Thursday, May 15, 2008

Kipling's Contradictions

In the latter part of the nineteenth century an American girl Edmonia Hill, married an Englishman who had been appointed by Lord Salisbury to fill the chair of Science at the Muir Central College, Allahabad University wrote in a letter to her family back home : “I've met an unusually interesting man with the uncommon name of Rudyard Kipling….. Mr. Kipling looks about forty, as he is beginning to be bald, but he is in reality just twenty-two. He was animation itself, telling his stories admirably, so that those about him were kept in gales of laughter. He fairly scintillated, but when more sober topics were discussed he was posted along all lines. …..I am surprised at his knowledge of people and places. He is certainly worth knowing, and we shall ask him to dinner soon.”
This description I find very near to what I imagined Rudyard Kipling would have been in his times.Its not that I am very fond of Rudyard Kipling as a writer. I have read his poems and stories sevaral times but my feelings towards him and his writings can at best be described as -confused. At times I marvel at his imagination, his witty way of describing people and events and the variety of his experiences which he sketched through his characters…from life of a vagabond to that of a ghost. On other occasions I feel such deep felt hatred for his views on many aspects of his times. When I was in Shimla, I read a lot of literature about him …I visited his school, his house and places which he described in his poems and stories. Once again I found Mrs.Hill confirming my views about him. She writes in another letter to his sister in England about Kipling , who was then working in the editorial staff of The Pioneer at Allahabd “Young Kipling is certainly all things to all people. He talks equally well to High Court Judge or to a scientist, and I hear he can make first-class love to the latest belle in Simla……..and what a life he leads, all among the babblings of the Chamber of Commerce and the unsavory detail of the days among the dockets, departmental orders, and the queer expositions of human frailty, vanity, greed, and malice that a newspaper offers. With it all he watches for suggestive ideas for his tales.”
Kipling indeed lived a very interesting life. He was an Englishman born in British India. The father, John Lockwood Kipling, an architect and designer, was sent to Bombay by the English Government to take charge of the art school(J .J. School of Arts) , and Kipling's mother was the oldest daughter of a Wesleyan Methodist minister, the Reverend George D. Macdonald. When the Kiplings were married they spent their honeymoon beside a little lake in England called Rudyard, and so when, on December 30, 1865, a son was born to them they called him by the name of the place where they had been so enchantingly happy.
Rudyard Kipling was , as a critic noted “Man of Permanent Contradictions” . Its interesting of note that I am not the only one who finds it difficult to frame an opinion about him . Even when he was alive he was crtisied and adored by almost equal number of readers. After his death as in his generous and beautiful elegy for William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden affirmed, "Time that is intolerant," nonetheless "Worships language and forgives/ Everyone by whom it lives." Putting this poetic faith to what he evidently regarded as a strenuous test, he asserted,
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
But the relation between time and tolerance turns out to be more uneasy than that. When he was alive many critics thought Kipling to be a bad writer, and also a bullying and jingoistic one, and many readers today agree. Moreover, much of Kipling's work, inarguably, was hasty and poorly written. Dick Heldar, in The Light That Failed (1890), says, "Four-fifths of everybody's work must be bad," and one feels Kipling speaking more truly than he knew when his character adds, "But the remnant is worth the trouble for its own sake." A great deal of his fiction is still a chore or an embarrassment (never mind the "politics"); and he overproduced verse in a quite promiscuous manner, often for the most short-term and propagandistic motives. The shock effect of some of Kipling's compositions has actually faded; they now afflict the reader more with a sense of faint amusement than with horror or disapproval. And when I was thinking about him this time, I found that Kipling's most successful and polished prose, Kim is also dependent on the idea of a double life. The boy is an orphan, raised to believe he is half-caste, and is "passing" for Indian. The whole action of the story hangs on dissimulation and duality.
Something I owe to the soil that grew—
More to the life that fed—
But most to Allah Who gave me
twoSeparate sides to my head.
This is drawn from a Kipling poem titled "The Two-Sided Man." As if to underline its message, Kipling added,
I would go without shirts or shoes,
Friends, tobacco or bread
Sooner than for an instant lose
Either side of my head.
Now that I have benefit of retrospection if I were to assemble a profile of Kipling it would include his staunch Anglo nationalism, and his feeling that England itself was petty and parochial; his dislike of nonwhite peoples, and his belief that they were more honest and courageous; his love-hate relationship with the Irish; his contempt, and deep admiration, for the United States; his respect for the working class, and his detestation of the labor movement; his exaltation of the empire, and his conviction that its works were vain and transient.
The contradictions interestingly are not limited to his writings only. Or probably the genesis of these contradictions lie in the life the writer led. From childhood he was both repelled and attracted by cruelty. Ultimately, Kipling's two greatest literary and emotional attainments—the ability to evoke childhood and the capacity to ennoble imperialism—contradicted themselves too flatly and painfully .
Kipling, it could be argued, did not like it when other people patronized Indians. But that did not inhibit him from patronizing them himself. He drew many an unkind picture of the ways in which educated Indians tried to ape British customs. And, though he reserved to himself the right to praise Indians as equals (Gunga Din is the best-known example), he was always a ferocious and intemperate foe of any talk of self-government, let alone independence. To his ineffaceable shame, he even applauded General Dyer's Jalianwala massacre of 1919.
But with all contradictions, he still charmed his readers (and still does) . I read his books not only a fiction of a particular time but also as chronicle of that age. Like all other accounts and narrations, these also include the author’s views , his biases and a reflection of his personal experience of living in his times.
NB: If you are wondering why suddenly today I am thinking, and therefore writing ,about Rudyard Kipling I must add that the chain of thoughts was started by two factors. One, I was reading a collection of articles on writings on Allahabad and found Edmonia Hill’s account there . Two, I found a collection of Kipling’s stories about Shimla in the Campus library and enjoyed remembering about a city we both- me and Rudyard Kipling ,loved - for very different reasons and in very different times .

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