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.

The defeat of the Ilbert Bill in 1883 increased the distance between the Indians and their rulers. As Harry Ricketts points out in his fine biography, Kipling was, at the time, a very young journalist on the Civil and Military Gazette at Lahore. The newspaper was ‘strongly against the Ilbert Bill’, as most Englishmen were, but was pressured by its ‘larger sister-paper, the Pioneer’, to make more supportive noises. ‘One evening after work,’ according to Ricketts, ‘Rud walked into the Punjab Club in Lahore to find himself “hissed” by all the other members, because that day’s CMG carried a leader ... voicing ... approval of the bill.’ Kipling describes the scene in Something of Myself: rather than making him recoil, the ‘hissing’ leads him to ‘see a great light’, and come round, fully, to the point of view of the Bill’s opponents. Ricketts explains this capitulation by pointing out that Kipling was, as he would be all his life, an outsider who ‘desperately wanted to fit in’; and not a little of his racist posture stems from that desperation.

As the gap between ‘native’ and European worlds widened, crossing the boundaries had, for Kipling, an air of illegality about it, as, indeed, had the act of writing itself. Kipling’s prose was erotic in its texture and effects, in its elisions and momentary absorption in small shocks of pleasure. He would always have to reconcile his devotion to the artistic, with its fluid, feminine, even ‘Eastern’ associations, with the more grandiose and masculine overview of Empire. In A Passage to India Forster points out that the furthest Ronnie Heaslop, the City Magistrate in Chandrapore, was prepared to go in the direction of Art was to sing the national anthem – and Kipling was always prepared to launch into the national anthem as a counterpoint to the subtler melody of his prose. Writing became for him a matter of subterfuge and concealment: a nocturnal activity, distinct from the preoccupations of his daytime world. It would lead to the ulcer that tormented and, eventually, killed him, as if his more vituperative side had turned on him. Like his writing, his forays into the ‘native’ city were also largely undertaken at night. Of one excursion into Lahore, he observed:

It was impossible to sit still in the dark, empty, echoing house and watch the punkah beat the dead air. So, at ten o’clock of the night, I set my walking-stick on end in the middle of the garden, and waited to see how it would fall. It pointed directly down the moonlit road that leads to the City of Dreadful Night.

The ideas of poetic inspiration producing a physical restiveness that can be allayed only by perambulation and of the illicit trangression of a boundary are conflated here. The native world, which is not quite possessed of legitimacy under the Crown, is perceived in fragments: ‘There was a sharp clink of glass bracelets; a woman’s arm showed for an instant above the parapet, twined itself around the neat little neck, and the child was dragged back, protesting, to the shelter of the bedstead.’ The word ‘instant’ links Kipling to the Modernist enterprise (Ricketts points out that in his ellipses and his exploration of the shifts of narrative voice, Kipling is a precursor of the Modernists), to Joyce’s ‘epiphany’ and Woolf’s fleeting ‘moment’ of heightened perception and ‘being’. But Kipling’s ‘instant’ is also situated in colonial history, for, in the latter half of the 19th century, the Subcontinent, for the resident colonial, was unweighted by history – it had become, at least in one sense, insubstantial. Whatever complexities of dialogue had existed in the early years of the colonial encounter, as the different races delved into each other’s cultures, had largely vanished; the land, to the white man, had become the backdrop for a series of random perceptions, ‘sights, smells and sounds’, vivid but indirect, without substance or context, but, occasionally, oddly beautiful and compelling. It is this India, mysterious not because it withholds its secrets, but because the colonial enterprise demands that it withhold them, that constitutes Kipling’s sound-inflected landscape.

What, then, was the principal secret? It was, first of all, the formation of modern India itself: of a hybrid but nationalistic middle class, created by history and the colonial encounter, and to which both the intelligentsia and the administrative, clerical cadre belonged. From this class would emerge writers, social reformers, professionals and, later, politicians like Nehru and Bose and Gandhi. Kipling, in fact, was born during the first efflorescence of the Bengal, or Indian, Renaissance. Michael Madhusudan Dutt, after years of attempting to become a canonical ‘English’ poet, published in 1861 his epic, Meghnadbadakabya, a revisionist work based on an episode in the Ramayan and inspired by Paradise Lost, thereby inaugurating modern Bengali and, in effect, Indian literature. In the year that Kipling was born, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, a magistrate who had already written one of the first Indian novels in English, Rajmohon’s Wife, wrote the first significant modern Bengali, and Indian, novel, Durgeshnandini. These writers, and others, were, to paraphrase what Pound once said about Tagore, singing India into existence. The Renaissance, by reconfiguring the Western and the local, was providing, for Indians, a reinterpretation of what it meant to be Indian. Tagore himself was born four years before Kipling; and if Kipling made a dazzlingly precocious debut with Plain Tales from the Hills, Tagore’s first book of poems, Prabhat Sangit (‘Morning Songs’), published even more precociously when he was 16, made no less unsettling an impact. When Kipling published his stories, however, they were treated as if they were almost unique in having contemporary India as their subject and this notion persists, quite commonly, in Britain and America. Indeed, no one reading Kipling would suspect that Tagore and Chatterjee might be living in the same world as Kim, Mehboob Khan, Shere Khan and Mowgli. So profound was the effect of British colonial policy on post-Mutiny India, so fiercely was the division between the races enforced, that it is still difficult to reconcile the neighbouring worlds of modern, Renaissance India and Kipling’s fiction. If there is one lacuna in Ricketts’s even-handed and sympathetic biography, it is the one created all those years ago by British colonial policy: the absence of the modern India in which Kipling was situated, which he did his best to ignore, and which nevertheless left its imprint on his writing.

The social and intellectual force of the Renaissance is represented in Kipling by cameo appearances of bowdlerised Bengali gentlemen who suffer various humiliations. Of these caricatures, the most sympathetic is Hurree Chunder Mookerjee in Kim, an MA from Calcutta University – as it happened, one of the most significant sites of the Renaissance. Mookerjee is singular not only because he’s a Bengali who quotes Shakespeare (in this, Kipling implies, he is tediously typical), but because, surprisingly, he is working on behalf of British espionage. In this he is an unlikely precursor to a fair number of his compatriots – among them, Kshudiram Bose and Bagha Jatin (literally ‘Jatin the Tiger’) who would later be labelled ‘terrorists’ because of their anti-Government activities. Kipling records Mookerjee’s advice to a bewildered Kim:

There were marks to be gained by due attention to Latin and Wordsworth’s Excursion (all this was Greek to Kim). French, too, was vital, and the best was to be picked up in Chandernagore, a few miles from Calcutta. Also a man might go far, as he himself had done, by strict attention to plays called Lear and Julius Caesar, both much in demand by examiners. Lear was not so full of historical allusions as Julius Caesar; the book cost four annas, but could be bought secondhand in Bow Bazaar for two. Still more important than Wordsworth, or the eminent authors, Burke and Hare, was the art and science of mensuration. A boy who had passed his examination in these branches – for which, by the way, there were no cram-books – could, by merely marching over a country with a compass and a level and a straight eye, carry away a picture of that country which might be sold for large sums in coined silver ...

  Said the Babu when he had talked for an hour and a half: ‘I hope some day to enjoy your offeecial acquaintance. Ad interim, if I may be pardoned that expression, I shall give you this betel-box, which is highly valuable article and cost me two rupees only four years ago.’

Mookerjee delivers his long speech to Kim in ‘volleying drifts of English’ after having had a ‘huge meal’: the suggestion of flatulence is not far away. Yet the description is permeated by contemporary history, even as it rewrites it; in its constant, mischievous transposition of meaning, the passage mirrors, while it mocks, the process of redefinition in late 19th-century India. Kipling captures perfectly the Bengali’s pronunciation in the word ‘offeecial’, but thereby slyly renders both the word and Mookerjee’s English, unofficial. He is accurate, too, in his recording of the Bengali’s obsession with university degrees and English literature (Presidency College and Jadavpur University continue to have two of the most flourishing English departments in the country); and the second-hand copy of Julius Caesar in Bow Bazaar is also significant. When I had finished school in Bombay, and embarked on the unusual course of taking my A-levels there, I was assisted in my study of Macbeth and Othello by my ‘Banerjee’. Each ‘Banerjee’ was a cheap, bound, annotated edition of a Shakespeare play, so called because the notes had been written by a Professor Banerjee, a Bengali Brahmin, the name would imply, like Kipling’s Mookerjee; these books, though useful, were unrecognised by the school reading list, and were ‘unoffeecial’. But the presence of Julius Caesar in Bow Bazaar (an old commercial section of North Calcutta) also reminds us that modernity, in Renaissance Bengal and India, entailed a radical relocation of what was foreign and what local. Shakespeare, and the English language, for instance, are sites of ambiguity where the indigenous and the colonial are made to reassess themselves. Shakespeare is of the coloniser’s party, but, in his incarnation in Bow Bazaar, and as a crucial element in Mookerjee’s self-definition, he is also of the colonised’s history without his, or probably Kipling’s, knowing it. This thread of ambiguity runs through much of modern Indian culture: many of the great writers in Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and the South Indian languages were students, or teachers, of English literature.

The early 19th century saw a debate about education policy between Orientalists and Anglicists, about whether, as the Orientalists desired, what was imparted in schools and colleges should be emphatically ‘Eastern’ in content, or whether Indians should be given a Western education. That the Anglicists triumphed, thanks to Macaulay’s Minute in 1835, is revealed by Mookerjee’s reading list of Shakespeare, Burke, Wordsworth; but the mention of the classical European languages also recalls the preoccupations of the Orientalist scholars whose researches established the family of Indo-European languages, with Sanskrit, Greek and Latin as the originary ones. ‘All this was Greek to Kim’: Kipling wonderfully revivifies the cliché by slipping yet another language of antiquity into the passage, echoing and parodying the debates that went on for most of the century to decide what was Indian and what European. That European culture, narrated by a Bengali, should be ‘all Greek’ to an Irish boy who happens to be Indian, tells us casually that colonial India was a comedy of inversions and unstable identities.

One of the chief instruments in the triumph of Anglicist education was a Bengali and a forefather of the fictional Mookerjee and others like him: the polyglot Raja Rammohun Roy, who knew, besides his mother-tongue, Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, Persian and English, who campaigned for Western education for Indians, and who died in Bristol in 1833. Kipling mocks Roy’s fictional descendant by having him, quite plausibly, despite his knowledge of Shakespeare and Latin, omit the indefinite article when he says to Kim: ‘I shall give you this betel-box, which is highly valuable article.’ In giving Kim the ‘highly valuable article’, Mookerjee has lost the more precious article, ‘a’: this is the key that would have let him into a club reserved for Englishmen, but Kipling denies him, and the absent ‘a’ denotes the unbridgeable gaps of post-1857 India. The missing article also reminds us that Mookerjee is bilingual, thinks in both Bengali and English, and, occasionally, constructs sentences in one language according to the grammatical rules of the other. He is more like his creator than his creator seems to realise: when speaking to his parents as a child, Kipling, as he points out in Something of Myself, ‘haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom one thought and dreamt in’.

By the time Kipling was born, the exam and crammer-loving Bengali had begun to make inroads into the realms of colonial governance by negotiating the difficult entrance examination to the ‘heaven-born’ Indian Civil Service. Indians, too, had discovered that a certain kind of knowledge is power, as is evident from Mookerjee’s advice to Kim to master ‘the science and art of mensuration’, in order to possess and control the land both figuratively and literally, to ‘carry away a picture of that country’ which ‘might be sold for large sums in coined silver’. Satyendranath Tagore, one of Tagore’s elder brothers, was the first successful examinee; but such a representative of the modern, colonial India would have been anathema to Kipling. It was not that Kipling was anti-modernity: the technological wonders, the heroes, of colonial progress and expansionism – ships, radios, motor-cars – are also the heroes of his books; more than any other English writer, Kipling, in stories like ‘Wireless’, brought into the province of the imagination what was romantically seen as antithetical to it, as Wordsworth said the poet eventually must. It was just that the ‘modern’ and the ‘native’ in colonial India were mutually incompatible categories: the ‘modern’ was represented by the English and by Empire; India was ‘native’, outside history and mysterious. Modern Indians (the word ‘Indian’ has a quite different connotation from ‘native’, and is rarely used by Kipling) like Mookerjee are at best ridiculed, or dealt with violently, as in the story ‘The Head of the District’.

Even today, Western knowledge about Indian history consists of the work done on classical India by Orientalist scholars in pre-Mutiny India, as well as certain episodes in the Nationalist movement before Independence; the intervening years, in which Indians reformulated their history, are largely a blank, as is the continuation of this process in the post-Independence years. Kipling’s intimacy with an Indian vernacular tongue – the Hindustani spoken to him by his servant and ayah – came to an end in early childhood; by that time, vernacular languages such as Bengali were replacing English as the language of the middle class. In much of Kipling’s work, the vernacular is located colourfully and exuberantly in a local and timeless India; while, in 19th and early 20th-century India, the vernacular had actually become an instrument of bourgeois sensibility and cosmopolitanism. Distanced from such realities, Kipling exchanged the grown-up world of history and modernity that was contemporary India for an infantile universe of animals, ‘natives’ and adventure. For years, in fact, he was thought of as a children’s writer. Henry James, an admirer of Kipling, complained:

In his earliest time I thought he perhaps contained the seeds of an English Balzac; but I have quite given that up in proportion as he has come steadily from the less simple in subject to the more simple – from the Anglo-Indians to the natives, from the natives to the Tommies, from the Tommies to the quadrupeds, from the quadrupeds to the fish, from the fish to the engines and screws.

This regression must have had something to do with the dwindling of Indo-British relations that accompanied Kipling’s development as a writer. His infantilising of the natives and the landscape was typical of British racial attitudes in the post-Mutiny years: natives were judged to be like women or children, and officers in the British Army were the ‘mai baap’ (mother and father) of Indian soldiers. Any modernity in India outside the colonial machinery was strenuously wished out of existence – to the eventual detriment of the colonisers. This infantilisation must have had at least something to do with the fraught relations the colonising sahib of Late Victorian England had with his own childhood, parents, family and home, leading to a psychopathology of Empire (Ashis Nandy has an interesting discussion on this subject, and on Kipling, in The Intimate Enemy). The coloniser’s frequently uncomfortable relations with his own ‘mai baap’ meant that England became an uneasy, unfamiliar terrain, and the colonised world, where relations between coloniser and colonised were less confusing, became home and family, and was often spoken of in familial terms. For this cosy sense of the family to sustain itself in the colonies, it was necessary that the ‘native’ be constructed as an infant, and that grown-up complexity should not intrude on the ‘native’ universe. Kipling’s otherwise loving and supportive parents made the mistake of sending him to a private tutorial home in Devon when he was seven, where he was tortured by his landlady and her son, until rescued by his mother and taken back to India. This experience of abandonment is revisited to devastating effect in the story. ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. In one of his more rhapsodic moments, Kipling said: ‘England is the most marvellous foreign country I have ever lived in.’

The powerful allure of Kipling’s Indian stories, and of Kim, is that, in their special construction of India, they make it a metaphor for belonging, a ‘dwelling’ in the sense that Heidegger yearned for in the homeless 20th century. It’s not only the English who respond to the rare fullness and magic in his work about India: middle-class Indians, like those Kipling shut out (Nirad Chaudhuri, for example, who thought Kipling was the greatest writer about India in the English language), have also found a home in his fiction. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the child’s-eye view of much of Kipling’s Indian fiction means that he doesn’t address the contradictions of modern India – Kipling is a great poet (in English prose) of the shifting meanings of the colonial universe. The caveat that D.H. Lawrence once issued in another context is apposite here: ‘We like to think of the old-fashioned American classics as children’s books. Just childishness, on our part.’ Apposite, because the stories so often undermine what Kipling holds to be true or amenable, as Lawrence pointed out stories were in the habit of doing. The British Empire may have showered Kipling with honours, but his tales, especially those once deemed fit mainly for children’s consumption, were often untrustworthy. They played, chameleon-like, as one of the characters in disguise in them might, on both sides of the Great Game. (Disguise, in Kipling, is itself a metaphor for the way the writerly imagination can enter spaces made inaccessible by taboos enforced by race or colonial policy.) As Walter Benjamin pointed out in an essay on toys, the child’s imaginative world is partly a grown-up construct: toys are made for children by adults, who assign ‘childish’ meanings to them, which children do not always go along with. The ambiguities of the child’s world, where adult and childish definitions overlap and compete, are extended in Kipling’s work, which poses oppositions between coloniser and native, ancient and modern – categories themselves open to interrogation.

If, as Kipling’s critics say with some justice, his stories use infantile material, animals and inanimate objects to bring to his fictional world a simplicity to rival the more brutal simplicities of the white colonial’s India, it is through this same material that he introduced his readers to a universe of contested meanings, of things let loose from their origins and redefined in another context: the colonial world in flux. Even in the very early ‘Story of Muhammad Din’, Kipling’s tendency to write about things – what James called ‘engines’ and ‘screws’ – as if they were characters with a will of their own is evident:

The polo-ball was an old one, scarred, chipped and dinted. It stood on the mantelpiece among the pipe-stems which Imam Din, khitmatgar, was cleaning for me.

  ‘Does the Heaven-born want this ball?’ said Imam Din deferentially.

  The Heaven-born set no particular store by it; but of what use was a polo-ball to a khitmatgar?

  ‘By Your Honour’s favour, I have a little son. He has seen this ball, and desires it to play with. I do not want it for myself.’

  No one would for an instant accuse portly old Imam Din of wanting to play with polo-balls. He carried out the battered thing into the verandah; and there followed a hurricane of joyful squeaks, a patter of small feet, and the thud-thud-thud the ball rolling to the ground.

The conversation between the ‘Heaven-born’ and his servant is well-meaning but circumlocutory: they don’t quite understand each other. This dialogue is echoed and modified in the dialogue between the child and the polo-ball; here, the interaction is an equal one, and takes place outside the more official relationship between master and servant, just as the India that modern Indians inhabited existed outside the line drawn by white colonial society. On this side of the wall, the conversation is polite but ornately official. On the other side, another exuberant language is heard – composed of ‘joyful squeaks’ – as two parties come together, not the coloniser and colonised, but the ‘native’ appropriating the hardware of Empire, which might be a polo-ball, or the English language, or some other instrument of ‘play’. Things, as James observed, take on an independent life in Kipling’s stories (‘the thud-thud-thud of the ball’) and this is so precisely because the technologies of Empire – the steam engine, printed books – took on a life of their own in the colonies, one quite unpredictable to the colonising imagination. Things were reconstituted in another landscape, where they could no longer be wholly identified with themselves or their owners. As a cultural sign, the polo-ball is no longer complete, unambiguous: it is ‘scarred, chipped and dinted’, displaying the marks of conflicting significations.

When the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky was working out his theory of ‘defamiliarisation’, by which, according to him, writers alter our perception of reality by using devices to estrange us from it, he used as an example a passage from a short story by Tolstoy, in which a horse’s perspective on the world becomes a means of transforming reality through language. Shklovsky would have found several instances in Kipling in which the animal viewpoint not only defamiliarises reality, but reveals the colonial world to be a constantly surprising place where there is ceaseless conflict over meanings. In the story ‘Rikki-tikki-tavi’, for instance, we enter, with the mongoose, the world of colonial settlement, of the ‘Englishman who had just moved into the bungalow’ with his wife and son. A drama ensues in which a mongoose, a cobra and its mate, a tailor-bird and its family, a colonial, his wife and their son Teddy, even the bungalow and the garden, participate to narrate the tumult of colonial history. The mongoose itself, as is appropriate to a figure that belongs to two places – outside the colonial space of the bungalow and inside it – is portrayed as a wearer of disguises. In this it is not unlike Kim, or Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, or indeed its creator.

He was a mongoose, rather like a little cat in his fur and his tail, but quite like a weasel in his head and his habits. His eyes and the end of his restless nose were pink ... he could fluff up his tail till it looked like a bottle-brush.

The mongoose is rescued by the English family from their garden after a ‘high summer flood’. Revived, almost a family pet, Rikki-tikki-tavi explores the bungalow: ‘He nearly drowned himself in the bathtubs, put his nose into the ink on a writing-table, and burnt it on the end of the big man’s cigar, for he climbed up in the big man’s lap to see how writing was done.’ At first, this sentence would seem to be an instance of ‘defamiliarisation’: through Rikki-tikki’s eyes a perfectly ordinary domestic reality is made to look larger than life. But the estrangement has a double, overlapping quality. On the one hand, one might be tempted to associate the freshness and magic of the mongoose’s discovery of the bungalow with the ‘native’s’ wonder at the British colonial universe. Yet, perhaps unwittingly, but powerfully nevertheless, Kipling also celebrates, through the mongoose, the mental landscape and hierarchies of the late 19th century white colonial’s India, where the interests of a small island could somehow consume the huge country the colonial lived in. So large has the unremarkable English furniture become that it has swallowed up an entire landscape, a subcontinent; oceans exist in the bathtub, and a rather ordinary English family has become a family of giants. This vivid sentence, as animated as the mongoose, is a small essay on power and its inversions.

Outside in the garden, when Rikki-tikki asks the tailor-bird superciliously, ‘Who is Nag?’ the cobra himself replies, ‘l am Nag’ and, before issuing the warning, ‘Look, and be afraid!’ recounts his origins: ‘The great God Brahm put his mark upon all our people when the first cobra spread his hood to keep the sun off Brahm as he slept.’ But Rikki-tikki has already begun to see details in terms of the paraphernalia of the English interiors he’s become familiar with: Brahm’s mark looks to him like a ‘spectacle-mark’, ‘exactly like the eye part of a hook-and-eye fastening’. This is the second time in his fiction – the first was the curator’s gift to the lama of his glasses – that Kipling uses spectacles to suggest the ambiguities of a cross-cultural vision. The mongoose replies with some temerity: ‘Well ... marks or no marks, do you think it is right of you to eat fledglings out of a nest?’ This could be a satire of an early 19th-century conversation between a conservative Brahmin and a social reformist Hindu full of demystifying zeal; it is not unlike, in tenor, Rammohun Roy’s debates, conducted through published pamphlets, with Bengali Brahmins. These debates are a preamble to the battle between Nag and Rikki-tikki, between an antique India and a ‘modern’ one, enacted in a colonial theatre, the bathroom. The energy and conflict in Kipling’s children’s stories are not unconnected to the energy and conflict in colonial Indian history.

By the time Kipling died in 1936, he was, despite his public honours, more or less ignored by the literary establishment. The banishment had begun a few decades before his death; Max Beerbohm, never an admirer, drew a cartoon of Kipling as an Oriental idol on a shelf, with the caption ‘Kipling on the Shelf’. Efforts to revive the reputation of this incomparable artist and often deranged racial supremacist came from the more perceptive critics of a former colony: Randall Jarrell and Edmund Wilson, the title of whose essay, ‘The Kipling Nobody Reads’, tells its own story. Perhaps his ghost has done penance enough; time seems to have pardoned him for writing well and to have forgiven him his views. Ricketts’s biography, and Andrew Lycett’s more recent one,[*] both published to acclaim, are themselves evidence of renewed attention. The range of his living admirers is noteworthy – Craig Raine, Tom Paulin, Edward Said (who, not long ago, confessed in these pages to the sort of bilingualism that was nascent in Kipling: ‘Every time I speak an English sentence, I find myself echoing it in Arabic; and vice versa’) – but the range of their political sympathies reminds us how endlessly problematic the relationship is between a great writer’s politics and his art, and the reader’s engagement with both.

[*] 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).