Imperial bonds: Forces that shaped young Kipling’s mind

Imperial bonds: Forces that shaped young Kipling’s mind

By SRIJA NASKAR | | 23 April, 2016
Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).
A new book examines the fraught legacy of poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling, who, although a great literary talent, could never rise above his love for the Empire, writes Srija Naskar.


Kipling Sahib: The Raj Patriot

New Millennium Publishing Ltd.

Pages: 139

Price: Rs 954

British colonialism could be seen as one massive binge that seems to have left a hangover lasting generations. The fact that English is the main language for Pan-Indian communication, and the most important yardstick to assess someone’s literacy, is the prime of several examples that suggest a cultural colonialism that took root in this country been way

before 1947.

Rudyard Kipling, who epitomises the Raj, might have been part of a bygone past, but he has always held a special place in the Anglophile imagination. And today, he continues to reign in the hearts of the English-speaking generation, his patriotism and theories of racial supremacy often overlooked, at times even celebrated. Marking Kipling’s 150th birth anniversary, Subhash Chopra takes a fresh, critical look at the legacy of this great literary figure, in his book Kipling Sahib: The Raj Patriot.

Kipling’s progress as an exponent of the Empire had its early beginnings in his school days at the United Services College, Westward Ho!, Devon, where almost all his school mates were from military families or those connected with the East India Company’s administration.  The making of a patriot poet can be seen in his early poems like “Ave Imperatrix!”, a celebration of the Empire written on the occasion of an attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria in March 1882, a schoolboy’s way of thanking God for turning away the death of their ruler.

The Departmental Ditties and Other Verses, Rudyard’s first book, had set the seal on his reputation as the poet laureate of British-India and won praise from Viceroy Lord Dufferin, who in those times used to be a frequent visitor to Rudyard’s father, John Lockwood Kipling’s sketching room in Shimla.

Kipling’s transition from Westward Ho to Eastward Ho (Lahore and Shimla) saw Kipling joining the Civil and Military Gazette (CMG) as the Assistant Editor to Stephen Wheeler, the latter hired by Pioneer’s popular Bombay correspondent George Allen when Lahore’s liberal English newspaper The Indian Public Opinion merged with Shimla’s weekly Civil and Military Gazette. 

An Anglo-Indian at heart, Kipling’s poems and stories reek of Anglo-Indianness: written for the Anglo-Indians, about the Anglo-Indians and by an Anglo-Indian. The term, Anglo-Indian, in the Raj parlance was used for Britons, white sahibs (gora) serving the East India company. As per customs of Anglo-Indians, their children were brought up under the care of native male servants. Young Rudy, who was averse to the prevailing lifestyle of the sahib and memsahib community in India during his growing years in Bombay, found a poetic voice early in his life. Very few of his early works, unknown to many, like his short story “His Majesty The King”, see a reflection of this anger and bitterness he felt towards those against the Empire.

The childhood years were quickly replaced by even more traumatic, unhappy years in England in the board and lodge of Mrs Sarah Holloway (Aunty Rosa) and his trauma as a child in the lodge finds explicit details in his “Ba, Ba, Black Sheep” story as well as in his autobiography, Something of Myself.

Kipling’s transition from Westward Ho to Eastward Ho (Lahore and Shimla) saw Kipling joining the Civil and Military Gazette (CMG) as the Assistant Editor to Stephen Wheeler, the latter hired by Pioneer’s popular Bombay correspondent George Allen, when Lahore’s liberal English newspaper The Indian Public Opinion merged with Shimla’s weekly Civil and Military Gazette. His formative years at the CMG saw Kipling immersing himself into the political turmoil which the white Anglo-Indian community was going through at the time over the controversial, inflammable Ilbert Bill, as it allowed trial of the white litigants and possible imprisonment by qualified Indian magistrates. The bill not only went on to frame Kipling’s bent of mind in future literary pursuits, but also, as Subhash Chopra points out in his book, sow the first seeds of Indian Independence movement — a major departure from the popular perception of 1857 Sepoy Mutiny being the turning point for the freedom struggle movement.

Chopra writes in the book, “Lord Ripon’s unstoppable climate for reform and self-government, not just at the local but at the national level”, had charged the atmosphere like never before, so much so “that the very next year after Ilbert Bill’s passage saw the birth of the Indian National Congress, founded by none other than Ripon’s associate and friend, a former veteran civil servant of the Raj — Scotsman Allan Octavian Hume.”

Kipling’s obsession with the supremacy of his white race, and his pride in it, can be traced back, as Chopra points out, to his schooldays at Westward Ho! all the way to his glory days in London, which culminated in his unforgettable and unforgiveably populist piece “The White Man’s Burden”. And the Bard’s burden continued with The Ballad of East and West. With Kipling, the East-West separation is perennial, and the supremacy streak too naked to be glossed over. Mandalay, his much celebrated ballad from the Barack Room series, revels in what Chopra calls “reverse nostalgia” — imagined on behalf of the native Burmese girl asking the coloniser sahib to come back to rule. One of his most celebrated ballads, Gunga Din, is perhaps Kipling’s most racist tribute to a bishti or a water carrier who is described as a “nigger”, with the white soldier calling out to him in precisely these lines:

“You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?/ You put some juldee in it/Or I’ll marrow you this minute”

Chopra even rejects Kipling’s knowledge of the Indian language as “superficial”, as “he felt free to distort or bend Indian words, a liberty he did not take with European languages”. Further rejecting mass perception of his magnum opus novel Kim to throw up a softer view of East-West relationship, Chopra writes that Kim is anything but a representation of the intermingling of two cultures. He points out that the nagging questions throughout the novel surrounding the identity of Kim makes the latter end up in despair and say, “I am Kim. I am Kim. Am I Kim?” — Kipling’s way of making his readers accept the volatile truth that there is no escape from being a sahib.

The Jungle Book, as Chopra points out, is perhaps the only work of fiction in the whole of Kipling’s literary career which has the least imperial outpourings. Inspired by his children, it is the best-loved work for its imaginative brilliance, an allegorical tale almost as timeless as Aesop’s Fables with flights of fancy on a par with Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. It is probably best that Kipling did not live to this day to see the liberties that Disney took with his work, and what Jon Favreau did with the latest reinterpretation of The Jungle Book where except for Mowgli himself , played by the 10-year-old Indian-American Neel Sethi, everything else on screen is just computer graphics. Nothing looks real.




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