Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Literary Evolution of the Works of Rudyard Kipling reveals dark truths in Colonial India

My “self prescribed”  India season here on the blog ends with a trip back into India's Colonial Past.

The vehicle is the examination of the seven Year period that Rudyard Kipling spent in Lahore and the surrounding hillsides in what is now Modern Day Pakistan.This time saw the publishing of short stories and articles that revealed the darker under belly of life at the Empire’s Beating heart in India.

Famous for The Just So stories, The Jungle Book and the tale I think belies his cosy image, The Man who would be King... It's dark twist is more akin to the man we see examined in this documentary.

Presented by the very handsome and well spoken Writer and ex Military man Patrick Hennessy, a self confessed  fan  whose respect for Kipling’s work means he wants to look beyond the modern beliefs about the writer. Kipling has been seen by many as  a reactionary and as a man who is now politically incorrect. He has been accused of being an apologist for the injustices of Colonialism. 

Hennessy suggests that his very character and position as outsider looking in, makes him far more important than that,  a rebel who turned a mirror on the idealised idea of the colonies felt by a romanticising public on the thoroughfares of London and on the greens in English villages.

Rudyard Kipling was Sixteen years old when he returned to India after eleven years on the English Coast. He had spent a happy childhood in India and the contrast between that and an adolescence in a Grey old Sussex was stark in his mind, so when in Sept 1882 he returned to the subcontinent, it was at a time when many other young men were seeking their own fortunes. Thousands of possibilities were  before them in a time of power and supreme British Confidence.

Rudyard Kipling was seeking his fortunes like so many others were  without Wealth connections, and higher and prestigious education. What he garnered  there,other than the sordid experiences of Drugs and Prostitution;was to colour his early short stories in such a way as to influence the opinion of those at home inEngland in a way that no other English Writer has done in their own lifetimes. His Work “Kim” ended up winning him the Nobel  prize for literature.

He arrived in Bombay on  18th Oct and was back in his beloved India.He is quoted to have said he felt like , a prince entering his kingdom. What a homecoming it must have been! The Noise , heat, smells colours and the  masses  and masses of people. Such a stark contrast o his formative years in South-sea. His journey was to continue for a further nine hundred miles to Lahore, a city run  by about seventy colonials , it had been in British hands for less than Thirty five Years.

Keen to create little England in the Punjab, Many of the rituals of home were  adhered to with strict rigidity, dressing for dinner even in the Jungle.  Standards in dress were one way for the Brits to fight for the country and prove they were the  ruling caste.

Lahore under British rule boasted a Railway, museums, Public  Library .Rudyard’s own father worked at the museum of antiquities, he studied Indian culture. Lockwood Kipling is said to have  known something about everything and everything about something. His Son Rudyard Was not as academic , he even suffered with mild Dyspraxia, but he was curious . He rather fortuitously got a job on the local paper The Civil and Military Gazette, a niche read for civil servants and Military men in Lahore. With only two staff, an  Editor and  assistant Editor, Young Rudyard was thrust into a writers life.

Kipling likened those days to seven years hard labour. He wrote at first within narrow confines, the Anglo Indians at  tea, gymkhanas  and Polo games. He reflected the Image they liked , that they the colonisers were almost more British than the Brits at home and  their unwavering commitment to maintaining their British Way of life. 

Spending time with the single officers in the Punjab Club, he was teased about the articles in the Gazette , he was the butt of jokes about the editorial choices that were not his own. He soon grew fatigued of the banal banter and lack of real meaningful discourse.

Where the young Rudyard Kipling differed from the crowd was his Curiosity.  It made him  step outside the confines of  the strict societal constraints into the colourful circus of real Indian life. The atrophy of the colonials was not without grounding. They lived in fear of rebellion. Only a generation away, 30,0000 soldiers were drafted  to keep peace, but Kipling always sought to see all sides.

Young Military men would have been his contemporaries and inspirations and he wrote of long , hot drunken evenings and he observed that bored young men on Fort duty would soon fall into dissolution The Boredom, heat and ever present  threat of disease saw Killings in barracks  from temper and the enforced isolation. 

“On fort duty”  one of Kipling's early poems speaks to this as a young man craves to be on the frontline at the Afghanistan Border.

Kipling is a runt, myopic  and oft n feels marginalised . He quickly realises the common soldiers were  outsiders too. The officers referred to him as “Mutinous” and trying to act  above his station. 

Polo is  still played by well bred Pakistanis.  Patrick meets two old soldiers during a match. One in particular seems to embody the kind of spirit from the time that should have appeared in a Kipling story, bitten by snake, hit by three bullets, missing presumed dead and taken hostage by the  Muhkti . Whilst imprisoned he was told three times that he would be executed in the morning. Their practices were brutal removing eyes and ears to prolong their victim’s suffering. With both ears and eyes intact, he chuckles and says somebody up there in heaven must love him. When asked if they think Kipling represents the  parts of the empire that were bad, they vehemently deny it, they say philosophically , all  stories go away but Kipling will always be a part of the history of that moment in time.

At age Eighteen  Rudyard is made special correspondent, he is  sent out to report on riots, to meet viceroys, to review and report on armies  going to fight in Russia. He could now be a proper journalist  still an outsider looking in, but able to utilise an inate  gift to provide studied observation , distilling events down to their purest essence and using his great memory to report with brevity and accuracy.

Left by his editor in the height of the hot summer  weather and required to look after the paper alone, Kipling  began to feel increasingly isolated and a natural  nervous disposition and fear of contracting terminal illnesses , began to manifest itself as night terrors and insomnia. Thus  began his night walks into inner Lahore. Unable to stay within the  stifling confines of his parental home, he ventured past the wall and began a  phase of exploration that would shape him and his writing inexorably.. 

The Hidden city  was one that never sleeps, he speaks of wandering , gambling , liquor stores and , native women, professional in all areas including dancing and puppetry and as a holder of no defined position within the society, he could experience and could move within it at will.  Even now walking in the  walled  city  at night is slightly ominous as Hennessy attests to personally as a policeman wielding a AK47 walks with him to ward of danger.  Back in Kipling’s day  held a similar fascination.  Kipling stated a whole Store of novels could have been yielded there had a person the time to write them.

 With other unfettered freedoms, Drugs experimentation would follow. One particularly tortuous night, Kipling had been rendered incapacitated with Stomach pains,a servant brought him an  opium pipe for pain, he said on smoking it that it felt like he had fallen  through the  floor. He came to rely on opium, morphine and Indian hemp to get through the heat of the oppressive summers. It is Impossible to sit still in the middle of dreadful nights.

His writing after this time is more free and open, he loves the dirt and the squalor and the reality. His first published short story was about a man living out  a few last days in an Opium Den it was entitled “The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows”

He and learns a valuable lesson about the power of fiction to explain the realities of life often hidden behind curtains of propriety and properness in the sensibility  of the average Victorian. 

Hennessy visits a modern day festival event and the Drug fuelled excitement is actually palpable. Held at a Sufi  shrine, spiritually and physically  everyone appears to be “off  their head.” Attendees stress to the BBC crew that this is the real Pakistan, that of peace and love not violence. Even today that frenetic  celebratory excess seems beguiling and enticing.

The lure of women of the night was also a temptation that Kipling was unable to resist and he would often frequent the  Shahdara Gardens where prostitutes would ply their trade, lurking in the shadows of the tombs and alleyways. His journals and letters allude to these assignations in code but their meaning is clear. An amusement he found the more alluring for it’s illicit nature. Kipling even coined the phrase “the oldest profession in the world”. 

The prostitutes in Lahore were no common girls, they were accomplished and talented in music, poetry and conversation.  The girls again brought him into contact with real Indians at a time of freedom and openness in the city.

Another short story “Beyond The Pale”  written in response to his own experiences does not create such a frivolous air. When  he writes, it seems behaviour that crosses social boundaries always ends in sadness and even injury.

Beyond the pale is no exception, a  love story that ends in tragedy. It takes place in the walled city, a young man is beguiled by a lady of the night, he first hears singing one night and on his fifth return to her home, he is shocked when two stumps are thrust through the grate, hands missing and a spear swiftly follows, injuring him in the groin and he limps away, losing both love, dignity and blood. It seems fitting the injury is so sexually graphic. It seems despite his personal experience, his Victorian audience informs the morality of his tale.

What is also striking is that this is a European Man writing about interracial couples for perhaps the first time and very brave it was too when you consider his audience, the government  civil servants and military elite who would want to keep such taboos hidden.

Kipling was to examine the ruling classes up close when he was designated, correspondent for one Summer season in the Mountain region of Simla. The richest folk would escape the city heat of the plains to fresher climes. It was filled with bungalows and boulevards filled with guest houses and hotels. There were picnics, lawn tennis and Croquet and with solely English flora in all the pretty gardens it was an Oasis Englishness away from Home..  Respectability and image was everything!

Kipling’s reports would inform and assuage the appetites of the people back in the cities who could not afford to be in the mountains, he  wrote of Balls and amateur theatricals, a pastime he got heavily involved in himself, as it allowed him to get closer to women , flirting and romance were allowed when treading the boards.

Underneath the veneer though, the town was a hotbed for intrigued and infidelity. Grass Widows as the wives were called would be sent up the mountains and would meet all manner of handsome single men whilst husbands slogged away in the heat below. It was said that “Every Jack had someone else's Jill”  sleeping with married women was called Poodle faking. At first the freedom to pursue women was a novelty, Rudyard would promenade and share gossip at “scandal point”, a place where all women would accumulate and spread the latest scandals, but  Kipling soon became jaded by this permissiveness that was  so against the moral normalcy in England and his writing began hitting at the very heart of this idyll. His commentary was waspish and scathing.

His most Satirical short stories would begin to be seen after just three months of Simla hedonism. Many people would have take offence at the closeness that some of his characters might have had to real figures of some considerable influence. He was best placed to commentate he rubbed shoulders with them all. His stories would appear alongside his news articles in the paper

At age twenty one, he grouped some of  his older short stories into book form along with some New stories. That book is now  known as  “Plain tales from the hills”. The opening story is entitled” Lisbeth” and it is telling that he treats the Native Hill Girl who features in it so sympathetically and the staid British are vilified for their prejudice and untrustworthiness. The stories were cynical and subversive and shocked the elite with their no holds barred portrayal of the betrayals and double standards of Simla inhabitants.

One of the other stories not previously published in the gazette was the hard hitting story  “Thrown Away” which depicts a young soldier unable to cope in the strangeness of India, who commits suicide. His commanding officer is then left to bury the body and cover up the incident, telling his loved ones back in Blighty that he had died of cholera.

 In reality Suicides were common in the ranks and so this stark and revelatory tale was not received well by the ruling classes, but the story, like the rest of the book  was in fact also to inform the imperialists back in Jolly old England about the realities of colonial life.

Back home, they had been falsely fed tales of honour and bravery, of soldiers doing their duty in extreme adversity. “Thrown away” was as far from this idealist view as can be imagined. 

Rudyard Kipling’s welcome in Lahore and Simla was wearing thin and  his seeming crusade to bite the hand that fed him was ruffling many feathers.

And so Seven years after his arrival,he prepared to go home. He had mixed with Military and civil servant, viceroys and prostitutes, he had witnessed highs and lows, honest sexuality and the repression and duality of colonial life. He returned to London to fame and infamy. As the empire waned so too would his reputation. His politics would alien later generations, but his early works borne of stifling Lahore Heat and mountain refuge were a lasting legacy more historically important than he is given credit for.

The reading public made his “Plain Tales” a popular and critical success. He was a hot property and as mass media was in its shining infancy, his works could be accessed by a global audience. The boldness of the stories with a new and impactful realism had been unheard of before. He returned home to the South East Coast of England and wrote regularly

“Kim” is his masterpiece, but his achievements were built on his short stories in his youthful adventure of self discovery.


  1. Wonderful background in to Ruydard Kipling and colonial India. I really found this so interesting and beautifully written, Emma. Thank you.

    1. I learned masses too, so really glad you enjoyed it Brian!

  2. Emma, I learned a great deal about R. Kipling by reading this. You have a fine talent for describing people and issues in depth in a clear and engaging way. Thank you!