SALMAN Rushdie seems to have summed up all of India’s attitude to Rudyard Kipling when he said, “I have never been able to read Kipling calmly.” As Rushdie admits, it is only with a mixture of anger and delight that we Indians can read Kipling. Anger at his obvious racism and delight at the felicity of his story-telling.
Perhaps no other writer has undergone such a rollercoaster ride of fame as Kipling. At the turn of the 20th century, he was the single-most influential figure, literary or otherwise, who was heard with great respect by kings and PMs. Politically incorrect in every way, he stoutly defended British colonisation, opposed Home Rule for Ireland, and openly criticised the Suffragette Movement in England. His friends included King George V, Cecil Rhodes and Theodore Roosevelt. He was artistically and commercially a success, winning the Nobel Prize in 1907. When he died in 1936, his funeral was attended by heads of state as well as other dignitaries.
But the sun set on Kipling, and political maps got redrawn with the fall of colonialism. He got such a postcolonial drubbing that his name became synonymous with the worst of cultural imperialism. Poems like “The White Man’s Burden”, where he refers to the colonised as uncivilised people “half devil and half child”, or dictums about the irreconcilable East and West did not particularly help. George Orwell’s unkind and vehement denunciation was echoed by many privately: “Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” When the empire started writing back, Kipling, the white man’s unacknowledged legislator, became the native’s whipping boy.
Now, 150 years after his birth, the dust seems to have settled and it is perhaps time to reassess his legacy. India might have overcome Kipling but had Kipling managed to overcome India? He never returned to India after leaving in 1889 but the country continued to live in his works — in fact, the best of his works dealt with India. All accusations of Orientalist condescension notwithstanding, there is no denying the fact that Kipling knew the country in a way perhaps even many Indians would not have known. His stint as a journalist at Lahore and Allahabad acquainted him with not only the pukka English circles but also the brothels and opium dens of Lahore, where he spent many insomniac nights. He spoke fluent Hindi and imbibed the spirit of the place, which he was able to convey through his stories, especially the novel, Kim. Kim seems to be the fictional alter-ego of Kipling himself, the white boy who could have passed off as a native, and “spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song”.
His great love for children enlivens the animal stories told with a delightful verve. Granted that it was the Disneyfication of Kipling that made Mowgli and friends so popular, but there is no denying the brilliance of The Jungle Book or Just So Stories. Later writers like Gerald Durrell perfected Kipling’s art of attributing human characteristics to animals, endearing them to children and adults alike. It is no wonder that animals that are normally scary to children like wolves, bears, black panthers and snakes became lovable companions in the form of Akela, Baloo, Bagheera and Kaa. They are the ancestors of Simba, Timon, Pumba, Nemo, Diego and Sid.
It is the great love for the country that is obvious in the joie de vivre of Kipling’s Indian stories, a quality that is missing in his other works. The zest for life that is the hallmark of Kim or Mowgli is infectious, and Kipling seemed to have associated it with the spirit of India. It appears as if he could never quite exorcise India from his psyche, trying to recreate it wherever he went, naming his house in Canada “Naulakha”. Maybe he was laying his demons to rest by writing exhaustively about the single clime he could never forget. It is now time to retrieve the “native” from the trappings of the pukka English sahib that Kipling publicly seemed to be.