Rudyard Kipling: an unexpected revival for the ‘bard of empire’

There’s a dilapidated bangla (bungalow) in the grounds of the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai that commemorates the nearby birthplace of Rudyard Kipling. But it’s not the actual spot where one of India’s greatest English language writers (arguably the greatest) was born to the school’s principal, John Lockwood Kipling and his wife Alice, 150 years ago this month, on 30 December 1865 – that has long since disappeared. And, apart from a plaque that seems to have a shifting presence, there’s really not much to show for Rudyard himself. Efforts by the Indian and state governments, as well as private foundations, to turn the place into a museum, or something appropriate to Kipling, have foundered, largely because Indians can never quite decide what they think about him.

They are not alone. Kipling, the “bard of empire”, has always been difficult to place in the cultural pantheon. Britain, too, has done remarkably little to officially mark the sesquicentenary of its first winner (in 1907) of the Nobel prize for literature (and still the youngest ever from anywhere).

Indian-born, yet British? We are already entering the muddy field of contradictions that sometimes bog down the reputation of this mild-mannered man. Yet it is these that make him uniquely appealing and that, belying top-level institutional indifference, are sparking an unexpected revival of interest in him, and in particular in his role as a commentator on the origins of an integrated global culture.

A few more of those apparent incongruities spring easily to mind: the propagandist for Britain’s colonial ventures, as well as for the Boer and first world wars, who could sympathise with the plight of the women left behind in “Harp Song of the Dane Women”: “What is a woman that you forsake her, / And the hearth-fire and the home-acre, / To go with the old grey Widow-maker?”; the opponent of Indian self-determination who wrote sensitively of individual Indians in stories such as “Lisbet” and “Beyond the Pale”; the conservative supporter of the established order who poked fun at the hypocrisies of the Raj establishment in his Plain Tales from the Hills.

One clue to these anomalies is found in his troubled childhood, when he was plucked from the warmth of his native Bombay and transported halfway across the world to live with foster parents on the dank south coast of England. He recalled in his memoir, appropriately titled Something of Myself, about his love of being wheeled round Bombay in his pram by his ayah, taking in the colours of the marketplace and listening to the gentle sounds of the wind whistling through the palm trees overlooking the Indian Ocean. But then he was whisked off to Southsea, where, along with the miserable weather, he discovered the severities of monotheistic English religious fundamentalism and was subjected to physical and psychological tortures by his Evangelical foster mother, Mrs Holloway, in the excruciating manner later brought to life in his story “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. He noted that his experiences there gave him “the habit of observation, and the attendance on moods and tempers”. More generally, his early years nurtured the ecumenism of his 1912 poem “The Two-Sided Man”: “Much I owe to the Lands that grew – /More to the Lives that fed – / But most to Allah Who gave me two / Separate sides to my head.”

During the 20th century, attitudes to Kipling were shaped in a negative fashion by George Orwell, who commented in a famous essay in 1942 that, over the previous 50 years or so, “every enlightened person has despised him”, though he had the good grace to add “and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there”.

Orwell, who was born in India and worked in Burma, was part of a generation that had grown up with the empire, and that either supported its practices and values in knee-jerk fashion (and so regarded Kipling as its literary mouthpiece) or took a determined stand against it, based largely on the need to confront fascism in Europe (in which case, he was a demon).

This coolness towards Kipling was first engendered by GK Chesterton, who attacked him in 1905 from a conservative Roman Catholic perspective, not just for being a vulgar rabble-rouser (Kipling had recently been stoking up support for the Boer war), but, more lastingly, for being a rootless cosmopolitan with a penchant for innovation and no real love for England. Later, the literary critic Edward Said suggested in his book Orientalism (1978), in an argument developed in his 1987 Penguin introduction to Kim, that Kipling was part of a western movement that sought to subordinate the cultures of India and the east to its own.

Each generation seems to get the Kipling criticism it deserves. But while the issues raised by Said continue to inform present-day conversations on multiculturalism and Islam, the underlying reality is that the people who felt most strongly for and against Kipling have passed on. It is now possible to look at Kipling without historical prejudice, and the result is a growth of objective interest in his work.

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