This page was last updated on 15 May 2001
Salman Rushdie, "Kipling", from Imaginary Homelands, London: Granta Books, 1991, 74-80.
It may be discerned from the quotes displayed above that Rushdie, a writer not renowned for suffering fools gladly, accords Kipling some epistemological superiority. Yet when examining images of race and blood in Kipling, the critic turns most frequently to Kim, and I contend that the short stories of Plain Tales from the Hills have been undeservedly neglected in favour of the longer novel. This brief essay examines issues of alterity, going native, empire and blood in Plain Tales from the Hills.
The short story "Lispeth" is a particularly rich field from which to examine notions of alterity. Kiplings narrator points out that "It takes a great deal of Christianity to wipe out uncivilized Eastern instincts"(4). It would be tempting, given the authors reputation as a right-wing apologist for empire, to take this comment at face value. However, I believe that "Lispeth", as a text, is centrally critical of the British in India. The missionaries and the young Briton that Lispeth idolises are repeatedly shown as being racially arrogant and duplicitous. Witness the Chaplains wifes description of Lispeths love as a "barbarous and indelicate folly", while maintaining that the deceitful "Englishman, was of a superior clay". Similarly, after the Chaplains wife says that "There is no law whereby you can account for the vagaries of the heathen and I believe that Lispeth was always at heart an infidel", the narrator opines: "Seeing that she [Lispeth] had been taken into the Church of England at the mature age of five weeks, this statement does not do credit to the Chaplains wife". Here the ideal is represented as Lispeth, and the missionaries and the Englishman, far from being the pillars of empire, are delineated as underhand, arrogant and duplicitous.
Going native is a deeply complex notion, carrying simultaneous multiple meanings. While at a superficial level it may be read as white settlers fear that one of their own may reject the mores of the colonizer and turn into the native other, it may also represent a fantasy role, in which the white man may be reified as the wily, romantic, unknowable, native other. T.E. Lawrence, (Lawrence of Arabia), is perhaps the best known of these figures.
Kiplings version of this character is Strickland, who appears in "Miss Youghals Sais". He has the unlikely ability to pass unnoticed among "the native riff-raff", was "perpetually going Fantee among natives" and had "mastered the thieves-patter of the chángars" (28). Kipling ascribes fantastic and unbelievable talents to Strickland, enabling the author to examine western notions of culture, what constitutes an eastern other and how deeply or superficially human character is permeated by culture and nurture. McIntosh Jellaludin, in "To be Filed for Reference" has a wife who is "A native woman" who is not "civilised" (327). Witness the authors attempt to name the complex sociological process alleged to have taken place, which is signalled by the characters absurd name, an amalgam of Scots and Persian. Kipling points out that "When a man begins to sink in India, and is not sent Home by his friends", he falls very low from a respectable point of view". "In most big cities natives will tell you of two or three Sahibs, generally low-caste, who have turned Hindu or Mussulman, and who live more or less as such". Whether a man has chosen to go native, like Strickland, or appears to have fallen from western grace, like McIntosh; Kipling uses the notion of going native as a literary trope, to examine human culture, religion and society, or to demonstrate how one may divorce oneself entirely from western mores. In both cases, culture, both eastern and western, is seen as mutable and perishable.
Viceregal Lodge, Simla.
Although normally represented as the arch-apologist for empire, Kipling is frequently ambivalent as to its nature, often in a highly dubious and ironic tone. For evidence of this, see any tale based in Simla, the British seat of government in the hills during the hot season. In "Aurelian McGoggin" the author is skeptical as to the authority upon which the whole British enterprise in India is based. "If the Empress be not responsible to her Maker-if there is no Maker for her to be responsible to-the entire system of Our administration must be wrong; which is manifestly impossible" (108-9). The irony here is clear. Kipling is saying that not only is it possible that "Our" administration is faulty, but that it is certainly so. To expand the notion of governmental duplicity and fault, in "The Broken-Link Handicap", he closes with these words, "you dont believe it. You would credit anything about Russias designs on India, or the recommendations of the Currency Commission; but a little bit of sober fact is more than you can stand." Here, a naïve belief of the alarmist tales of British India is held up for ridicule, and the organizations of government reified as paradigms of untruth. In "Tods Amendment" Kiplings ambivalence towards imperial government is foregrounded: "the Council began to settle what they called the minor details. As if any Englishman legislating for natives knows enough to know which are the minor and which are the major points, from the native point of view, of any measure!" (198). He continues, "ethnologically and politically the notion was correct. The only drawback was that it was altogether wrong". Although one must distrust Kiplings arrogation of the "native" point of view, this passage cannot in any sense be regarded as a wholehearted celebration of British rule in India.
Nevertheless, at times the author moves to reinforce the ideals of colonization via the trope of empire as childlike, or an accidental occurrence. In "A Germ-Destroyer" the narrator comments that "Fate looks after the Indian Empire because it is so big and helpless". (122) This is a deeply disingenuous comment, as it ascribes an organic, natural quality to a construct that was highly organised and based upon trade, profit and forcible subjugation of native peoples. I believe that here we may see Kipling acting as the subtle celebrant of empire, in attempting to represent the British Empire as innocent or child-like.
The author occupies a wide variety of positions regarding native peoples, describing them variously, through his characters, as "savage" and "heathen" (5). Lispeth "took to her own unclean people savagely" (7). In "The Rescue of Pluffles" the chief protagonist "learned what it was to be spoken to like a coolie" (56). At other points, Kipling indulges in traditional Occidental romanticising of natives as unknowable, exotic and unredeemable. Native Indians are frequently over-romanticised, or represented as childlike or innocent. In "Beyond the Pale" "poor little" Bisesa is "as innocent as a bird" (175). Lispeth, through her trusting behaviour, is described as "but a child" by the Chaplains wife (5). McIntosh Jellaludins wife would have no use for his papers, the inference being that although she shares his bed and can cook she is ignorant and cannot read. This leitmotif echoes again and again in the literature of empire. Natives, it seems are either rapacious and violent like the Pathans, or innocent and virginal like Bisesa.
"Home" occupies an unusual position in Plain Tales from the Hills. Regarded as a safe source of unsullied and eligible marriageable white English girls, it is also the source of a variety of unknowing and inexperienced candidates for service in the east. For evidence of this see "Thrown Away", "In the Pride of his Youth" and "A Bank Fraud". The east is repeatedly represented as unknowable, while the metropolitan centre is seen as a forcing house for naïve raw material that requires considerable time in the east before becoming wise enough for the exotic other. It is at this point that the issue of miscegenation frequently appears in the literature of empire. In "Yoked with an Unbeliever" Phil is described as "dropping all his English correspondents one by one, and beginning to look upon India as his home. Some men fall this way, and they are of no use afterwards". He "did what many planters have done before him- marry a Hill-girl" (39). Thus while one may not marry a Portuguese if one aspires to be a "K.C.I.E". ("Kidnapped"); one may marry a native if one is a social inferior such as a mere tea planter. In "Beyond the Pale" Kipling states, via his narrator, "Let the White go to the White and the Black to the Black", implying that the bipolar racial opposition in India should be maintained, and forecasting dire problems if this distance is not maintained. Trejago transgresses this boundary because he "took too deep an interest in native life; but he will never do so again". He is symbolically wounded in the groin for his interest in Bisesa, and she is brutally mutilated by Durga Charan. The moral is clear; white or black will not tolerate miscegenation.
Kipling exposes colonial anxieties about the nature of British blood supremacy in the face of Portuguese race in "Kidnapped": "dCastries dropped the d for administrative reasons." This is a subtle piece of racial awareness, if not overt racism. The author, as ever, is alert to the racial stratification of empire. In order to progress through the ranks of British society in India, one had to be regarded as racially pure. We are told that Miss Castries "possessed what innocent people at Home call a Spanish complexion", and that "for many reasons she was impossible" (131). The reason that she was "impossible" was that she was from a racially mixed background. The name "dCastries" would mark one out as other and racially inferior, therefore the d was dropped in order to be regarded as English and therefore socially acceptable. Yet Kiplings awareness of these undercurrents, and reproduction of them via his narrator, cannot imply unconditional personal acceptance of racism. If poststructuralism has taught us anything, it is that attitudes implicit in the text are not necessarily those of the author.
This discourse is developed in "False Dawn", when the narrator conflates the muddle of the orient with the inability of non-English people to organise functions, via naming. The picnic is described as resembling "a scene in a theatre at Saumarezs choice. I never knew anything so un-English in my life". Confusion and emotion are signified as foreign, while control and dignity are reserved for the English. The picnic takes place on Indian soil, with a cast, (or caste) of predominantly English players. But a foreign male who is, moreover, "a Civilian", causes muddle. This tale predates Forster's A Passage to India, but the similarities are striking. Both tales concern possible marriage, a picnic, and confusion via the agency of foreigners and the exotic and unknowable east. This notion presupposes a bipolar dichotomy that does not accord well with Kiplings sophisticated critique of race. However, he frequently allows his narrator or characters what would be regarded today as racially offensive remarks. Mulvaney, in "Daughter of the Regiment", speaking in Kiplings excruciating cod Oirish, states that the only "naygur" on the railway station had a "sneakin black neck" (208). On any grounds this is morally inexcusable. But witness what happens when the narrator sets the scene for "Kidnapped". He states "We are a high-caste and enlightened race." (129). I believe that this should be taken as an ironic comment, designed to radically undercut notions of British moral ascendancy. Nevertheless, whether ironic or genuine, the comment must be viewed as reinforcing and echoing traditional views of the colonizer as superior to the native and other colonizing races, such as the Portuguese.
Kipling operates in a complex series of relationships to the settler and settled in India. It is a reasonable and frequently made charge that he is a racist writer and reinforcer of empire. Nevertheless, it is my contention that he was a far more subtle and polyvocalic author. Deeply suspicious not only of British bureaucrats and outsiders newly arrived from England, he was uneasy about many of the central pillars of the British will to power in India, such as the police, government, and missionary church. Kipling is guilty of a middle-class tendency to romanticise private soldiers and racial stereotypes, such as Mulvaney, or the "woild" and "dissolute" Pathan. Yet he should not be dismissed as unworthy of further study, and the common critical tendency that consigns him, along with Edmund Burke, to the dustbin of right-wing writers is intellectually weak, unquestioning and manifestly uncritical
Imperial Archive Website: http://www.qub.ac.uk/english/imperial/imperial.htm
Kipling Society Webpage http://www.kipling.org.uk/
The Victorian Web: http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/kipling/kiplingov.html
Kipling, Rudyard. Plain Tales from the Hills. London: Penguin, 1994.
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