Kipling's India

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 3, 2002 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

V.S. Naipaul has suggested that "nobody has written as accurately about Indians" as Rudyard Kipling, the first Englishman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. That the premier chronicler of Indians should also have been part of an empire oppressing them is depressing to say the least. And Naipaul certainly does not give the ancient Indian literary tradition much credit. Then again, the outsider with inside information is often most capable of accuracy, and the English colonists were nothing if not fastidious.

Besides, Kipling was born in India and worked for many years as a journalist there. He loved India even if he also loved the English imperium. And does not proficiency in a subject derive ultimately from a kind of love for it? Nonetheless posterity has never been sure what to think of Kipling, whether to dismiss him as a composer of jingoistic doggerel or praise him as a rare instance of pure genius. Orwell put it best when he wrote: "For my own part, I worshipped Kipling at thirteen, loathed him at seventeen, enjoyed him at twenty, despised him at twenty-five, and now again rather admire him." Orwell hated Kipling's empire, but placed Kipling's imperial poem "Mandalay" among his favorites. Henry Adams found Kipling to be an "exuberant fountain of gaiety and wit," but rather too - English, as Americans are wont to do.

Kipling's novel Kim is probably the best introduction to a study of his work. It is his prose masterpiece and one of the best novels ever written, not only about India but also about Asia. Over 100 years after its publication in 1901, Kim continues to influence contemporary writing. Selections from it appear, for example, in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. And the Penguin edition of the novel contains a somewhat longwinded introduction by no less than Columbia University Professor Edward Said, voice of the oppressed.

Kipling was uneasy with the novel form, and Kim can often be taxing. It is often difficult to tell where action is taking place, which characters are present, and who is speaking. And because much of the book's dialogue is supposed to be translated from Hindi or Urdu, which have formal and informal personal pronouns, the text is filled with distracting "thee"s and "thou"s and "thy"s - distracting even for a Victorian. The text is dense: as Ondaatje noted in The English Patient, Kim must be read slowly, with a solemn pause at each sacred comma. Kim brims with esoteric names, places, and foreign words; from a distance, its English resembles German. Said's footnotes run into the hundreds.

Kim is partially a meditation on the worldly versus the spiritual life, a common Indian theme. The orphan Kim is a born adventurer - street-smart, wily, and well aware that money talks. His ideal world consists of "new sights at every turn of the approving eye." But then Kim befriends a Tibetan lama. Though the lama likes to meditate and relate Buddhist Jataka tales, Kim worships him. The lama is something of a caricature: his characteristic response to problems is to moan that the world is an Illusion. True, perhaps, but not very helpful. Kipling's sympathies clearly lay with adventure and not asceticism. For a time, Kim joins the lama in his austerities, but finds that he misses dining on animal flesh.

It was Kipling who said that East is East and West is West, and Kim corroborates his faith that the distinction would always hold. Interestingly, his stereotypes of the "white man" are every bit as wince-inducing as those of the "Oriental." "Only the devils and the English walk to and fro without reason," remarks one native; "the folly of the Sahibs knows neither top nor bottom," remarks another. The lama notes that white soldiers "do no harm except when they are drunk." Kim's father is the canonical drunken Irishman with the pat Irish name O'Hara. As for the Orientals, they are prone to dishonesty, especially the Pathans. Their religious fervor is often divisive and hopelessly impractical. And they are, of course, junkies. "Opium," says Kipling, "is meat, tobacco, and medicine to the spent Asiatic."

Kim is pro-Empire, but only just. Kipling sums up the bloody suppression of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 using the following euphemism: "Then came the Sahibs from over the sea and called [the mutineers] to most strict account." A messy business, in other words, but necessary - a mere matter of accounting. On the other hand, Kipling disparages the empire's Christianity, "the creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title of 'heathen.'"

Kipling shows us a drunken Indian taking umbrage at the British Raj for having "forced upon him a white man's education and neglected to supply him with a white man's salary." Incidentally, this disparity between education and opportunity remains in many developing countries. But Kipling regards the Indian's complaint as "thickly treasonous." When the Indian sobers up, he retracts his words. The Government, he declares, is "the source of all prosperity and honor." A clear-cut case of in vino veritas? To us, perhaps, but to Kipling? Was he trying to suggest that Indians are irrational when drunk, or that they hide indignance over real grievances behind a mask of fawning fealty?

Another Indian protests English taxes, but admits that the English railway system is worth the price. This ambivalence toward the departed Raj remains in India, and it is merely one example of the ambivalence toward the West throughout the developing world. Kipling described the main features of this dynamic with remarkable prescience and concreteness.

Kipling's India is of course quite foreign to the India of today. One might even say that it is a rather cartoonish depiction of the India of yesteryear. But then Kipling was to a great extent a "writer for boys." Kim is a picaresque, not social realism. But much of it is still accurate, in part because India is so slow to change. The English-built trains still hold the country together. Religion and caste are still crucial, and problematic. The Economist recently wrote that India is accustomed to "small-scale carnage" - this too is nothing new.

The Great Game of Kim has become the New Great Game. Professor Said defines the Great Game as "diplomatic and other manoeuvres followed by India and Russia in their struggle for political ascendancy in Western Asia in the first half of the nineteenth century." The New Great Game is the modern-day struggle for control over the oil-rich Caspian Sea, and involves many the same players as its predecessor. One Hurree Babu comments dimly that "when everyone is dead the Great Game is finished. Not before."

Finally, a former solider in Kim points out that "there is always war along the Border," i.e. the border between British India (now Pakistan) and incorrigible Afghanistan. The soldier was and is correct: this border remains one of the most volatile in the world. What Kipling calls "the insalubrious city of Peshawur" is much in today's news, and has become little more salubrious.

Of these continuities between Kipling's and modern India, the most obvious is religious. Billboards for Sony and Aiwa may now illuminate the night sky of Bombay, but wandering mendicants still bathe and wash their simple garb in the now dreadfully polluted waters off Chowpatty Beach. India grows increasingly famous for its software industry, but millions of pilgrims still descend upon the Ganges. This passage from Kim could have been written today: "All India is full of holy men stammering gospels in strange tongues; shaken and consumed in the fire of their own zeal; dreamers, babblers, and visionaries: as it has been from the beginning and will continue to the end."

If only these holy men could only babble, and not blow each other up. If only they could say with Kim's horse-trader Mahbub that "faiths are like the horses. Each has merit in its own country." It doesn't take a genius to understand this. But it may take a genius like Kipling to state it so simply.

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Review of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, Penguin, 1989.

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