- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

By David Gilmour
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 351 pages, illus.

Whatever one thinks of Rudyard Kipling's politics and even those who seek to rehabilitate his reputation as a jingoist and a racist can find much that is unpleasant about him it must be admitted that he had few, if any, superiors as a writer of English short stories. In addition, no Englishman ever assembled as impressive a body of work about India.
Born in Bombay in 1865, Kipling spent his early years among his family's Indian servants and learned to speak Hindi as his first language. Later, he wandered the streets of Lahore, dropping in on opium dens and bazaars and gambling houses, absorbing the teeming, chaotic life of the city. Here he experienced firsthand a world that assaulted the visitor with the intensity of its sensations, "the heat and smells of oil and spices," as Kipling wrote, "and puffs of temple incense, and sweat, and darkness, and dirt and lust and cruelty, and, above all, things wonderful and fascinating innumerable."
As a teenager, Kipling went to work as a newspaper journalist in Lahore, but he was much more than a reporter; he transformed all that he saw into the highest art. And so we have, among a rich and prolific output, the great novel "Kim" (its famous passage describing wide-eyed Kim's encounter with the colorful crowd along the Grand Trunk Road being the best piece of English writing on India, according to E.M. Forster) and the stories that make up "Plain Tales from the Hills."
But as David Gilmour, previously the author of a very fine biography of Lord Curzon, writes in "The Long Recessional," his new life of Kipling, the artist was nothing if not complicated, divided even, one half of him representing the non-judgmental observer of local color and the other half relishing any opportunity to rail against the natives and their customs and their "orientally unclean … habits." He believed that Indians had "to be handled like children or young horses," and at times, according to Mr. Gilmour, "came close to suggesting that Indians were congenitally useless and inferior." (In one poem about another former viceroy, Lord Dufferin, Kipling wrote: "You'll never plumb the Oriental Mind,/And if you did, it isn't worth the toil.")
Among Kipling's favorite targets as a young man in India were the so-called Babus, westernized and intellectual Bengalis whom the British caricatured as meek and effete, as brown Englishmen quoting Tennyson and dreaming of cricket and the hunt. Instead, Kipling admired fighting men, thus explaining his fondness for the fierce Pathan warriors of the northwest. He also preferred Muslims (whose religion he admired) to Hindus, whom he blamed for the sanitation problems in India's cities, the injustices of the caste system, and for the then-common practice of marrying off young girls to elderly Brahmins, which produced more than its share of young widows.
Kipling was patronizing toward Indians, too willing to disparage them. And he believed they were incapable of governing themselves (India "will never stand alone," he famously wrote). But does that mean that he felt that the British were a racially superior race? A few years ago, the Bengali fiction writer Amit Chaudhuri argued that Kipling's work continually promotes a hierarchy that proves him to be a racist:
"First, we find the benign, intelligent and masculine English representative of the British Empire; second, there is the simple, robust North Indian or Pathan 'native,' whom Kipling romanticises and patronises. Finally, the bottom rung is occupied by the Westernised and (in Kipling's eyes) laughably over-educated Indian, often a Bengali, physically unimpressive but clever."
It seems to me, however, that it wasn't racism that compelled Kipling to despise the Bengali intellectual and romanticize the Pathan warrior. Kipling despised all intellectuals, not just Indian ones. He was no democrat, but he was a populist writing populist poetry, its inspiration coming from the music hall and not the Parisian cafe. He identified with the common soldier, the everyman Tommy Atkins, whose plight Kipling explored in several memorable verses ("For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Chuck him out, the brute!'/But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot.")
I would also suggest that Kipling denigrated the Babu because in some way he must have feared him. (We should remember that it was Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, two "physically unimpressive but clever" men, to use Mr. Chaudhuri's phrase, who eventually toppled the Raj). Kipling's birth was roughly contemporaneous with the beginnings of the Bengal Renaissance; one idea espoused by Kipling and others was that Indians were not worthy of standing alone because they produced no art, music, or literature; but in fact the Bengal Renaissance was beginning to do just that. In this way, then, the Babu very directly threatened one British justification for Empire.
To see Kipling's innate sympathy for Indians, Mr. Gilmour writes, one need only turn to "Plain Tales," the British characters of which "seldom exhibit any moral superiority." And what about certain racially offensive phrases that appear throughout Kipling's work? Mr. Gilmour suggests that some of them aren't what they seem on the surface. Take the line "lesser breeds without the Law," from the famous imperial anthem "Recessional." Mr. Gilmour argues that it is actually the Germans, Americans, and Boers and not colonized races who are being addressed and compared to the ancient Romans, "who, being without the Law of Christ, act as they please."
Kipling had no intention of seeing India (or South Africa or any other place) give up its traditions, religions, and culture, despite his having certain reservations about them. Indians, he wrote, "should be allowed to enjoy the practical benefits of the Raj peace and justice, quinine and canals, railways and vaccinations without having to submit to Western notions on education and religion." He detested the missionaries and all they stood for.
Rudyard Kipling was indeed an imperial apostle. No other writer as passionately believed in the moral good of the British Empire, in the benefits it brought to India and elsewhere, in the tireless officials of the Indian Civil Service who risked disease and death and lived in isolation so that railroads could be built and vaccinations administered.
The first half of the book, describing Kipling's time in India and his championing of a British South Africa, is superb. But thereafter the biography, with Kipling ensconced in his house in Sussex, loses momentum. It frequently reads like a history lesson rather than a biography. Perhaps this was unavoidable. The young Kipling was constantly on the move, observing, reporting, bringing stories of foreign worlds to his fellow Englishmen.
Once he got married, however, to "a fat and dowdy woman who gobbled her food" and who by controlling every aspect of Kipling's life (including what he wrote about) essentially emasculated him, the writer becomes a far less interesting character, homebound and somewhat bitter.
Kipling's middle years found him more of a devoted polemicist than an artist. He became increasingly conservative, and he hated various people with even greater intensity. The objects of his scorn were many: the Germans (for whom he reserved his strongest vitriol and paranoia), liberals, intellectuals, socialists, Irish nationalists, aesthetes, suffragists essentially anyone who held views contrary to his.
He did become a prophet, predicting World War I and the advent of the Nazis. But a good bit of his writing was thinly veiled propaganda. The exceptions are the late, brilliant short stories, such as "The Gardener," "The Eye of Allah," "Dayspring Mishandled," "The Wish House," "A Madonna of the Trenches," masterpieces of the genre and arguably the best stories Kipling wrote.
But Mr. Gilmour barely mentions these works. The subject of his biography is Kipling's role as imperial apostle, and these late stories, he writes, "are not alas relevant to the themes of this book." This is a shame, for one of the most interesting things about Kipling is his ability, at the end of his life, to produce enduring works of art again, in a new, more complex style, after years of intermittent mediocrity and drum beating.
Still, the great value of "The Long Recessional" is Mr. Gilmour's skill at being both critical of Kipling's failings and generally sympathetic to many of his ideas. Kipling deserves a reassessment. He was not the monster he is often made out to be, and this biography should help readers realize his many talents as an artist, while resisting the impulse to dismiss him as just another jingoist.

Sudip Bose is associate editor of Preservation magazine.

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