terms with the disillusion of his failed quest for gold and with the ignorance and selfishness that has been his defining character trait so far.
The map has originally been an inspiration to discovery, a source of wonder. Along the road he had lost that inspiration and came to think of the map merely as a guide to riches. That brought in the cold light of common sense; in that light he had descended the next easy step and disbelieved altogether in the map. But she wanted him to believe in it again, so that, through the quality of belief rather than through any merit of the map, he could rediscover the inspiration and the power to marvel and wonder.
I will put the answer Jason's finds at he end of the journey in spoilers: (view spoiler)[ The Golden Fleece was inside you rather than at the end of any road or map. A great discovery! He supposed some lucky people were born knowing that. He laughed. It was more exciting to be unlucky, to undergo the adventures of the journey. (hide spoiler)]
I enjoyed the company of Jason Savage and his 17th century Indian adventures most of the time (with the few exceptions regarding racism and women I mentioned earlier). I've been a fan of John Masters since the early 1990's, so he receives an extra star from me even if I don't believe Coromandel is his best effort. Because I plan to read next my favorite novel of his (Far, Far The Mountain Peak), I will finish with my favorite passage from the present story, describing the wonder of the tallest mountains in the world - another auto-biographical touch from the author:
Crops sloped gently away in front. An opal-starred mist hung over the ground. A cock crowed from a clump of feathery trees. Jason yawned, rubbed his eyes, and looked.
He blinked. His eyes widened. His knees began to buckle, and he sank to the earth with his fingers locked on his chest and his breath altogether stopped.
Above the crops spread the white mist. Above the hills the air was hazily blue and dense with distance. Now out of that blue sea of air rose the golden battlements of heaven. Their walls swept down in falls of pearl. Their diamond towers soared up from oceans of sapphire. From their black portals unseen archers streamed red arrows at the paling stars. A thousand cathedrals thrust up thin golden spires.
The light changed; the colours ran down from dazzling white cones to purple deeps. The sun rose, and for a moment the miracle hung, all gold and black above the abyss, stretched from the rising sun to the setting moon, and from earth to heaven.
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Read information about the authorMasters 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 applying to serve with the 4th Prince of Wales's Own Gurkha Rifles. He saw service on the North-West Frontier with the 2nd battalion of the regiment, and was rapidly given a variety of appointments within the battalion and the regimental depot, becoming the Adjutant of the 2nd battalion 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 114th Indian Infantry Brigade before being "poached" by "Joe" Lentaigne, another officer from 4th Gurkhas, to be Brigade Major in 111th Indian 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 24 April, 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 isolated 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, which was heavily involved in the later stages of the Burma Campaign, 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, Camberley. He left the army after this posting, 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.
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