Kipling's Indian Stories

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 2, 2002 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

A boy born in Bombay is raised by two loving parents and an ayah, an Indian live-in baby-sitter. At night the ayah tells the boy stories drawn from Indian legend. He is precocious, and India's endless complexity keeps him occupied and alert. More importantly, he is surrounded by people who love and trust him. India is an idyll.

He is made to leave India for England, where the weather is horrible, and the schools are dull and violent. His new caretakers are overbearing religious zealots who regularly beat him. He becomes solitary and introspective. He reads a lot and learns how to fight.

The story sounds like Indian propaganda. In fact it is a sketch of "Baa, Baa Black Sheep", a story by and about Rudyard Kipling, who is usually thought a propagandist for England. Obviously Kipling was ambivalent toward his homeland, or perhaps it is better to say that he was unsure where his true home was. He did eventually reside in England, but his writings indicate that his heart continued to reside in India well after his last visit in 1891, when he was but in his twenties.

Arguably no other author writing in English has written so well, so much, and in so many different genres about India as Kipling. True, he was concerned with a rather miniscule portion of India's long history, and sometimes he paid more attention to its English administrators than to Indians themselves. But perhaps only Rabindranath Tagore could surpass his stature as a literary representative of the subcontinent. Indians may bristle at the comparison, and certainly the audiences of the two authors were as different as their languages. Kipling would always be an outsider, though partially by choice, as he was candid about the dangers of mixing too closely with the "natives." In the cautionary tale "Beyond the Pale", Kipling writes with Mosaic authority that one should "keep to his own caste, race, and breed. Let the White go to the White and the Black to the Black." Never the twain ought meet.

He wrote poems, plays, novels, short stories. He even wrote a history - of England. The stories vie with the poems as his most memorable work. He lacked the bovine temperament of the novelist, and each of his stories often seems, for all its delicious perfection, to have been written at one sitting. And though the time they describe may seem remote, the stories remain engaging. A number of them have even been made into movies.

One of the most daring and even presumptuous of Kipling's devices was to write in an Indian voice. The narrator of "Dray Wara Yow Dee" is a Sikh, that of "A Sahib's War" a Muslim prone to exclamations on the order of: "The Peace of God and the favour of His Prophet be upon this house and all that is in it!" But Kipling does not mock - far from it. The Indians to the northwest of Delhi have traditionally been the region's fiercest warriors and most intractable subjects, and one can sense that Kipling as study-chair warrior respected their ferocity and pride. The courage and resourcefulness of the English soldier is always superior in his eyes, but he does give credit where credit is due.

Kipling did however doubt that the Indians could govern themselves or each other, not least because of the animosities between India's many castes, races, and breeds. In the story "The Head of the District", a Bengali is appointed to govern an unruly north Indian area. Traditionally the Bengalis are thought to be the brains to the north Indians' brawn, but the match is not a happy one. The title of the story contains a pun, as the hapless Bengali's head is ultimately severed from his body and delivered to the sahibs as proof of the leader's deficits. Elsewhere the sahibs are treated to the epithet "Protector of the Poor", apparently in reference to the superior justness of English law.

Kipling may have believed that the English governed best, but he did not believe that they governed faultlessly. The story "The Man Who Would Be King", a farce that could easily have been penned by Mark Twain, describes the attempt of two English "loafers" (and drunks and womanizers) to found their own kingdom in a remote part of India. The coup is swift, the populace pliant. Then the time comes to choose a queen from the ranks of the native women, and the unlikely monarchy is ousted as quickly as it came. British rule was sometimes a bit slapdash, or "rather peculiar" as Kipling put it in the story "Pig", which describes a bungled attempt to introduce pig farming into a country with a significant number of pork-shunning Muslims.

Also rather peculiar are Kipling's forays into the horror genre. In "The Mark of the Beast", a drunken Englishman desecrates a statue of the monkey-god Hanuman, and for this grave deed a leper places a curse on him. He develops a strange blemish on his chest and a gargantuan appetite for undercooked meat. You might guess the sequel: the poor sod is transmogrified into a wolf. Well, men can't go around turning into wolves. So the man's friends, wielding red-hot gun-barrels, torture the leper into revoking the curse. "This part," writes Kipling of the torture, "is not to be printed." Kipling rather fancied cruelty and revenge, and some critics have suggested that his childhood persecution in England is to blame. Anyway, the Englishman, now de-cursed, learns his lesson. Having no memory of his brief stint in the animal kingdom, he says, "Never mix your liquors." (And never mess with Hanuman.)

Arguably the best of the India stories is "The Bridge-Builders", if only because it best displays Kipling's astonishing imagination. The English are building a bridge over the river Ganges (known to Indians as Gunga) when word comes that the river is about to flood. The head engineer, his mind occupied by fear that the unfinished bridge may be washed away, carelessly accepts some opium from his Asian colleague Peroo. He then begins to have hallucinations featuring practically the entire Hindu pantheon. The gods idly discuss whether the bridge should be spared, and more generally whether a god of "mother" Gunga's power should be placed, as Peroo has it, "in irons." The elephant god Ganesh takes the long view. "It is but the shifting of a little dirt," he says. "Let the dirt dig in the dirt if it pleases the dirt." This is as good an expression of Hindu monism (and fatalism) as any, and it shows that Kipling, however much he admired the Empire builders, was aware that their energy was still but a drop in the cosmic bucket. On the other hand, the bridge stands; and science, after the opium has worn off, wins again.

When the Bombay boy was shipped off to England, he found comfort in tinkering with various gadgets on the ship. Kipling had a scientist's desire to know how everything worked. The breadth and depth of India has often reduced the hardest of minds to a throbbing mush, but not Kipling's. He wanted to figure India out, and his stories are interesting less for their plots than for their wealth of detail. "Beyond the Pale", the story of a disastrous tryst between a man named Trejago and a Hindu widow, is a prime example. >From it we learn about the "object-letter", an epistle consisting only of things:

"A broken glass-bangle stands for a Hindu widow all India over.... Trejago saw the meaning of the little bit of the glass. The flower of the dhak means diversely 'desire,' 'come,' 'write,' or 'danger,' according to the other things with it. One cardamom means 'jealousy'; but when any article is duplicated in an object-letter, it loses its symbolic meaning and stands merely for one of a number indicating time, or, if incense, curds, or saffron be sent also, place. The message ran then - 'A widow - dhak flower and bhusa -- at eleven o'clock.'"

No sooner has Kipling dissected the object-letter than he shares a certain native song. "The song is really pretty in the Vernacular. In English you miss the wail of it." He produces three stanzas, each ending with the line "Come back to me, Beloved, or I die!" Is this fiction or ethnography? No matter: it never fails to captivate.

Unfortunately a racial separatist like Kipling cannot yet be judged for his writing apart from his politics (though it is interesting that Gandhi, whose views also tended toward separatism, and who said in so many words that Westerners are barbarians, should be thought a saint and not a bigot.) If we can be persuaded to read the Bible, say, as literature, and not as the last word on the origins of mankind, surely we can read Kipling without subscribing to his separatism. Then again, as countless different castes, races, and breeds (in India and elsewhere) blow each other up or gun each other down with nauseating regularity, perhaps one can hear Kipling saying "I told you so."

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Review of Rudyard Kipling's Collected Stories, Everyman's Library, 1994.

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