- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

CYNTHIA GRENIER

on Rudyard Kipling’s and Wolcott Balestier’s

A THE NAULAHKA: A STORY OF WEST AND EAST

Practically everyone these days knows at least the titles of three of Rudyard Kipling’s novels — “Captains Courageous,” The Light That Failed” and the most memorable, “Kim” — but who remembers “The Naulahka”? And who on earth was Wolcott Balestier?

Actually, three solid reference works give the spelling of the title as “Naulakha,” which was the name (and the spelling) of a house Kipling and his wife built and inhabited in Vermont. But the House of Stratus, an English firm with U.S. offices in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., chose to go with the Hindu spelling that means “900,000 rupees,” when they reprinted this 1890 novel four years ago.

The book is also a bit of a curiosity in that it is the only time Kipling ever collaborated with another author. And curiously too Balestier was no novelist, although he’d had a few minor works published. He was a young American, very much on the make in the world of publishing in Great Britain. Apparently he was a man of considerable personal charm, and had endeavored to talk other English authors of the day into collaborating on a literary work before he finally succeeded with Kipling.

As to how much of the novel is due to Balestier, who died of typhoid fever in 1891 before the novel saw print, is moot as much of the story is set in India, a terrain Kipling knew intimately and Balestier not at all. The American part of the story is set in our Far West — Balestier was born and bred a New Englander. Kipling, however, as is well known from his poems and short stories, had an absolutely right on ear for speech, Indian, Irish, or Yorkshire. He nailed them all impeccably, so perhaps Balestier’s contribution was his own American turn of phrase.

“The Naulahka” is a wonderful adventure yarn where winning a young woman for a wife is the main thrust of the story, which also involves the quest for a priceless Indian necklace. Young Nick Tarvin aims to steal the valuable necklace away from an Indian idol to give to a woman, whose husband is the president of the 3C railway company and therefore may be able to grant Nick’s small home town a station on a new railway being laid in Colorado. Nick figures such a move would transform his small town and give him a good shot at rising in the local political scene himself. The story blasts along, excitement at every turn. Think of Nick Tarvin as a young Gary Cooper: tall, lanky, a true Western man with a wry sense of humor.

Meanwhile, Nick is faced with a major problem. Indeed the problem of his life. He loves Kate and wants nothing more than to make her his wife, so he can dedicate himself to creating a life for them and by becoming a power as a Republican state senator.

Kate has gone to nursing school and has one ambition in life, fond though she may be of Nick. She wants to go to India and work with the poor. He revolts, “It’s no place for white men, let alone white women, there’s no climate, no government, no drainage; and there’s cholera, heat, and fighting until you can’t rest. You want to stay right where you are, young lady!”

She answers quietly. “You’re a good man, Nick, but I’m going to sail on the 31st for Calcutta.” And she does. Now Kate really does show an unusual determination and independence of spirit, far more typical of today’s young women than those in life or the fiction of 1890. But yes, reading it today you do begin to want to slam Nick if he addresses her as “little woman” one more patronizing time, but still, when Kipling gets to describing Sitabahai, you see him giving a respect and showing an awareness of what a woman can be capable.

Sitabhai is the “head queen” of the Indian state to which Kate has gone to set up a clinic and a dispensary. Nick learns she murdered her first husband, and had been lying crouched in an iron cage awaiting execution when the king first saw her. The king asked would she poison him if he were to marry her. Certainly, she replied, if he treated her as her late husband had. The king promptly married her, delighting in her brutal response. Having produced a son and heir, she now practically rules the tiny kingdom, bending even the British political resident to her will.

There is a second woman, Mrs. Murtie, in the female equation Nick must master to win Kate. Mrs. M is the beautiful, strong-willed wife of the president of the railway company who has the power to decide whether Nick’s little town of Topaz gets the rail junction that will turn around Topaz’s future. Nick admires the woman’s very handsome diamonds, and tells her there is a necklace in far off India the likes of which she has never seen: A giant emerald surrounded by diamonds and rubies. They shake hands the necklace in exchange for the rail junction and Nick sets off for India.

Nick’s quest for the Naulahka in a deep, dangerous cave is the stuff of “Indiana Jones” with bountiful on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense and danger. There are cross plots, dire deeds, and a real blast towards the end. How the story plays out and the role that Sitabahai’s little son plays in the dnouement keeps perfect pace with the rest of the story. “The Naulahka” is indeed one rollicking good tale, and one that well merits its rediscovery today. Oh yes, after Wolcott Balestier died in 1891, Kipling, in the same year, married his collaborator’s sister, Carrie, an American.

Cynthia Grenier writes The Mag Trade column for The Washington Times.

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