Scandalous Tales from the Hills

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One day, early in the First World War, an officer of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) heard his small son chattering in Punjabi to the family’s Indian servants. ‘He’s a real little Kim,’ the father said, doubtless with pride, for he himself was a fine linguist. The name stuck. In his winter camp in the Punjab, Harry St John Philby had been reminded of the ‘Little Friend of all the World’ whom Rudyard Kipling had created some years earlier in his novel Kim (1901). British children brought up among ayahs and malis and other servants often spoke an Indian language before they were fluent in their own. Kipling himself claimed that his first language was Hindustani.

St John Philby could not of course have foreseen another similarity between Kipling’s Kim and his own: that they would both grow up to become spies, one working fairly harmlessly for the British against the Russians in what became known as the Great Game, the other acting lethally for the Russians against the British in a ‘game’ that cost hundreds of lives. I think of the novel Kim as a love letter to India and its peoples written by a man who had left them a dozen years earlier; spies and the Great Game are not its most important theme. Yet, like so much of what Kipling wrote, Kim acquired an unexpected, unintended and erroneous significance, in this case as a spy novel. One British intelligence officer in Burma during the Second World War even regarded it as his ‘bible’ and gave a copy to each recruit he was training.

In Issue 54 I wrote of the way in which Kipling inspired three generations of British boys to go out to work in India. How, though, did his works both affect and reflect their lives once they got there? At a basic level, his verses are so vivid and easy to remember that certain lines would come naturally into men’s minds to suit such and such an occasion or situation. Whenever one of his friends died as a result of the Indian climate, an Irish cavalry officer recited the lines,

Never the lotus closes, never the wild-fowl wake,
But a soul goes out on the East Wind
that died for England’s sake.

Other responses to Kipling’s works included those of simple gratitude, many men (but fewer women) cherishing a writer who seemed to know so much about them, their work and the peoples they were living among. As one ICS officer wrote in his autobiography, ‘how often in the watches of a tropic night has he taken us away from our fever and our troubles into his magic world, and sent us forth again cheered and refreshed and with a clearer vision of the humour and pathos of the life about us’.

Yet Kipling’s writings could produce stronger and more challenging reactions than these, especially when he was being satirical. His light-hearted stories of life in Simla, the Indian Empire’s summer capital, outraged earnest officials and upright memsahibs who

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About the contributor

David Gilmour is writing a social history of British India.

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