A feather! A very feather upon the face!

Amit Chaudhuri

  • The Unforgiving Minute by Harry Ricketts
    Chatto, 434 pp, £25.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 7011 3744 4

In 1857, eight years before Kipling was born, Indian soldiers in the north of the country rebelled against the representatives of the East India Company. The uprising was known as the Sepoy Mutiny and, later, somewhat romantically, as the First War of Independence. Although its impact on the Indian and Anglo-Indian middle classes was probably not as immediate and direct as it has been made out to be in subsequent colonial and nationalist narratives, it brought to an end a period of cultural exchange between different races. The late 18th and the first half of the 19th century had seen the commercial and colonial expansion of the East India Company in Bengal and other parts of India, thanks to a series of military victories and not a few dishonourable transactions, but it was also a time of commingling, especially in Calcutta, between the new, post-feudal Indian middle class and members of the British scholarly and administrative classes. William Jones, whose researches at the Fort William College in Calcutta were largely responsible for inaugurating Orientalist scholarship and the reconstruction of Indian history, wore native clothes made of muslin in the heat – the solar hat and khaki uniform that Beerbohm has Kipling wear in one of his caricatures were not yet de rigueur. There are early portraits depicting Englishmen with their Indian wives, dressed in a mish-mash of Persian and Hindu styles. In the first half of the 19th century, the Fort William College, later the Hindu College, saw teacher and student, Englishman, Indian and Eurasian, engage in a colloquy at a crucial moment of modern history – people like the educationalist David Hare, the Anglo-Portuguese poet and teacher Henry Derozio, the great Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt. If Kipling had been born fifty years earlier, it would have been impossible for him to write the cheerfully assonantal but bleak lines: ‘O East is East, and West is West/And never the twain shall meet!’ It would have been equally difficult for the narrator of the story ‘Beyond the Pale’ to make his seemingly unequivocal statement: ‘A man should, whatever happens, keep to his own caste, race and breed.’

With the Sepoy Mutiny, attitudes hardened, and the rule of the East India Company passed to the Crown. Psychological boundaries came into existence, to reinforce the physical ones – the ‘White’ and ‘Black’ town – that were already there. The social and racial structure of the India Kipling was born in and later returned to as a journalist was determined by the Mutiny and, later, by the defeat of the Ilbert Bill, which would have given Indian magistrates the right to try Englishmen. But by the time Kipling wrote Kim in 1900, the Mutiny was an unthreatening, dreamlike memory, and it is represented in the novel by a retired Indian soldier who had fought with – not against – the British, ‘an old, withered man, who had served the Government in the days of the Mutiny as a native officer in a newly raised cavalry regiment’:

The Government had given him a good holding in the village, and though the demands of his sons, now grey-bearded officers on their account, had impoverished him, he was still a person of consequence. English officials – Deputy Commissioners even – turned aside from the main road to visit him, and on these occasions he dressed himself up in the regiment of ancient days, and stood up like a ramrod.

Later, after Kim has entertained and shocked his native audience with sensational reports of an imminent ‘war’, he ‘enjoyed a most interesting evening with the old man’, who ‘brought out his cavalry sabre and, balancing it on his dry knees, told tales of the Mutiny and young captains thirty years in their graves, till Kim dropped off to sleep’.

What we see here is Kipling’s subtle rewriting of history. The adjectives ‘old, withered’ naturalise the man: he is portrayed not as an anomaly but as part of his surroundings. With his sabre and his uniform, he represents the confluence of the colonial and the native; ramrod-straight, he is almost a national flag without being a nationalist. His apparent agelessness (his sons are ‘grey-bearded officers’) suggests the immemorial continuity of the benign order he represents. The Mutiny, the passing of British rule from the Company to the Crown, the formal inception of Empire, all are rendered musical and painless in the shining phrase ‘ancient days’. History, with its intransigences, is made seductive, a lullaby that soothes Kim to sleep. These paradoxes make Kipling a very great writer, and also a writer of fictions in every sense of the word.

Earlier in the novel, before Kim and the lama set out on their journey from Lahore, Kim arranges, for the lama’s benefit, a meeting with the curator of the museum – the ‘Wonder House’. The curator is a tribute to Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, who moved to Bombay as curator of the J.J. School of Art in 1865, the year of Kipling’s birth. But through the figure of the curator, Kipling also indirectly acknowledges the existence of a colonial India of intellectual collaboration between cultures: unlike Kipling, who was shaped by an environment in which boundaries were more clearly and viciously drawn, and who could dismiss the Mahabharata as a ‘monstrous midden’, the curator belongs to the world before the Mutiny. Here he shows the museum’s collection of Buddhist icons to the lama:

Out shuffled the lama to the main hall, and, the Curator beside him, went through the collection with the reverence of a devotee and the appreciative instinct of a craftsman.

  Incident by incident in the beautiful story he identified on the blurred stone ...

  Here was the devout Asita, the pendant of Simeon in the Christian story, holding the Holy Child on his knee while mother and father listened; and here were incidents in the legend of cousin Devadatta. Here was the wicked woman who accused the Master of impurity, all confounded; here was the teaching in the Deer-park; the miracle that stunned the fire-worshippers; here was the Bodhisat in royal state as a prince; the miraculous birth; the death at Kusinagara, where the weak disciple fainted; while there were almost countless repetitions of the meditation under the Bodhi tree; and the adoration of the alms-bowl was everywhere. In a few minutes the Curator saw that his guest was no mere bead-telling mendicant, but a scholar of parts. And they went at it all over again, the lama taking snuff, wiping his spectacles, and talking in railway speed in a bewildering mixture of Urdu and Tibetan ... For the first time he heard of the labours of European scholars, who by the help of these and a hundred other documents have identified the Holy Places of Buddhism ... The old man bowed his head over the sheets in silence for a while, and the Curator lit another pipe.

This is an uncharacteristically jubilant homage to the transforming powers of narrative and translation that lay at the heart of polyglot India in the early 19th century. A new narrative about India was being formed through collaborations between Indian and European scholars, and the stories told in the passage above formed a part of it. The excitement communicated between curator and lama, at one moment in an argot of Urdu and Tibetan delivered at ‘railway speed’, at another in silence, as the curator lights a pipe, is an echo of the intellectual excitement that must have been palpable in late 18th-century and early 19th-century Calcutta, and which had been suppressed by the time Kipling was writing Kim, in an age of more confrontational politics. Kipling himself was a spokesman for a particularly unpleasant racial theory. Yet, when the lama and the curator part they exchange gifts. The curator gives the lama his spectacles in exchange for the lama’s ‘scratched’ ones – ‘A feather! A very feather upon the face!’ the lama exclaims as he tries them on – while the lama, in turn, gives the curator a pen ‘of ancient design, Chinese, of an iron that is not smelted these days’. This, too, is a trope for a cultural reciprocity that largely belonged to a time earlier than Kipling’s own. The symmetry is neat: the pen, with which the European will inscribe another culture; the spectacles, through which the lama will see himself, translated, anew.

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[*] Rudyard Kipling by Andrew Lycett (Weidenfeld, 659 pp., £25, 9 September 1999, 0 297 81907 0). Volume IV of Kipling’s Letters (1911-19), edited by Thomas Pinney, also came out last year (Macmillan, 609 pp., £70, 21 January 1999, 0 333 43989 9), as did The Oxford Authors: Rudyard Kipling, edited by Daniel Karlin (Oxford, 699 pp., £40, 8 April 1999, 019 254201 x).