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Book Reviews: Kipling Sahib

June 7, 2014

kipling-sahib

Sorry for no blogging in a while, have had a lot of customer trips/meetings at work, and the activities for the return back westward for me and family have begun.  Less than 2 months till we are all back home, where doubtless we’ll dream of India the way we dream of Massachusetts now.  Anyway, on to this longish posting.

I daresay there is no Westerner more famously associated with India than Rudyard Kipling.  As children we saw the Jungle Book cartoon and probably read Rikki-tikki-Tavi.  As we became older we saw the Man Who Would Be King, and possibly saw and read his great novel, Kim.  Finally, there is his poetry, inescapable from anyone who took an English Lit class 40 years ago, such as this from his famous Recessional:

    God of our fathers, known of old –
    Lord of our far-flung battle line –
    Beneath whose awful hand we hold
    Dominion over palm and pine –
    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
    Lest we forget – lest we forget!

I’m afraid today neither East nor West has a great view of Kipling.  Here in India he is typically dismissed as a racist, though perhaps a congenial one.  And in the West, he is alternately lauded then excoriated as a dead white guy.

I knew some of that when I was in the bookseller’s and saw  Kipling Sahib, by Charles Allen.  But frankly my motivation to get the book was boredom – there’s not a lot to do out here and all we Salazars pass a lot of time by reading.

Kipling Sahib was a welcome surprise.  The author, Charles Allen, comes of a long-time Anglo-Indian family and his grandfather, George Allen, was founder of the newspaper The Pioneer. It was George Allen who employed Kipling as a journalist and later as associate editor, and so connected with the Kipling family, as ex-patriates were wont to do in those days, in a way that persisted over generations.

The details related here were unknown to me and fascinating.  Rudyard’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, came to India to as a member of an industrial academy, to teach Indians to make sculptures, moldings, and other architectural adornments prized by Victorian architecture.  An accomplished illustrator he created many telling portraits of Indian life, such as this:

Rudyard was himself born in Mumbai, in Dec. 1865 soon after the arrival of J.L. and his wife Alice in India.  An episode of Kipling’s early life that Allen relates near the start of the book sets the tone for all to follow:

… a story related by Alice Kipling to her son’s first biographer, of the four year old [Rudyard] walking hand in hand with a Maratha ryot or peasant cultivator over a ploughed field and calling back to his parents in the vernacular, “Goodbye, this is my brother.”

The word for brother the small Kipling must have used is bhā’ī, the same in Hindi and Marathi.  Certainly people use this for their siblings, but bhā’ī has broader meaning here, it can mean a friend you would do anything for, or one you depend on to do the same for you.  Your baṛē bhā’ī or bahut bhā’ī, your big brother, is someone who looks out for you and your family almost like a father.  In this the unknowing Rudyard was almost saying, “This is my new family.”

The life of Kipling that Allen relates has a Downton Abbey-like quality to it.  It was the Victorian era after all, and parents were comfortable with sending children thousands of miles away for schooling while they themselves strove for advancement in the far flung colonies of the Empire.  This time in England for Rudyard, age 5 to 12, and for his younger sister Trix, was to mark him forever.  It was in England while still only a boy he discovered his avocation for writing.  But it was also an episode of loneliness and abandonment that was to inform all of his work and life to come as well.

Later when Rudyard became an adult and returns to India he has his share of excitement and disappointment in the highly insular and stratified society of British India, especially at its favored summer location, the mountain city of Simla.  It is in Simla that the eccentricities of the British character conjoin with the diversity of India to create some rather amusing instances, like the 100,000 item collection of birds, eggs, and other natural artifacts that Allen Octavian Hume intended as source materials for an epic work entitled The Game Birds of India, Burma and Ceylon, but was sold off in the bazaar for kindling by a servant during one of Hume’s absences.  This same Hume later became a follower of “theosophist” Madame Blavatsky, who claimed powers as a medium; J.L. Kipling dismissed her as ‘’”one of the most interesting and unscrupulous imposters I have ever met.”  Later when Blavatsky’s deceptions were exposed and Hume withdrew his support, Kipling’s employer The Pioneer suffered greatly, as the paper had endorsed her.

These, together with numerous  romantic intrigues, were the doings of Simla observed by  Rudyard aged 17 or 18.  Interestingly, Allen Octavian Hume went on to become a sponsor and founder of the Indian National Congress, the party that would fight for and ultimately achieve Indian independence.

Kipling Sahib also shows us Rudyard’s history and struggles as a writer.  Kipling’s age was one where the Western world was hungry for information and novelty.  Newspapers and books of all kinds sold in great numbers, and stories of far places were especially prized.  Writers combing the countryside looking for exotic stories became commonplace, so much so that the guise of “writer” sometimes was used as a foil by blackmailers and the like, as Kipling suggests in The Man Who Would Be King:

“… here’s precious few pickings to be got out of these Central India States—even though you pretend to be correspondent of the ‘Backwoodsman.’ “

“Have you ever tried that trick?” I asked.

“Again and again, but the Residents find you out, and then you get escorted to the Border before you’ve time to get your knife into them …

“Residents” are British officers or officials, assigned to help keep order in the independent states.  And ‘Backwoodsman’ was an obvious reference to The Pioneer.

As Allen relates it, Kipling seems to have been driven both by insecurity as a writer, driven to distinguish himself in the growing ranks of travel-writers and diarists, and by a desire of truthfulness, a kind of dramatic journalism that led him to focus on the lowly and powerless and not the powerful.  His first success was the somewhat eldritch tale The Phantom Rickshaw, in which a man, Jack Pansay, has an affair with the wife of an officer, only to leave her for a younger, unmarried woman.  When the first woman dies of a broken heart, the man is haunted by her rickshaw, that pursues him when he rides with his fiancé, the spurned lover’s ghost crying,  “It’s some hideous mistake, I’m sure. Please forgive me, Jack, and let’s be friends again.”

The Phantom Rickshaw won a kind of prurient following, for affairs of this kind were a common but unspoken aspect of Anglo-India life; officers and bureaucrats were away months or years at a time, leaving wives with little to do and no companionship other than those in similar straits.  Rudyard’s father J.L. never liked the story, saying he “… hoped someone would rap [Rudyard’s] knuckles for the unwholesomeness of the Phantom Ricksha.”

Kipling would stay on the edge of knuckle-rapping his whole career.  For all that he championed British Imperialism in works such as The Recessional and The White Man’s Burden, in writings like Soldier Stories he related the perspective, and courage, of the lower-classes, both brown and white.  A typical example is The Drums of the Fore and Aft.  In this story, a regiment of new recruits has two British war-orphans for drummers, Jakin and Lew, always undisciplined, but longing for the day when they would be men and full privates in the regiment.  In a battle in Afghanistan the regiment cuts and runs, but Jakin and Lew stay, all alone playing drum and fife as they march out against the Pathans.  They are cut down, but their courage rallies the shamed regiment who drive off the enemy.  At the end of the story the Brigadier and the Colonel congratulate themselves on the action, which in fact they had little to do with. Kipling ends with these lines:

But some say, and among these be the Gurkhas who watched on the hillside, that that battle was won by Jakin and Lew, whose little bodies were borne up just in time to fit two gaps at the head of the big ditch-grave for the dead under the heights of Jagai.

Kipling is a complex figure, no doubt.  George Orwell wrote a famous piece on him, both condemning and defending.  In fact Googling about while writing this post I came across old acquaintance David Friedman’s critique of Orwell’s critique.  I rather agree with David’s point that while Kipling related many racist or oppressive scenes, what he in fact was, was a realist, who tried in his way to show the truth of many kinds of lives: of soldier’s lives, or of Indian’s lives.  These truths may not always be flattering to their subjects, or convenient to those in power, but Kipling did put them on paper.  Consider this, from the poem The Young British Soldier (from Barrack Room Ballads):

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
   An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.

I can barely imagine how such realism was received in 1895.  Even today this poem quite rightly resonates, as it was taken as inspiration by British troopers in Afghanistan, there again after a 60 years of absence.

So, should you read Kipling Sahib?  If you are the reading kind, or a Kipling completist,  or perhaps in need of distraction as I was, then certainly you should.  Otherwise, I have to say no; the book has too much biographer’s detail.

Instead, if you have not done, you should read Kim.  I have long known of this book – in it Kipling invented the term “the Great Game”, after all – but never read it.  I assumed it was adventuresome, like The Man Who Would Be King, so felt no great reason to read it.  But after reading Kipling Sahib, and finding many free editions of Kim on Kindle, I thought, why not?

I found this book to be wonderful.  I won’t add another review to this already too-long first review.  I will just say Kim is about discovering oneself, what is important.  I am much taken with this passage, recited by the lama who befriends the orphan Kim:

‘Long and long ago, when Devadatta was King of Benares – let all listen to the Tataka! – an elephant was captured for a time by the king’s hunters and ere he broke free, beringed with a grievous leg iron. This he strove to remove with hate and frenzy in his heart, and hurrying up and down the forests, besought his brother-elephants to wrench it asunder.

One by one, with their strong trunks, they tried and failed. At the last they gave it as their opinion that the ring was not to be broken by any bestial power. And in a thicket, new-born, wet with moisture of birth, lay a day-old calf of the herd whose mother had died. The fettered elephant, forgetting his own agony, said: “If I do not help this suckling it will perish under our feet.” So he stood above the young thing, making his legs buttresses against the uneasily moving herd; and he begged milk of a virtuous cow, and the calf throve, and the ringed elephant was the calf ’s guide and defence. Now the days of an elephant – let all listen to the Tataka!– are thirty-five years to his full strength, and through thirty-five Rains the ringed elephant befriended the younger, and all the while the fetter ate into the flesh.

‘Then one day the young elephant saw the half-buried iron, and turning to the elder said: “What is this?” “It is even my sorrow,” said he who had befriended him. Then that other put out his trunk and in the twinkling of an eyelash abolished the ring, saying: “The appointed time has come.” So the virtuous elephant who had waited temperately and done kind acts was relieved, at the appointed time, by the very calf whom he had turned aside to cherish – let all listen to the Tataka!— for the Elephant was Ananda, and the Calf that broke the ring was none other than The Lord Himself…’

 

Soon (I hope) some posts about the preparations and perspectives on returning home.  Till then …

Categories: Books, Expat life
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