Tuesday 2 February 2010

An Exceedingly Good Writer

Rudyard Kipling is another of my favourite writers, though he is well out of fashion now because of his political views; well out of fashion because he is the high priest of the golden age of imperialism. His eclipse is rather a pity because his prose is vivid, earthy and captivating. He also loved India, a love that is no longer returned, at least by some.

Plans to turn the house where he was born in Bombay into a Kipling museum have been shelved for fear of an adverse political reaction. Instead the place will be used to display the work of local artists, with no mention of its past associations. Mukund Gorash, in charge of the restoration project, was reprimanded by the local authorities for referring to the building as the Kipling House, insisting that it be called the Dean’s House, a reference to its former use.

But there are Indians who do understand that Kipling was so much more than an avatar of imperialism. Sharad Keskar, Chairman of the Kipling Society, said “You have a fairy ignorant officialdom in India, who don’t know much about Kipling apart from the fact that he was an imperialist or part of the Raj. Officially he is still persona non grata. I think that is changing, but it’s rather a slow change.”

It really is time that India woke up to the fact that imperialism was not always a bad thing; that the country owes as much to the British as it does to the Mughals, the previous conquerors. Modern India, it seems obvious to me, is inconceivable without the influence of the Raj, particularly in the use of English as a language that unifies a vast country without a past history of unity.

This brings me back to Kipling. Most people- perhaps even the officials to whom Keskar alludes –know, as if by reflex, at least the first two lines of the “Ballad of East and West”;

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat

Do they know how it continues I wonder; do you know?

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
tho' they come from the ends of the earth!

And if Pandit Nehru, the first prime minister of India, could describe Kim as his favourite novel then that should be good enough a recommendation for anyone…even Indian bureaucrats. :-)


  1. I have been a fan of Kipling also. I want to get back into his books.


  2. I love Plain Tales from the Hills, Ann.

  3. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

  4. Yes, a wonderful poem. Thank you, MOB. :-)

  5. Your loyalists find it an hardgoing, tough toil to keep up with your fiery proliferations! But such is the nature of the Muse.

    The second Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Movement referred to Kipling on numerous occasions, to the death of his son and to the famous poem. He declared Kipling being a class unto himself as a remarkable poet. He remarked in his landmark lecture at the Wembley Conference of World Religions in 1924 that if Islam could dominate the present capitalist world system soon enough Mr. Kipling would have to rewrite his poem.

    The East India Company arrived in India by charter of Parliament & Crown in 1599 but its mandate to govern actually legally flowed from the person of the Mughal Emperor when he permitted them to collect tax on his behalf from the Bengal on 2 August 1765 following the Battle of Plassey.

    Kipling was a man of his age and a wonderful poet and storyteller. He lived in India and he lived in Romford. Foyles bookstore on Charing Cross Road used to display (in a glass cabimet in their delightful jazz cafe) a letter from Kipling addressed from Romford. The singer Billy Bragg has written a good book about British patriotism in which I read this verse of Kipling

    And Norseman and Negro and Gaul and Greek
    Drank with the Britons in Barking Creek

    When a recent film was made about Kipling's son who got killed in in action in World War I, the Imperial War Museum (one of my great Good Places) held a small temporary exhibition in his honour that I had the good fortune to go and see and read some of the touching correspondence on view.

  6. Sorry to be such a power house! Yes, I saw that film too; so tragic.