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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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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 resented their depiction as essentially frivolous and adulterous. One civil servant insisted that Simla was ‘intellectually a serious place’ and Kipling’s tales were ‘misleadingly derogatory’. Lord Curzon, Queen Victoria’s last Indian viceroy, even felt the need to assure his aged sovereign that British society in India was neither ‘frivolous nor immoral’; these were simply ‘malevolent impressions’ that had unfortunately ‘received some colour from the too cynical stories of Rudyard Kipling’. Even before these criticisms were made, Kipling had tried to defend himself. In his preface to Under the Deodars (1888) he attempted to ‘assure the ill-informed that [British] India is not entirely inhabited by men and women playing tennis and breaking the Seventh Commandment’. The ‘ill-informed’ who read beyond the preface may have been puzzled to discover that most of the stories in the book were in fact precisely about such people (though without the tennis). So were half the poems in the ‘Ditties’ section of Departmental Ditties and Other Verses: women conspire to have their lovers promoted or transferred (so that they can keep them nearby) or arrange for their husbands to be rewarded (for being complaisant) or sent far away (so that they can be undisturbed with their lovers) or even advance the career of an inconvenient witness to keep him quiet. Later in the volume the poet produced one of his more cynical couplets.

The temper of chums, the love of your wife, and a new piano’s tune ‒ Which of the three will you trust at the end of an Indian June?

Kipling was thorough and blatant in his search for characters and ‘copy’ when he was in Simla. Soon after arriving in the hills he would spend an afternoon loping alongside his mother’s rickshaw, ‘learning most of the scandal’ in the town. Then he would spend his time talking ‒ and above all listening ‒ to anyone from whom he could acquire ‘goodish material’ and any ‘curious yarns’. From Isabella Burton, the effervescent lady who inspired his fictional Mrs Hauksbee, he gained ‘half a hundred ideas and some stories’. Sometimes he did not need to listen but merely to observe, as in the case of Lady Edge, the wife of the Chief Justice, who ‘was inclined to be naughty/Though much over forty’. According to the young researcher, she gave herself away ‘in double handfuls’. Kipling was of course aware that most memsahibs were not like Lady Edge. He occasionally wrote, in both his fiction and his journalism, of tired and dutiful wives, often ill and always anxious, their looks ravaged by the climate, women pining in exile for their children whom custom had forced them to send to English schools. But he was not attempting to give a comprehensive portrait of British India and its society, and so he omitted such women from the skittish stories he wished to write about Simla. Kipling’s picture of Simla society might be publicly or officially contested, but privately men often admitted that there was much truth in it. After the 1880s people seldom mentioned a scandal in a hill station without making some reference to Kipling. When he was posted to Kasauli near Simla after the First World War, Dr Shortt of the Indian Medical Service noted that it was a ‘very friendly station’ with the ‘usual mild scandals, so well dealt with by Kipling’. By the 1880s Simla was already known as ‘Capua’ (famous for its perfumes and loose living in the early Roman Empire) and apparently notorious for drinking, gambling and breaking the Seventh Commandment. A general of the time recalled ‘a few frisky young dames’, ‘a few young fellows full of mischief and devilment’ and ‘tender meetings by moonlight midst [Simla’s] dark umbrageous, pine-lined roads . . .’ Oxford’s Oriel College holds a large collection of letters from young ICS officers at the end of the nineteenth century to their old tutor, the Reverend Lancelot Phelps, who encouraged them to write about their experiences in India. Many of them read Kipling and enthused about his works, although Phelps himself regarded Plain Tales from the Hills as ‘unfit for ladies’. One correspondent reported that Englishwomen in India did nothing all day and seemed to go to pieces very rapidly. ‘The amount of malicious scandal talked is fairly amazing, and Kipling is much more true to the life in his women-kind than most [of the British in India] would allow.’ That is not the last word on the ‘women-kind’ or on Kipling’s view of them. Even at the age of 22, when Plain Tales was published, Kipling understood how difficult it was to be an Englishwoman in India. Unlike her husband, who at least had work to do and had chosen a career he knew would take him to India, a girl seldom went there out of choice. Meeting an official or an army officer who was on leave in England, usually someone older than her and desperate to find a wife before he returned to his post, she soon learned that acceptance of his proposal meant being dragged away from her home and family into a hurried marriage, a cursory honeymoon and a long and uncomfortable voyage. These experiences were often followed by further uncomfortable journeys, by train and bullock-cart, before she arrived at a remote outpost, usually a barely furnished bungalow with lots of insects but little sanitation, a place where she would have found life very limited and boring had she not been shortly to give birth to her first child in extremely primitive conditions. For the next thirty years or so she would be living in a foreign country whose inhabitants outnumbered British women by a ratio of 7,000 to 1. It would have been surprising if she had not sometimes felt lonely, scared, beleaguered ‒ and rather cross. On reading Plain Tales, Oscar Wilde felt he was sitting ‘under a palm-tree reading life by superb flashes of vulgarity’, but men living in the East often had deeper and more complicated responses. In his pre-Virginia years, when he was a district officer in Ceylon, Leonard Woolf could not make up his mind ‘whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story’. Were the British people he knew there modelling themselves on the lives of Mrs Hauksbee, Mrs Mallowe and Otis Yeere? Was he himself a real person about to witness a hanging in Bogambara Jail or was he just living a story from Kipling’s Under the Deodars? It was a question he was never able to answer. Chicken-and-egg perplexities also affected the military. When a young engineer arrived in Bombay in 1904, everything reminded him of Kipling: ‘even the soldiers who befriended me seemed to be Kipling’s soldiers’. But had they been like that anyway, or did they consciously adopt the way that Kipling’s private soldiers ‒ Ortheris, Learoyd and Mulvaney ‒ talked and behaved? According to an ingenious interpretation, officers who had read and absorbed Kipling somehow managed to mould their men so that they became like his soldiers. General Sir George Younghusband had served in India for many years without hearing the words or expressions used by the fictional men; puzzled, he asked his brother officers, who confessed that they too were ignorant of the diction. Yet a few years later he discovered that ‘the soldiers thought, and talked, and expressed themselves exactly like Rudyard Kipling had taught them in his stories . . . Kipling made the modern British soldier’. It is an interesting theory but one unsupported by empirical evidence. As at Simla, Kipling enjoyed doing his research on the ground and went to great trouble to be accurate in his portraits. He liked to visit Mian Mir, the cantonment outside Lahore, and in the barracks there he picked up ‘canteen talk’ and army slang; among his friends in the Northumberland Fusiliers was Corporal Macnamara, who appreciated his visitor for being ‘free wid his beer and talkin’ loike one of ourselves bedad’. The battalion’s sergeant-major even reported that Kipling ‘knew more of the psychology of the private soldier of his day than any civilian ever had, or could have known . . .’ Further evidence of Kipling’s knowledge was provided a few years later when the poet A. E. Housman sent a copy of the Barrack-Room Ballads to his brother, then serving as a soldier in Burma. ‘There never was such a man,’ Private Housman wrote back, ‘and I should think never will be again, who understands “Tommy Atkins” in the rough, as he does.’ Intriguing though it is, Younghusband’s theory cannot be made to stand up. Again and again Kipling showed he understood the people he was writing about, and he was far keener to portray an existing type accurately and convincingly than to create a new one of his own. In England people can still see the places where Kipling lived. A blue plaque in Villiers Street near Charing Cross reveals where he stayed when he returned from India and became an enthusiast for music-halls. His house in Rottingdean can be seen from the outside, and Bateman’s near Burwash, which is owned by the National Trust, can be visited ‒ as can Kipling’s home in Vermont, Naulakha, owned by the Landmark Trust. The quest is less satisfactory in India. Bombay (now Mumbai) claims a house as his birthplace – although he was not born there; no trace of his family’s home in Lahore survives; and the inhabitant of his house in Allahabad indicated his reluctance to show me the building by asking, ‘Who is Kipling anyway?’ But perhaps it doesn’t matter, because Kipling’s India does not need monuments for its survival. It will remain alive as long as people can read.

 Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 55 © David Gilmour 2017


About the contributor

David Gilmour is writing a social history of British India.

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