Kipling Sahib

Reviewed by Haris Masood Zuberi

Author Charles Allen’s effort in writing ‘Kipling Sahib - India and the making of Rudyard Kipling’ is aimed chiefly at sketching the life and circumstances of Kipling and the 19th century India which he held a strong bond for. While the book can be described as a depiction of the formative years which shaped his life and career, Allen thoroughly traces the background and early influences of Rudyard Kipling or ‘Ruddy’ as the young Kipling was known to family and friends.

In the opening chapter Bombay and a beginning readers are taken back to May 1865 when Ruddy’s parents Alice Macdonald and John Lockwood Kipling as a newly wedded couple arrived in India where Lockwood Kipling had found employment as an instructor at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy (JJ) School of Art. The environment, both geographical as well as social, of the post-mutiny Bombay of the 1860s is mapped out in detail. Meanwhile Ruddy’s apparent bond with the intriguing life of mystical India began even before birth on 30 December 1865; his arrival into the world had only proceeded sacred rituals by his parents’ Indian servants to ease Alice’s labour.

Over the years as Ruddy and his younger sister Trix grow up under the care of Indian servants Allen observes their great attachment with them and their native ways, which the impressionable children adopt as their own. He writes ‘…Ruddy and Trix mingled with a very different India from that of their parents…speaking not only Urdu but also snatches of other tongues and dialects.’ and quotes Rudyard Kipling from his autobiography ‘Something of Myself’; ‘…one spoke “English” haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in.’

From 1871 onwards when the siblings were taken to England Allen follows their schooling, particularly Ruddy’s stay at the United Services College. Years spent and friends made there initiated his characteristic attachment with soldiers and the military; profound knowledge and fondness of which reflected in his writings throughout. It was also here that he first discovered his abilities and decided to join journalism and nothing but.

Tracing the perceptions as well as aspirations of the Kipling family through archived letters the author amalgamates information with events and circumstances as the Kiplings advance into British Indian society winning several admirers amongst the elite. In the chapter Southsea and Lahore Allen records Ruddy’s parents’ move in 1875 to Lahore where John Lockwood Kipling was employed the first principal of the Mayo School of Art (now National College of Art) as well as the curator of the Lahore Museum. At this stage he presents marvelously detailed accounts of Lahore’s historic features.

The chapter As a prince entering his kingdom details Ruddy’s being summoned to India by his parents. Returned at age 18 he had found himself placed at an editorial position at the ‘Civil and Military Gazette’ primarily at the behest of his father’s acquaintance. There he found steady upward climb into creativity, expression and bold adventurism through his prose and verse both. He cashed in also on his mischievous side by writing fiction using real-life figures, especially from the scandalous Simla summers.

In Lahore Ruddy had also found his ‘only real home’. When encouraged to find fame and fortune in England Kipling had declared ‘My home’s out here’ and ‘I’m in love with the country…I find heat and smells of oil and spices…temple incense, and sweat, and darkness, and dirt and lust and cruelty, and, above all, things wonderful and fascinating…’ Allen also highlights through various sources Ruddy’s apparent ‘anti-Hindu’ prejudice; ‘My life had lain among Muslims…’ he had once declared. ‘Islam he could relate to, but never Hinduism and Hindus…’ announces Allen.

Later when Ruddy eventually left India and arrived in England Allen follows each professional or personal move made. Despite being an ‘Anglo-Indian’ (the expression then pertaining to those English born or bred in India), his fame had already taken England by storm and assignments were showered upon him. Financially as well as literarily he was well established. Allen continues to track Ruddy’s progress into marriage, moving to America, travelling the world and finding success across the oceans working on commission for a variety of publications. He accounts for most of Kipling’s writings and provides detailed references regarding the circumstances surrounding the periods in which they were written including present whereabouts of the original editions. Quite distressingly a large fraction of his writings tends to be out of print, yet Allen’s endeavor in quantitative as well as qualitative audit of his works comes out as a treasure for Kipling enthusiasts. Moreover the several maps, sketches and rare photographs are an absolute treat.

Himself born in India towards the very end of the Raj, Charles Allen has written extensively on British India and some of its central features which among various others include the Imperial soldiers in ‘Soldier Sahibs’, the nobles of princely states in ‘Lives of the Indian Princes’ and everyday lives of the English in India in ‘Plain Tales from the Raj’. It was only relevant that he took up relating the life and times of Rudyard Kipling, who emerged as the unique Englishman who essentially knew British India more than natives ever did. Some of his earliest observations about India and the Indian psyche quoted by Allen and scattered throughout the book are remarkable.

Most noteworthy and thought provoking metaphorically expressed observation comes from The Jungle Book, where as Allen describes, ‘The free people in Mowgli’s Jungle are not the Bandar-log, the anarchic…who think of themselves as free but who squabble and fight among themselves, but those people who voluntarily submit themselves to the discipline of the Law of the Jungle…as taught to Mowgli by Baloo and Bagheera…’

Observations about Afghans may not come across very surprising even in today’s political climate; ‘…all giving the onlooker the impression of wild beasts held back from murder and violence, and chafing against restraint.’ His conclusion of their cultural differences had been ‘God made us-East and West-widely different…standing upon different platforms; and parallel straight lines as everybody does not know…will never meet.’

More often than not Kipling is identified mainly for his adventures of Mowgli or Kim which is evidence the perception of this literary legend is largely overshadowed by merely two of his masterpieces, apparently leaving most of his other works rather under-explored. As Allen concludes, the latter portion of the dynamic Ruddy’s life was spent mellowed down or sobered up as Rudyard. His peak had been at the turn of the century when his most popular works ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Kim’ were published. Many of his works of later years which have remained evergreen classics include the poems ‘My boy Jack’ and ‘If…’ both of which are truly eternal pieces of work relevant at every point in time. The former for those who’ve lost sons in battle, to know ‘what comfort can (they possibly) find’ in losing young sons for a cause; and the latter for all of youth, to comprehend certain conditions of a balanced lifetime ‘If you could keep your head…’

This review was published in Dawn ‘Books & Authors’ on 26 July 2009.

Kipling Sahib
India and the making of Rudyard Kipling

By Charles Allen
2008 Abacus
426 Pages
ISBN 978-0-349-111685-3
Liberty Books Rs. 850/=
UK £ 9.99/=