Arvind Painuli takes a look at a new book about Rudyard Kipling, which casts the creator of Kim and The Jungle Book in a none-too-flattering light
Kipling Sahib: The Raj Patriot offers both a glimpse into the life and character of the renowned English writer and poet, and a portrait of the British Raj: the days of Empire, the Great Game, chota hazri, sahibs and memsahibs.
Joseph Rudyard Kipling was a controversial character, a classical imperialist and conservative. In India he is remembered more for his blinkered views expressed in verses such as ‘The Ballad of East and West’ and ‘The White Man’s Burden’ than for his literary achievements. George Orwell called him a ‘jingo imperialist’ and ‘gutter patriot’.
An exponent of the Empire, Kipling mostly wrote for Anglo-Indians and Anglophiles and his mind was closed to anything good in the East. His ‘East-West’ verses amuse us today as his prophecy has proved so wrong. The world is now a global village in which Kipling’s outdated views would render him an alien and a misfit.
In an article about the Indian National Congress session of 1888, he dismissed the event as a ‘putli nautch [puppet dance] supported by some Anglo-Indians and half-castes’. The same Congress led India to its freedom and the country is today the world’s largest democracy.
It is not easy to write about such a person long after he has left the world. Kipling died in 1936 and, to mark his 150th birth anniversary year, Subhash Chopra has done a commendable job with this vivid and critical account of Kipling’s not-so-normal birth and troubled childhood in Bombay; his schooling and further education in England; his work as a journalist at the Civil and Military Gazette and the Pioneer in Lahore and Allahabad, writing articles, poems and then novels.
Chopra’s subtle humour makes this a lively and often amusing read. For example, during his almost seven-year stay in India Kipling never struck up a friendship with any Indians, and to highlight this point, Chopra pokes fun at Kipling’s ignorance of various Indian names. For instance Shere Khan, the male tiger in Jungle Book, is described as lungri (for female) instead of lungra.
Analysis of Kipling’s Lahore Views, Tales of the Raj, his magnum opus Kim, The Jungle Book and other children’s stories makes interesting reading and, despite Kipling’s controversial views, Subhash Chopra reminds us that there was also a pleasing, non-political side to Kipling’s creativity. In addition, Chopra’s call for better East-West understanding today is laudable.
Arvind Painuli is a senior journalist based in New Delhi