American Sahib


An Asia Press BOOK


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John Muehl saw India as few Americans, few Britons, and few Indians ever have the chance to see it. He was with the American Field Service, attached to the British Indian Army, and wore British uniform. "I could travel the length and breadth of the country, with the blessing of the Raj but without its stigma. I was a 'pukah sahib' in the Poona Club, a tommy in the Lady Lumley Canteen, an American tourist in Gorpuri Bazaar, and simply a friend to Raman and Singh."

He mingled with the Sikhs and Gurkhas and other Indians who fought under the British not for love of empire or for hate of Japan but for their board and keep. "Nay British sahib---American sahib," he would say when Indians showed reluctance to talk with him. Admiration for America was great enough---though it turned to suspicion by the end of this war in which America seemed to make common cause with the Raj---so that this phrase usually broke down the barrier. And AMERICAN SAHIB is John Muehl's journal of a year. It is an inside story of appalling poverty, famine, and political ferment among the Indians, and of bungling, brutality, and hypocrisy on the part of the British rulers. Fortunately for the reader, the dark picture is lightened with humor and with a sense of the patient philosophy that sustains India.

This young American's first shock came when he learned through personal conversations in exclusive officer's clubs that the Briton in India does not conceive himself as graciously bearing the white man's burden, as the propaganda would have us believe. In private, the Briton admits almost boastfully that India's function is to serve as a source of raw materials for England and a market for her products, and if she is ground down in the process that is her worry. He found the caste system in the British army worse than the Hindus'; in fact, he became convinced that India serves to necessitate a caste army which makes it possible to maintain the class system at home in England. He found Assam's forgotten front: "Someone said, 'Oh, you there! Hold that line like a good fellow!' Then he proceeded to ignore our existence." He listened to Japanese propaganda broadcasts and saw the effect of the radio's "Men of the Indian Army, why are you fighting for the white oppressor? ... We are your friends, not the British." Deepest of all went his experience in handling bodies during the Bengal famine.

Through John Muehl's eyes and ears, we too can see India and hear its people



IF I were to write a book about India ... what would I say?

Would I discuss the politics and economics of the country? Would I choose and display one of the dozen arbitrary sets of figures and statistics which purport to disclose the condition of the people? Or would I write a novel, abstracting all of those intangible human factors which can be derived from every social equation?

Well, really, I haven't much the heart to do either, for in the first place, they've been done before and to little avail. But more than that, neither would adequately convey the specific knowledge which I absorbed from the British and Indians directly.

It's uncomfortable to know something inarticulately, to know it so intimately that you can't readily explain it. I'm a little embarrassed when my friends come to me and ask, "Can't you give us a true picture of the Indian situation?" No, I can't give them a "true picture of the Indian situation," at least not in a cryptic, quotable phrase. I do not know India as a glib generalization. I know it rather as the memory of a year of my life.

I sailed for India with the American Field Service, a volunteer ambulance corps attached to the British Army. I sailed for India as a curious American who had read just enough to be genuinely confused. "Cripps Offers Dominion Status to India"---"Churchill Expects to Hold His Own"---"Atlantic Charter Guarantees Freedom for All Peoples"---"Atlantic Charter Doesn't Apply to India."

Say, what in the hell is this all about? Have you asked that too? Then we have it in common. just what in the hell is this all about? That is the blunt way of stating what I wanted to know. Statistics could never answer me fully, nor could biased discussions by interested parties. But as I stepped ashore in Colombo, Ceylon, the answers began marching, wheeling, crawling around me.

"Personnel of the American Field Service are invited to a tea to be given at the Officers' Mess."

"American Sahib! American Sahib! Nay British Sahib! American Sahib!"

"I say, mate, could I bum a cigarette from you? Lumme, but that last month's pay went fast!"

"You say you're interested in the co-operative movement? I have some Indian friends you must meet!"

I found that I could associate with officers or ranks, British or Indian, high caste or low. I could travel the length and breadth of the country, with the blessing of the raj but without its stigma. I was a "pukah sahib" in the Poona Club, a tommy in the Lady Lumley Canteen, an American tourist in Gorpuri Bazaar, and simply a friend to Raman and Singh.

So how can I present "the true picture of India"? Can I abstract or distill what has become a part of me? Still there may be one way to convey what I have seen.

Here is my journal.



















Chapter One