A review of Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling, by Charles Allen

There are three stories to be told about Rudyard Kipling. First there is the straightforward biography, telling us what the man did and what happened to him. There have been many of these, Andrew Lycett's 1999 Rudyard Kipling being the most highly regarded of recent efforts—justly, in my opinion. For a much slighter and more idiosyncratic biography with many good pictures, Kingsley Amis's 1975 contribution to the Thames and Hudson "Literary Lives" series is well worth seeking out.

Then there is the peculiar story of Kipling's reputation. A huge literary star in the 1890s and 1900s, his stock fell precipitously following World War I. When he died in 1936, three weeks after his 70th birthday, his ashes were immured in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner; but, Charles Allen tells us, "not a single important literary figure troubled to attend."

The mood of geopolitical realism brought on by World War II led to some thoughtful, qualified re-evaluations of Kipling by T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, and Edmund Wilson. By the later 20th century it was possible to quote Kipling in quite elevated literary circles without being shown the door. He is now pretty generally recognized as a master storyteller and a gifted poet, with opinions often deplorable but of their time.

The third story to be told is the one Charles Allen has tackled here: the story of Kipling as a writer. Where did he get his stock of material? How did he then use it? Of the things that he did, and the things that happened to him, which contributed to his art, and which did not? Allen's answer to the first question is implicit in the title of his book. It was principally India that furnished Kipling's literary imagination.

Kipling was, to be sure, a skillful writer who could make a decent story or poem out of anything. The Stalky & Co. stories were drawn from his schooldays in England. Captains Courageous was assembled from tales told by the Kiplings' family doctor in Vermont, who had been a cod fisherman in his youth. Many of Kipling's best-loved and most memorable poems—"The Glory of the Garden," "If-," "Recessional"—are nothing to do with India. If not for India, though, there would have been no Jungle Books, no Plain Tales from the Hills, no Barrack-Room Ballads. Above all, there would have been no Kim. If not for India, Rudyard Kipling would be remembered as a second- or third-rank Victorian/Edwardian popular writer: a Sir Henry Newbolt, perhaps—at best, a Robert Louis Stevenson.

It was with Kim, Allen argues, that Kipling finally worked out the rich deposits laid down by his Indian experiences. The book was finished in August 1900, when Kipling was 34—less than halfway through his life. It is an adventure story set in India. Kim is a Lahore street urchin; but he is white, the orphaned son of an Irish soldier. Street-smart and resourceful, he becomes the disciple and protector of an unworldly Buddhist lama. They travel together across India, the lama seeking enlightenment, Kim finding his father's old regiment and being recruited as a spy into the Great Game of Central Asian power-diplomacy. Brilliantly descriptive of India and suffused with the mystery of human existence, Kim became a cult book among 20th-century spies—Allen Dulles kept a copy at his bedside. Henry James called it "a magnificent book."

We know from Kipling's correspondence with family members in England that Kim had been gestating for 16 years at least. Once it had been written there was little left of his Indian material to draw from, and the remainder of Kipling's writing career is, in Charles Allen's view, of secondary interest, or less.

Kim was the last real victory of the intuitive, Indian side of his head. It was also Kipling's farewell to India, to his childhood, perhaps even to his Daemon—although he himself believed that it returned to him once more when he wrote Puck of Pook's Hill for his two surviving children….

* * *

Kipling was born in India and spent the first five and a half years of his life there. His father was an instructor in art, architecture, and sculpture at a public college in Bombay. Rudyard—he is "Ruddy" all through Allen's book—and his younger sister Alice ("Trix") were raised mainly by Indian servants, to the degree that they had to be reminded to speak English when in the presence of their parents. Many of the fragments of Indian languages in Kipling's poems and stories were not taken from phrase-books or dictionaries, but from his own remotest memories.

That initial spell of total cultural immersion was supplemented by what Kipling referred to as his "seven years' hard" (hard labor, that is) from ages 16 to 23, when he was an editor of, and contributor to, English-language newspapers in India owned by the entrepreneur Sir George Allen. Those twelve and a half years aggregate, ending before Kipling's 24th birthday, were the whole of his Indian life. (The 11-year interruption was spent in England with foster-parents and relatives, and at boarding school.) Kipling made a flying visit to India in December 1891, but never returned thereafter.

The author of Kipling Sahib is a great-grandson of that same Sir George Allen. "My grandfather claimed to have played with Rudyard Kipling in Simla in 1884 when he was five and the latter eighteen," he tells us in a poignant preface. Charles Allen himself was born in India in the last years of the British Raj, and has kept up a lifelong fascination with the country and with Kipling. He is thus well-placed to guide us through the chambers and courtyards of Kipling's mind, to seek out the Indian springs of his literary inspiration.

Believing as he does, and as he argues very convincingly, that the writing of Kim squeezed the last few drops from those springs, Allen ends his book in 1900. The whole of the rest of Kipling's life is covered in a single concluding paragraph. Kipling's English boyhood, from his sixth year to his 16th, is similarly compressed to less than 30 pages. The 1890s, the years of Kipling's early fame in England and America, as well as of his marriage and the birth of his children, are adequately treated. But three-quarters of Kipling Sahib are set in India: in the clamorous, concentrated Indian-ness of Bombay, in the more Muslim and historically evocative Lahore (now in Pakistan), and in the breezy hill stations where the English went to socialize away from the intolerable heat of the plains. Those three environments worked through to Kipling's writing as three quite separate worlds.

Of life in Bombay, being an infant, Kipling knew very little. From the Indian servants he spent most of his time with, though, he would certainly have heard folk tales.

Every European child raised in India with an ayah heard stories drawn, directly or indirectly, from the much-loved Jatakas, tales of birds and beasts and men, and their interactions, based on ancient Buddhist moral tales.

English translations of these folk tales were circulating in India in the 1880s during Kipling's "seven years' hard"; and in 1892 Kipling's friend Rider Haggard published an African story about a boy who ran with a pack of wild dogs. How much of the material in The Jungle Books was inspired by these later versions, and how much by his own infant recollections, we do not know. Probably it had all settled together at some deep mental level, needing only some event to stir it into motion.

The triggering event was the birth of Kipling's first child, Josephine, in December 1892. Allen tells us that "by the autumn Carrie's developing pregnancy had set him thinking about children and childhood, reawakening his own inner child, long dormant." Little Josephine was to die tragically six years later; and that event, Allen argues, opened up altogether the path from Kipling's adult present to his Indian childhood and youth.

* * *

If Bombay gave us the Jungle Books, it was the hill stations that gave us the clever, scheming Mrs. Hauksbee from several of the short stories, the first of Kipling's fictional characters to become widely known. All sorts of things were at play here, Allen tells us. Perhaps foremost was the strong attraction Kipling felt towards older women. This was innate, a constant in Kipling's life. Flo Garrard, his first and most enduring infatuation, was only one year his senior; but then, he was only 14 when they met. To the distress of adult Ruddy, she turned out a lesbian. Edmonia Hill, the inaccessibly married grand passion of his later India years, was seven years older than he. His eventual bride was a mere three years older. (Allen says two, but all the sources disagree.)

In those Indian hill stations, though, the late-teen Kipling encountered the mature memsahib in quantity, and was fascinated. At age 21 he was writing: "Women of forty to fifty and upwards…have more individuality than English women. They know more of life, death, sickness and trouble…and this makes them broader in their views." This was undoubtedly true. Kipling is using "English" there as a contrast with "Anglo-Indian"—a term which in Kipling's time, as Charles Allen helpfully explains, meant the British in India. An Anglo-Indian woman who was 40 or 50 in the early 1880s would likely have lost children to tropical fevers, perhaps a husband to the 1878-80 Afghan War or some border skirmish. She might have witnessed the 1857 Mutiny, when Indian troops slaughtered all the British they could find. These were tough ladies.

The toughness would have appealed to Kipling at least as much as the matronly qualities. He was very much a writer of the "cold eye," with a realistic approach to human weakness and a fondness for plain talk. It is not quite the case that Kipling was incapable of sentimentality. Allen notes that he was particularly inclined to idealize the British officer caste in India, as in the rather treacly short story "Only a Subaltern." Usually though, even Kipling's sentimental works have a steel core—in "Mandalay," for example, that sudden image of "our sick beneath the awnings" strikes like lightning through the nostalgic fog.

* * *

Another part of Kipling's education in Anglo-Indian society and morals was the personal columns he was responsible for as a newspaper editor. In among the for-sale and house-to-let notices, Charles Allen tells us, were "a breath-taking number of private messages whose intent was all too clear." Allen offers some examples, making it plain that if polo was the principal sport of British India, adultery came a close second. So far as I know, Allen is the first of Kipling's biographers to identify this source for Kipling's literary inspiration.

Even with that Bombay infancy and that erotic sparkle of hill-station Anglo-Indian socializing, however, there would have been no Kim, and none of the more penetrating stories about the lives of actual Indians, if Kipling had not acquainted himself with what Allen calls "the dark India." As a very junior civilian, young Kipling was often left alone during the hot weather in Lahore while his seniors made for the hills. Allen gives a grim account of the misery endured in those stifling Indian summer nights, drawing on Kipling's own recollections:

One solution tried and abandoned was to drag the bed from room to room in search of less heated air, another to sleep on the bungalow's flat roof, "with the waterman to throw half-skinfuls of water on one's parched carcase." A third was to leave the bungalow altogether and walk….

It was in these night prowls that Kipling learned about Indian India: the night-life of street shows and festivals, of gambling shops, of shebeens and opium dens. Of brothels, too, very likely, though the evidence here is circumstantial.

Kipling put some of this into his early poems and stories. He watered it down to fit within the limits set by Anglo-Indian race and sex taboos, but it was still strong stuff for some. Reviewing Echoes, the book of poems Rudyard (aged 18) and Trix had written in 1884, one Anglo-Indian reviewer declared that some of the verses "ought never to have been published at all." What Kipling did not use of this rich "dark India" material settled down to ferment in his imagination, to be brought forth 15 years later in Kim.

It probably helped, from a creative point of view, that all this observation of Indian life, all this collecting of Indian experience, happened under the psychological tension of living among a race of people Kipling did not altogether trust—nor even, for the most part, like. Though he was intelligent and detached enough to see the human commonalities between Indian and Anglo-Indian, Kipling was still, even in the lowly station of a newspaperman, one of the occupiers. Said Orwell: "He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality." It is instructive to remember here that at the time of Kipling's birth in Bombay, the horrors of the Mutiny were only a little more than seven years in the past, and mistrust between the races must have still been running strong—strong enough, perhaps, to taint the mind of a five-year-old. Matters were more settled by the time of Kipling's "seven years' hard" in the 1880s, yet there is no reason to suppose that Kipling deviated much from the fear-tinged contempt towards "natives" that was the Anglo-Indian norm.

* * *

There were attitudes within attitudes here, one of the most marked differences being in Kipling's—and Anglo-India's generally—negative view of Hinduism, which was compared unfavorably with Islam. Some of this was imperialist fellow-feeling, the British having been preceded as rulers in north India by the Mughals, who were Muslim. Some was admiration for the martial virtues in Islam, which among Hindus were concentrated in one caste. Islam was personified by the proud warrior of the frontier, Hinduism by the "greasy Babu"—chiseling merchant or government employee. It was all grossly unfair. It was also somewhat counter-intuitive, the Mutiny having been more a Muslim than a Hindu affair.

Some anti-Hindu feeling was just solidarity with fellow monotheists. The more lurid aspects of Hindu worship were particularly objected to. Visiting Benares in 1888, Kipling wrote of the place as a "city of monstrous creeds" filled with "the symbols of a brutal cult." The idol-free minimalism of Islam was more to the British taste. Kipling himself was an unreflective tribal Anglo-Christian, and those Indian night walks were an education in comparative religion for him. When the lama in Kim tells the boy, on being asked, that he bows before the Excellent Law, "Kim accepted this new God without emotion. He knew already a few score." That is probably how Kipling felt by the time he left India.

Certainly Kipling did not feel the Indians were capable of self-government. The mélange of faiths, customs, and dialects he had encountered impressed on him the chaotic quality of Indian society. When the Indian National Congress held its fourth annual meeting in 1888, the fiercely anti-Congress George Allen sent Kipling to cover it. The young reporter did not disappoint.

Ruddy was more than happy to do his bit, having convinced himself that the Indian National Congress was a Hindu-dominated political party made up of men disqualified by breeding, religion, history, and education from ruling over the Indian masses—in marked contrast to the Muslims, in his view "the most masterful and powerful minority in the country," possessing strength of character, strong moral convictions based on their religion, and a long history as the traditional rulers of India.

It all seems very shocking in our multicultural age. It was the common conceit of the Victorian British, though, that the peace and stability they had brought to India allowed trade and the arts to flourish as they had not been able to 100 years earlier. The Duke of Wellington, who served in India 1797-1804, was proud of the peace he believed he had brought to the long-suffering Indian masses. And a very cynical person might say that the horrors of the 1947 partition at least partly justified the old British attitude.

Remarks Peter Watson in his 2000 book The Modern Mind: "Most of Hitler's ideas were nineteenth-century or turn-of-the-century ideas…and once they were formed, Hitler never changed them." You could replace the name "Hitler" with that of almost any other human being, with some corresponding adjustment of dates. Most of us are "cooked all through" by our late 20s, and for the rest of our lives must draw on the mental capital accumulated in our salad days.

This is most especially true of creative writers. Certainly Kipling produced memorable things after Kim. That great favorite of conservatives everywhere "The Gods of the Copybook Headings," for example, dates from 1919. I think Charles Allen is correct, though, that when Kipling had worked out those seams of Indian ore, the vital spark that makes a writer's work truly distinctive was gone. Charles Allen:

[T]he best of what he imagined and wrote had its roots in the dark side of his head and what he had seen and heard in India. And the further he moved away from India in time as well as space, the stronger became that side of the head that was least Indian and most law-abiding and British. The balance was lost—only to be recovered when his love for his first-born and his grief at her loss took him back to "the life unaltered our childhood knew."

A full life of Kipling makes melancholy reading. He lost his beloved son in World War I, and his public esteem soon afterwards. Reading Allen's fine book, one almost wishes this were the entire life of Kipling, completed at 35.

* * *

The year of Rudyard Kipling's birth, 1865, had seen the first publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, written by another Victorian oddity who had managed somehow to return to his own childhood for long enough to make a literary masterpiece out of it.

Kipling, though, did the thing twice over. It was as if he had had two childhoods: one in Bombay, with the ayah murmuring tales of wolves, tigers, and forest spirits in his little ear, then another in Lahore, just as strange, fear-tinged, and night-haunted in its own way, just as well stocked with the grotesque and fantastic. The first childhood gave us The Jungle Books; the second, Kim. The creative miracle is that while Lewis Carroll's Wonderland was merely a dream, Kipling's was a real place: the place named India.