Under my byline

Forget the White Man’s burden

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 10 January 2008

Charles Allen writes that India made Kipling. What can we take in return?

Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling
Charles Allen
Little, Brown
xxii + 426

Charles Allen gave me one of my heroes: James Prinsep. In The Buddha and the Sahibs, on the Europeans who discovered India’s ancient (particularly Buddhist) past, Prinsep has a starring role as a youngster come to India to make his fortune. He worked as an engineer and at the East India Company Mint in Calcutta, but was also responsible for a staggering amount of research. He became the focal point and a paradigm-setter for antiquarian studies in India, and died terribly young, esteemed by Indians and Europeans alike. What a man!

Allen clearly has a soft spot for him and the pages on Prinsep are aglow with the quiet love of a biographer for his subject. Allen himself comes from a family with old Raj links; his ancestor George Allen founded the Pioneer. Charles was born in India and experienced firsthand the life of the young colonial. His Plain Tales from the Raj is a superb set of essays on the everyday life of Europeans in India during the last half-century of empire.

Then there’s John Nicholson, the general who retook Delhi in 1857. Another Allen ancestor, he figures prominently in Soldier Sahibs, Allen’s book on the British officers who fought in the north-west. Nicholson is sympathetically portrayed, his grit and patriotism played up. Yet, Indian historians point out that Nicholson was no friend of Indians, and in fact was guilty of various brutalities.

Now take Rudyard Kipling, Allen’s latest subject. He’s long been unpopular for his unequivocally pro-imperial opinions, and as the author of that reviled phrase, “the White Man’s burden”. Yet this same man wrote Kim and dozens of poems and stories that show how intimately he knew the ordinary people and places, white and “native”, of the India he grew up in.

Kipling too has an Allen connection. George Allen of the Allahabad Pioneer also co-owned the Lahore Civil and Military Gazette, Kipling’s first employer. So a certain amount of family lore surrounds their association with this great man of letters — once the most famous writer in the English-speaking world. Despite this affinity, though, Allen seems able to summon up only a fitful affection for the young Kipling.

The book covers Kipling’s life until he left India for good in 1889, which includes the period in which his writerly vocabulary and range developed and matured. Allen’s treatment swings between the dutiful and the moderately affectionate. One explanation lies in the unusual trouble that the adult Kipling took to obscure his past — acquiring and destroying letters, diaries, early works, photographs, even from family and friends. This paranoia means that Allen’s work, or that of any Kipling biographer, is cut out for him. It’s only at moments when enough original material is available that Allen is able to warm up.

Critical to biography is portraiture, which captures the subject’s change over time by means of anecdote or vignette. This depends on good sources, and it is striking that the reader’s own warmth towards Kipling is kindled only when good descriptions are available from Kipling’s contemporaries. There are only a few, so, naturally, Kipling’s work (notably his poetry) must be juiced for answers. This Allen is brilliant at.

But it’s also true that Allen has no great interest in, or love for, the older Kipling of the post-India years. When Kipling leaves India, Allen leaves Kipling. India, says the biographer, was the source of all that was open-hearted and generous in Kipling’s work and personality. When he left it, that side of him was closed off. With Kim (1901), about a British boy brought up as an Indian, who becomes an agent in the Great Game, Allen says Kipling “had said it all”; his craft remained, but the spark was exhausted. This is, of course, at least debatable.

Kim is an education, among other things, in being poor and Indian at the turn of the last century. Kipling writes brilliantly about street life, about travelling among the poor by train and Grand Trunk Road. Most sahibs knew nothing of this, and cared less. And now, nor do we — our histories talk only of the lawyers and professionals of the freedom movement. Why can’t we swallow our pride and prescribe Kipling as standard reading for schoolchildren?

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