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Donald Maxwell, ‘The Gateway of India’- David Gilmour on Rudyard Kipling

Inspired by Kipling

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When recently I began to write a social history of British India, I realized I would have to keep Rudyard Kipling under control. I could not endlessly compare people to characters in a Kipling story or make points and then back them up with ‘As Kipling once wrote . . .’ Nor could I write about scandals in Simla and describe them as Kiplingesque scenarios.

I hadn’t realized, however, that I would also have to exercise control over Kipling’s place in the minds of many of the people I was writing about. Yet from the 1880s onwards he appears as a regular influence, from schooldays to career choice, to work and leisure, and even to retirement. When writing his memoirs, one figure of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) could not resist beginning a sentence with ‘If, as Kipling says (always Kipling) . . .’ Here I shall be writing about how Kipling inspired people to go to India and how they looked at it through his eyes; a subsequent article will examine how those same people lived their lives with Kipling at their shoulder (as it were), and how accurate they considered his portrait of British India might be.

Born in Bombay on the penultimate day of 1865, young ‘Ruddy’ spent five and a half years in India before he was taken to England with his younger sister Trix and left there for eleven years of schooling. In 1882 he returned to the country of his birth to work as a journalist on the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, where his father was curator of the museum and principal of the Mayo School of Industrial Arts. Displaying a precocity that astonished and sometimes exasperated his contemporaries, he had his first book of poems (Departmental Ditties and Other Verses) published in 1886 when he was 20, and his first collection of stories (Plain Tales from the Hills) two years later. Many other stories of India (and a few further poems) were to come, some published while he was still living in Lahore, others when he moved

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When recently I began to write a social history of British India, I realized I would have to keep Rudyard Kipling under control. I could not endlessly compare people to characters in a Kipling story or make points and then back them up with ‘As Kipling once wrote . . .’ Nor could I write about scandals in Simla and describe them as Kiplingesque scenarios.

I hadn’t realized, however, that I would also have to exercise control over Kipling’s place in the minds of many of the people I was writing about. Yet from the 1880s onwards he appears as a regular influence, from schooldays to career choice, to work and leisure, and even to retirement. When writing his memoirs, one figure of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) could not resist beginning a sentence with ‘If, as Kipling says (always Kipling) . . .’ Here I shall be writing about how Kipling inspired people to go to India and how they looked at it through his eyes; a subsequent article will examine how those same people lived their lives with Kipling at their shoulder (as it were), and how accurate they considered his portrait of British India might be. Born in Bombay on the penultimate day of 1865, young ‘Ruddy’ spent five and a half years in India before he was taken to England with his younger sister Trix and left there for eleven years of schooling. In 1882 he returned to the country of his birth to work as a journalist on the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, where his father was curator of the museum and principal of the Mayo School of Industrial Arts. Displaying a precocity that astonished and sometimes exasperated his contemporaries, he had his first book of poems (Departmental Ditties and Other Verses) published in 1886 when he was 20, and his first collection of stories (Plain Tales from the Hills) two years later. Many other stories of India (and a few further poems) were to come, some published while he was still living in Lahore, others when he moved to Allahabad in 1887, and more after he had left India in 1889. ‘Gunga Din’, ‘Danny Deever’ and ‘Mandalay’ were written in 1890 and published as part of Barrack-Room Ballads in 1892. Kim, that magical picaresque novel, did not appear until 1901. Kipling’s verse and fiction became popular very quickly in British India. People started giving his books as presents, often accompanied by notes observing that their contents were ‘so true to life’: as late as the 1930s one ICS officer sent his fiancée in England the complete works ‘to prepare’ her for what was to come. Kipling’s verse, its strong rhythms making it easy to remember, became a useful weapon for the bore. ‘Bobby lay on his back and recited yards and yards of Kipling,’ is one memsahib’s diary record of a picnic near Mhow. ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din’ became a favourite line for men who wanted others to know that they appreciated the good qualities of Indians. Even today, when people hear I have written about Kipling, I see them struggling with memory before coming out with lines such as ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same . . .’ Once his books were circulating in Britain, Kipling acted as an unofficial, and indeed unwitting, recruiting agent for three generations of British boys who were inspired by him to go to India. Philip Mason, a distinguished civil servant and a writer in retirement, was one of them. When in old age he was asked why he had joined the ICS, he replied with one word, ‘Kipling’. Not only had the stories, which as a child he had known almost by heart, given him a ‘romantic desire’ to go to India; ‘with their strong sense of commitment to duties usually unpleasant and often dangerous’, they had inspired him to go and carry out those duties himself. When eventually he got to the northern plains, as he recalled in his memoir, A Shaft of Sunlight, he ‘became aware of a sensation almost of coming home’; he was remembering ‘the scents of dust and spices’ from his reading of Kipling. It was these, together with the thought of ‘the bright colours of the bazaar’, that had drawn him to India in the first place. I have similar feelings even now when I am in Mumbai and visit the Crawford Markets (their entrance decorated with beautiful bas-reliefs designed by Kipling’s father). Although the ICS was appreciated as a service that was efficient, just and incorruptible, Kipling himself was not an unqualified admirer; his fictional portraits of civil servants are sometimes less than flattering. Yet his work evidently had a special resonance with candidates for the ICS. One of them recalled how Kipling had ‘cast his spell’ through his prep-school headmaster’s readings from Kim, and ‘the magic persisted’. Another had no Indian connections and was reluctantly planning to follow his father into the family flour mill when he read Kipling and was inspired to take the ICS exam at Burlington House in Piccadilly. When Herbert Thompson went out in 1922 as a civil servant to Madras (which Kipling had neither visited nor written about), he admitted that his ‘only general source of information about India lay in the works of Rudyard Kipling’, all of whose books he had read. His ICS contemporary Maurice Zinkin was in an even more advanced state of ignorance, confessing that no one in his family had ever been east of Suez and that his own knowledge of India was confined to Kim and The Jungle Book. In this he was matched by his future wife, a French girl called Tanya. As a child she had memorized The Jungle Book in her own language, reading and rereading the story of Mowgli and the death of Akela without ever realizing that ‘Kipling was not French like Jules Verne . . .’ Reading such memories often makes me regret that I never read Kipling as a child (his books were not on our nursery shelves because my father’s collection had been appropriated by my aunt). I discovered Kipling as an adult. So did Arthur Hamilton, who had been wounded in the First World War, and was mesmerized when he read Kipling in convalescence: once demobbed, he applied to the India Office, studied forestry at Oxford and went out to the Punjab as an official of the Forest Department. Yet Kipling’s appeal was not limited just to men eager to join the army or one of the services. Whatever racial assumptions and imperialist feelings he may have had – and which he shared with most of his generation – Kipling’s love of India was unquestionable, and he communicated it in a way that was accessible to all. His impact on Ernest Hartley was such that in 1905 the 22-year-old abandoned his middle-class life in Yorkshire for a job as a junior exchange broker in a firm in Calcutta. He did not achieve any great things there, and his name might not have survived in print had he not become the father of the actress Vivien Leigh, who shared his love of Kipling. Youthful admirers in England were seldom disappointed when they reached Kipling’s India. One engineer found that at the Victoria Terminus in Bombay ‘the platform was all that Kipling described and [he] felt like looking round for Kim among the crowd of passengers’. Others felt the presence of the young imp with his lama on the Grand Trunk Road or up among the deodars at Simla, where Mason identified ‘the place where Kim met Lurgan Sahib’, or even further up amid the snows of the Himalayas. The writer John Masters recognized those mountains because he ‘had travelled in them too, with Kim’. It was in the pages of Kim, ‘the best book . . . ever written on India’, that Masters first had ‘felt the tang of the air and heard the silence, and seen [with Kim] “the appalling sweep and dispersal of the cloud shadows after rain”’. Masters also recognized the Seeonee Hills, the location of the Jungle Books, as did an ICS officer, Noël Tindal Porter, for whom service there was ‘the realization of a dream’, because he had been brought up on those books. Masters rhapsodized about ‘Kipling’s genius for transmitting atmosphere’, but the genius in this case was even greater than he realized, because Kipling had never in fact visited the Seeonee. As an adult Kipling lived in India for only six and a half years and spent most of his time in Lahore in the Punjab. Many of his devotees were naturally sent to other parts of India and were correspondingly disappointed with what they found. Vivien Stevenson-Hamilton, a subaltern in the 4th Gurkhas, was frustrated at his posting to the North-West Frontier because it was far away from anywhere described in Kim and the Plain Tales; fortunately he was soon able to wangle a transfer into the heart of Kipling country as an ADC to the governor of the Punjab, based in Lahore in the cold weather and in Simla in summer. Another subaltern in the Indian Army, H. R. Robinson, was even more desperate. Hoping to experience the ‘colourful glamour of the East’, he was understandably dismayed by his initial train journey from Karachi – ‘a vista of desert and barren hills, sweltering heat and very little shade’ – and then so depressed by Baluchistan that his ‘soul thirsted’ for something else. He looked at the map, identified the Bay of Bengal and recalled the ‘cleaner, greener land’ of Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’. So he got himself transferred to Burma, was seduced by the charm of the country and its people, and became in turn a policeman, a frontier official and a Buddhist mendicant. Unfortunately he also became an opium addict and spent all the money he had – and some he did not have – on his addiction. On being arrested for trying to abscond without paying his debts, he grabbed his pistol and tried to kill himself while reciting Kipling’s lines from ‘The Young British Soldier’:

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.

The attempt only blinded him, but it did cure his addiction. Kipling spent a mere three days in Burma, at the end of his years in India, yet he managed to evoke the country in a handful of nouns and half a dozen verses in ‘Mandalay’.

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say: ‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’

Kipling knew the British soldier (‘Tommy Atkins’) and he knew the life of the bazaars as no other British writer has ever known them. So he would not have been surprised to learn that for years afterwards Burmese girls of the oldest profession would try to entice Tommies into their beds with the line, ‘Come you back, you British soldier . . .’ But as an imperialist sceptical of the merits of democracy, he would certainly have been surprised to learn that his poem came to be so revered by a Burmese democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, that an extract was read out at her wedding. She also had an unusual view of Kipling’s ‘If’, a poem whose detractors and supporters generally line up on either side of the Left/Right divide. Chile’s communist poet, Pablo Neruda, dismissed it as ‘that uninspired, sanctimonious . . . precursor of Reader’s Digest, whose intellectual level . . . was no higher than the Duke of Alba’s shoes’. (He had found a framed copy of the poem in Gothic lettering by the duke’s bedside in the Madrid palace abandoned by the family in the Spanish Civil War.) Aung San Suu Kyi disagreed. The work, she observed, may often have been ‘dismissed as the epitome of imperial bombast’, but it was in fact ‘a great poem for dissidents’. She even produced a Burmese translation to inspire her supporters. Aung San Suu Kyi is not the most improbable admirer of Kipling. When reviewing T. S. Eliot’s introduction to Kipling’s verse in 1942, George Orwell began a tradition in which left-wing and anti-colonialist writers praised Kipling’s work while damning his politics and sometimes his character. Two prominent members of this group have been Edward Said and Salman Rushdie. When asked by Penguin to introduce two collections of early stories, Soldiers Three and In Black and White, Rushdie accepted the invitation and concluded his essay with the words, ‘There will always be plenty in Kipling that I will find difficult to forgive; but there is also enough truth in these stories to make them impossible to ignore.’ The sequel to this article appears in Issue 55.

 Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 54 © David Gilmour 2017


About the contributor

David Gilmour is the author of <i>The Long Recessional</i>, a life of Kipling, who also makes guest appearances in his <i>Curzon</i> and <i>The Ruling Caste</i>. But the author has managed to exclude him from his Italian books.

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