A Map of the Unknown World
I’m reading a wonderful book (thanks, Bill Wickman, for turning me onto it) called Bugles and a Tiger, My Life in the Ghurkas by John Masters.
This is the kind of book I absolutely devour—a straight-ahead memoir, no plot, no characters, just an absolutely true account of a fascinating life experience, in this case the tale of a young Brit who served in India in the 30s in a legendary Ghurka battalion.
What exactly is a Ghurka?
The Ghurkas are Nepalese peasantry. Modest of stature, often illiterate, incredibly hardy and brave, loyal, dedicated and true, they have covered themselves with glory in every war they’ve fought in.
Here’s a story (trust me, this is related to our old theme of the Professional Mindset) from World War II:
A Ghurka rifleman escaped from a Japanese prison in south Burma and walked six hundred miles alone through the jungles to freedom. The journey took him five months, but he never asked the way and he never lost the way. For one thing he could not speak Burmese and for another he regarded all Burmese as traitors. He used a map and when he reached India he showed it to the Intelligence officers, who wanted to know all about his odyssey. Marked in pencil were all the turns he had taken, all the roads and trail forks he has passed, all the rivers he had crossed. It had served him well, that map. The Intelligence officers did not find it so useful. It was a street map of London.
I can relate to this story completely. I have written entire books where I was navigating with total confidence by a map in my head, only to realize later that the map bore no relation whatsoever to the ground I was covering. Yet I made it home.
I’ll bet you’ve done it too.
But back to the Ghurka rifleman. He had no legitimate map, but what he did have was a professional mindset.
He had confidence.
He had optimism.
He had faith.
He knew the sun rose in the East and he knew he was heading north. He knew to keep his own counsel, trust no one but his own inner guide, and to keep on trucking.
Who cares if there was no Hammersmith or Wimbledon in the Burmese jungle? There was the stream, there was the crossroads. You gotta believe.
In the end, you and I as writers are artists are guided not by a chart or a concept but by a calling in our heart.
The story we’re telling knows itself. It knows where it’s going. It’ll tell us if we listen.
Our Ghurka rifleman, unlike the Intelligence officers who debriefed him, may not have been able to spell Shepherd’s Bush or King’s Cross. But he knew his heart.
He knew his way home.
It was a map of London. Beautiful. My own experience of dismounted land navigation makes this story heroic. Finding a location that is only 500m-2000m away is one thing, but when the point is 5-6km away, my own struggles with self doubt have been very challenging. You turn around, and the terrain looks totally different from whence you came. Did I stay on azimuth? Is my pace count correct? How do I maneuver around this 100m obstacle, and get back on course? And my maps were not of London. 600 miles?! Forget about it.
Land Nav stopped more candidates becoming officers, or Soldiers becoming NCOs than any other block of instruction. It is hard.
The more I simply dig into something I need to do, pay as close attention as I can–even to mundane tasks, I find my inner critic becomes silent. I think for me, to maintain that inner belief, I need to chunk my 600 mile trek into 200m-500m sprints in which I can clearly navigate.
Thanks, Steve. I’m doing NaNoWriMo at the moment and this perfectly describes how my story is changing as I write it. It’s a living thing.
All paths lead home, when following a star.
What Erik said – thanks for another post that really hits its mark!
Thanks for this Steve – John Master’s book is one of my absolute favourites, and as an Army officer I assigned it as reading to all of my junior officers. You might also enjoy his second memoir of the Second World War, “The Road Past Mandalay,” or some of his fictional work such as “The Ravi Lancers,” about an Indian cavalry regiment in France in the First World War. I’d never considered how some of his stories apply to writing, though – thanks for making this connection for me!
Sometimes you just know you’ll get there.
Crossing the long, hard road home is no big deal. Some are lost without the knowledge of what direction home is. Only knowing that the current location is not home. Just lost, without knowing where home is. Finding where home is, that is a big deal.
Reading that the map was of London heart my heart a little. that is devotion—to oneself. I feel so much compassion for him.
Speaking of army dudes read Make Your Bed last year. I liked it.
Thanks Steve although I wasn’t prepared for the puncture.
I wasn’t expecting this, and it stopped my mind.
I guess we’re all working our way back home with the maps we have. Thanks, Steve.
Sounds like a ‘Message to Garcia’ type of epic. Thanks, Steve
I too like the book. I’ve always suspected the author was the absent owner of the huge house which Magnum PiI.’s friend, who had been in the Burma campaign, used in that old TV series.
“But he knew his heart.
He knew his way home.”
Great story. The Gorkhas (not Ghurkas) are excellent soldiers and great human beings.
Simple, hardworking, honest and highly dependable.
Former Indian Army Chief of Staff Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw once stated that “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha.”