Balanced View of Rudyard Kipling, Imperial Apostle but No monster.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 19, 2002 | Go to article overview

Balanced View of Rudyard Kipling, Imperial Apostle but No monster.(BOOKS)


Byline: Sudip Bose, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Whatever one thinks of Rudyard Kipling's politics - and even those who seek to rehabilitate his reputation as a jingoist and a racist can find much that is unpleasant about him - it must be admitted that he had few, if any, superiors as a writer of English short stories. In addition, no Englishman ever assembled as impressive a body of work about India.

Born in Bombay in 1865, Kipling spent his early years among his family's Indian servants and learned to speak Hindi as his first language. Later, he wandered the streets of Lahore, dropping in on opium dens and bazaars and gambling houses, absorbing the teeming, chaotic life of the city. Here he experienced firsthand a world that assaulted the visitor with the intensity of its sensations, "the heat and smells of oil and spices," as Kipling wrote, "and puffs of temple incense, and sweat, and darkness, and dirt and lust and cruelty, and, above all, things wonderful and fascinating innumerable."

As a teenager, Kipling went to work as a newspaper journalist in Lahore, but he was much more than a reporter; he transformed all that he saw into the highest art. And so we have, among a rich and prolific output, the great novel "Kim" (its famous passage describing wide-eyed Kim's encounter with the colorful crowd along the Grand Trunk Road being the best piece of English writing on India, according to E.M. Forster) and the stories that make up "Plain Tales from the Hills."

But as David Gilmour, previously the author of a very fine biography of Lord Curzon, writes in "The Long Recessional," his new life of Kipling, the artist was nothing if not complicated, divided even, one half of him representing the non-judgmental observer of local color and the other half relishing any opportunity to rail against the natives and their customs and their "orientally unclean . . . habits." He believed that Indians had "to be handled like children or young horses," and at times, according to Mr. Gilmour, "came close to suggesting that Indians were congenitally useless and inferior." (In one poem about another former viceroy, Lord Dufferin, Kipling wrote: "You'll never plumb the Oriental Mind,/And if you did, it isn't worth the toil.")

Among Kipling's favorite targets as a young man in India were the so-called Babus, westernized and intellectual Bengalis whom the British caricatured as meek and effete, as brown Englishmen quoting Tennyson and dreaming of cricket and the hunt. Instead, Kipling admired fighting men, thus explaining his fondness for the fierce Pathan warriors of the northwest. He also preferred Muslims (whose religion he admired) to Hindus, whom he blamed for the sanitation problems in India's cities, the injustices of the caste system, and for the then-common practice of marrying off young girls to elderly Brahmins, which produced more than its share of young widows.

Kipling was patronizing toward Indians, too willing to disparage them. And he believed they were incapable of governing themselves (India "will never stand alone," he famously wrote). But does that mean that he felt that the British were a racially superior race? A few years ago, the Bengali fiction writer Amit Chaudhuri argued that Kipling's work continually promotes a hierarchy that proves him to be a racist:

"First, we find the benign, intelligent and masculine English representative of the British Empire; second, there is the simple, robust North Indian or Pathan 'native,' whom Kipling romanticises and patronises. Finally, the bottom rung is occupied by the Westernised and (in Kipling's eyes) laughably over-educated Indian, often a Bengali, physically unimpressive but clever."

It seems to me, however, that it wasn't racism that compelled Kipling to despise the Bengali intellectual and romanticize the Pathan warrior. Kipling despised all intellectuals, not just Indian ones. …

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