Imaginary homelands essa.., p.8

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 8


Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

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  and that meant he was the custodian of Nur’s very soul and spirit. It was a great distinction. He could not deny or abandon that under any pressure.

  Once Deven has understood this, the calamities of his life seem suddenly unimportant. ‘He would run to meet them,’ and he does.

  The high exaltation of such a conclusion is saved from lushness by Anita Desai’s wholly admirable lack of sentimentality. Her vision is unsparing: Urdu may be dying, but in the character of Siddiqui she shows us the worst side of Urdu/Muslim culture—its snobbishness, its eternal nostalgia for the lost glory of an early Empire. And, most significantly, we see that while Deven may be willing to embrace his responsibilities to Nur, he utterly fails to do likewise with Nur’s wife or his own. He feels too threatened by the former even to read her poetry, and too careless of his own poor Sarla with her faded dreams of ‘fan, phone, frigidaire’ to build any sort of real relationship with her at all. That Anita Desai has so brilliantly portrayed the world of male friendship in order to demonstrate how this, too, is a part of the process by which women are excluded from power over their own lives is a bitter irony behind what is an anguished, but not at all a bitter book.



  In Luis Buñuel’s last film, Cet obscur objet de désir, the heroine was played by two actresses, one cool and poised, the other fiery and sensual. The two women looked utterly dissimilar, yet it was not uncommon for people to watch the entire movie without noticing the device. Their need to believe in the homogeneity of personality was so deeply rooted as to make them discount the evidence of their own eyes.

  I once thought of borrowing Buñuel’s idea for a TV programme about Rudyard Kipling. I wanted him to be played by an Indian actor as well as an English one, to speak Hindi in some scenes and English in others. After all, when the child Rudyard was admitted to his parents’ presence, the servants would have to remind him to ‘speak English now to Mama and Papa.’ The influence of India on Kipling—on his picture of the world as well as his language—resulted in what has always struck me as a personality in conflict with itself, part bazaar-boy, part sahib. In the early Indian stories (this essay confines itself to the two collections, Soldiers Three and In Black and White), that conflict is to be found everywhere, and Kipling does not always seem fully conscious of it. (By the time he wrote Kim, twelve years later, his control had grown. But Kim’s torn loyalties have never seemed as interesting to me as the ambiguous, shifting relationships between the Indians and the English in, for example, ‘On the City Wall’.)

  The early Kipling is a writer with a storm inside him, and he creates a mirror-storm of contradictory responses in the reader, particularly, I think, if the reader is Indian. I have never been able to read Kipling calmly. Anger and delight are incompatible emotions, yet these early stories do indeed have the power simultaneously to infuriate and to entrance.

  Kipling’s racial bigotry is often excused on the grounds that he merely reflected in his writing the attitudes of his age. It’s hard for members of the allegedly inferior race to accept such an excuse. Ought we to exculpate anti-Semites in Nazi Germany on the same grounds? If Kipling had maintained any sort of distance between himself and the attitudes he recorded, it would be a different matter. But, as story after story makes plain, the author’s attitudes—the attitudes, that is, of Kipling as played by the English actor—are identical with those of his white characters. The Indians he portrays are wife-killers (‘Dray Wara Yow Dee’), scamps (‘At Howli Thana’), betrayers of their own brothers (‘Gemini’), unfaithful wives (‘At Twenty-Two’) and the like. Even the Eurasian Mrs DeSussa in ‘Private Learoyd’s Story’ is a fat figure of fun. Indians bribe witnesses, desert their political leaders, and are gullible, too: ‘Overmuch tenderness … has bred a strong belief among many natives that the native is capable of administering the country.’ Mr Kipling knows better. ‘It [India] will never stand alone.’

  But there is the Indian actor, too; Ruddy Baba as well as Kipling Sahib. And it is on account of this fellow that Kipling remains so popular in India. This popularity looks like, and indeed is, an extraordinary piece of cultural generosity. But it is real. No other Western writer has ever known India as Kipling knew it, and it is this knowledge of place, and procedure, and detail that gives his stories their undeniable authority. The plot of ‘Black Jack’ turns on the operational differences between two different kinds of rifle; while the story ‘In Flood Time’ owes its quality to Kipling’s precise and magnificent description of a swollen river in the monsoon rains. Nor could he have created the salon of the courtesan Lalun in ‘On the City Wall’ had he not been a regular visitor to such establishments himself.

  Not all the stories have stood the test of time—‘The Sending of Dana Da’ seems particularly flimsy—but all of them are packed with information about a lost world. It used to be said that one read in order to learn something, and nobody can teach you British India better than Rudyard Kipling.

  These stories are, above all, experiments in voice. In Soldiers Three, Kipling has sought to give voice to the ordinary British soldier whom he admired so much. (The original version of the first story, ‘The God from the Machine’, was published in the Railway Library edition with a dedication to ‘that very strong man, T. ATKINS, … in all admiration and good fellowship’.) How well he has succeeded is open to dispute.

  There can be no doubt that he knew his characters inside out, and, by abandoning the world of the officer classes in favour of the view from the ranks, opened up a unique subculture that would otherwise have been very largely lost to literature; or that many of these are very good indeed. ‘The Big Drunk Draf’, in which a company of men on its way to board the ship for England nearly turns upon its young officer, but is thwarted by the wiles of Terence Mulvaney and the courage of the officer himself, is one such splendid tale; while ‘Black Jack’, which tells of a murder plot, and owes something—as Kipling admitted in the Railway Library edition—to Robert Louis Stevenson’s story ‘The Suicide Club’, is my own favourite yam.

  But the surface of the text is made strangely impenetrable by Kipling’s determination to render the speech of his three musketeers in thick Oirish (Mulvaney), broad Cockney (Ortheris) and ee-ba-goom Northern (Learoyd). Mulvaney’s ‘menowdherin’, an’ minandherin’, an’ blandandherin” soon grows tiresome, and Ortheris drops so many initial H’s and final G’s and D’s that the apostrophes begin to swim before our eyes. George Orwell suggested, of Kipling’s verse, that such mimicry of lower-class speech actually made the poems worse than they would be in standard English, and ‘restored’ some of the lines to prove his point. I must confess to feeling something similar about these stories. There is something condescending about Kipling’s mimicry:

  ‘Ah doan’t care. Ah would not care, but ma heart is plaayin’ tivvy-tivvy on ma ribs. Let ma die! Oh, leave ma die!’

  Learoyd’s suffering is curiously diminished by the music-hall orthography. Kipling’s affection for the Soldiers Three can often seem de haut en bas.

  The other main point of linguistic interest in the Soldiers Three stories is the incorporation of a number of Hindi words and phrases. This is kept at a pidgin, Hobson-Jobson level: Take him away, an’ av you iver say wan wurrud about fwhat you’ve dekkoed, I’ll marrow you till your own wife won’t sumjao who you are!’ The Indian critic S. S. Azfar Hussain has pointed out that, of the eleven Hindi sentences which appear in Soldiers Three (and these are the only complete Hindi sentences to be found in the whole of Kipling’s æuvre), ten are imperative sentences; and nine of these are orders from English masters to their servants. It is important, then, not to overstate the extent to which Kipling’s Indian childhood influenced his work. It seems certain that Kipling did not remain literate in Hindi or Urdu. Dr Hussain reports that ‘Kipling’s manuscripts in the British Museum … show that he tried several times to write his name in Urdu, but oddly enough did not succeed once. It reads “Kinling”, “Kiplig” and “Kipenl

  In the Soldiers Three stories the Hindi/Urdu words are simply sprinkled over the text, like curry powder. The In Black and White stories attempt something altogether more ambitious. Here it is the Indians who have been given voice, and since, in many cases, they would not actually be speaking English, a whole idiolect has had to be invented.

  Much of this invented Indiaspeak is so exclamatory, so full of ‘Ahoo! Ahoo!’ and ‘Ahi! Ahi!’ and even ‘Auggrh!’ as to suggest that Indians are a people incapable of anything but outbursts. Some of it sounds very like the salaaming exoticism of the pantomime: ‘The mind of an old man is like the numah-tree. Fruit, bud, blossom, and the dead leaves of all the years of the past flourish together.’ Sometimes Kipling’s own convictions place impossible sentences in Indian mouths: ‘Great is the mercy of these fools of English’ is one such contorted utterance. But much of it is brilliantly right. The device of literal translations of metaphors is certainly exotic, but it does also lend a kind of authenticity to the dialogue: ‘… it is the Sahib himself! My heart is made fat and my eye glad.’ And the Indian banias, policemen, miners and whores sound Indian in a way that—for example—Forster’s never do. This is because they think like Indians, or at least they do when Kipling lets them. For the problem of condescension remains. Kipling could never have dedicated a story to the ‘natives’ as he did to ‘T. Atkins’, after all. And if the tone of Soldiers Three seems patronizing at times, in In Black and White it can sound far, far worse.

  Kipling’s Indian women, in particular, are (at best) the cause of trouble and danger for men—the Hindu heroine of ‘In Flood Time’ is the cause of a deadly rivalry between a Muslim and a Sikh—while, at worst, they cheat on their old, blind husbands as Unda does in ‘At Twenty-Two’, or on their ferocious Pathan husbands, as the ‘woman of the Abazai’ does, with unhappy results, in ‘Dray Wara Yow Dee’:

  And she bowed her head, and I smote it off at the neck-bone so that it leaped between my feet. Thereafter the rage of our people came upon me, and I hacked off the breasts, that the men of Little Malikand might know the crime …

  And yet, and yet. It is impossible not to admire Kipling’s skill at creating convincing portraits of horse-thieves, or rural policemen, or Punjabi money-lenders. The story of how the blind miner Janki Meah finds the way out of a collapsed mine may feature a flighty female, but the world, and the psychology, and the language of the men are superlatively created.

  The most remarkable story in this collection is unquestionably ‘On the City Wall’. In it, the two Kiplings are openly at war with one another; and, in the end, it seems to me, the Indian Kipling manages to subvert what the English Kipling takes to be the meaning of the tale.

  ‘On the City Wall’ is not narrated by an Indian voice, but by an English journalist who, in common with ‘all the City’, is fond of visiting Lalun’s brothel on the Lahore city wall to smoke and to talk. The brothel is presented as an oasis of peace in the turbulence of India; here Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Europeans mingle without conflict. Only one group is excluded: ‘Lalun admits no Jews here.’ One of the most vocal figures at Lalun’s is Wali Dad, the Westernized young man who calls himself ‘a Product—a Demnition Product. That also I owe to you and yours: that I cannot make an end to my sentence without quoting from your authors.’ The deracinated—or seemingly deracinated—Wali Dad is one of the story’s main actors. Another is the imprisoned revolutionary Khem Singh, who is kept locked in Fort Amara. The third major ‘character’ is the crowd of Shia Muslims thronging the city streets, for it is the time of the Muharram processions, and violence is in the air.

  Kipling’s treatment of Wali Dad is, by any standards, pretty appalling. He builds him up purely in order to knock him down, and when the young man, seeing the frenzy of the Muharram processions, is transformed into a sort of savage—‘His nostrils were distended, his eyes were fixed, and he was smiting himself softly on the breast,’ Kipling tells us, and makes Wali Dad say things like ‘These swine of Hindus! We shall be killing kine in their temples tonight!’—the meaning is clear: Western civilization has been no more than a veneer; a native remains a native beneath his European jackets and ties. Blood will out. Wali Dad’s regression is not only unbelievable; it also shows us that Kipling has failed to appreciate that it was among these very people, these Wali Dads, Jawaharlal Nehrus and M. K. Gandhis, that the Indian revolution would be made; that they would assimilate Western culture without being deracinated by it, and then turn their knowledge against the British, and gain the victory.

  In the story’s other main narrative strand, Lalun tricks the narrator into assisting in the escape of the revolutionary, Khem Singh. Kipling suggests that the old leader’s followers have lost their appetite for revolution, so that Khem Singh has no option but to return voluntarily into captivity. But his narrator understands the meaning of the story rather better than that: ‘I was thinking,’ he concludes, ‘how I had become Lalun’s Vizier, after all.’ Louis Cornell, in his study of this story, suggests rather oddly that ‘the ostensible climax … where the reporter discovers that he has unwittingly helped a revolutionary to escape from the police, is too minor an incident, placed too close to the end of the tale, to seem in proportion with the rest of the story.’ It seems to me not at all unusual for a climax to be placed near a story’s end; and, far from being a minor incident, Khem Singh’s escape seems central to the story’s significance. India, Lalun-India, bewitches and tricks the English, in the character of the reporter; the master is made the servant, the Vizier. So that the conclusion of the very text in which Kipling states most emphatically his belief that India can never stand alone, without British leadership, and in which he ridicules Indian attempts to acquire the superior culture of England, leaves us with an image of the inability of the sahibs to comprehend what they pretend to rule. Lalun deceived the narrator; Wali Dad deceived the author. ‘On the City Wall’ is Ruddy Baba’s victory over Kipling Sahib. And now that the ‘great idol called Pax Britannica which, as the newspapers say, lives between Peshawar and Cape Comorin,’ has been broken, the story stands, along with the others in this volume, as a testament to the old quarrel between colonizer and colonized. There will always be plenty in Kipling that I will find difficult to forgive; but there is also enough truth in these stories to make them impossible to ignore.



  The British Empire, many pundits now agree, descended like a juggernaut upon the barbicans of the East, in search of loot. The moguls of the raj went in palanquins, smoking cheroots, to sip toddy or sherbet on the verandahs of the gymkhana club, while the memsahibs fretted about the thugs in bandannas and dungarees who roamed the night like pariahs, plotting ghoulish deeds.

  All the italicized words in the above paragraph can be found, with their Eastern family trees, in Hobson-Jobson, the legendary dictionary of British India, on whose reissue Routledge are to be congratulated. These thousand-odd pages bear eloquent testimony to the unparalleled intermingling that took place between English and the languages of India, and while some of the Indian loan-words will be familiar—pukka, curry, cummerbund—others should surprise many modern readers.

  Did you know, for example, that the word tank has Gujarati and Marathi origins? Or that cash was originally the Sanskrit karsha, ‘a weight of silver or gold equal to 1/400th of a Tula’? Or that a shampoo was a massage, nothing to do with the hair at all, deriving from the imperative form—champo!—of the Hindi verb champna, ‘to knead and press the muscles with the view of relieving fatigue, etc.’? Every column of this book contains revelations like these, written up in a pleasingly idiosyncratic, not to say cranky, style. The authors, Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell, are not averse to ticking off an untrustworthy source, witness their entry under muddle, meaning a double, or secretary, or interpreter: ‘This word is only known to us from the clever—perhaps too clever—little book quoted below … probably a misapprehension of budlee.’

  The chief inte
rest of Hobson-Jobson, though, lies not so much in its etymologies for words still in use, but in the richnesses of what one must call the Anglo-Indian language whose memorial it is, that language which was in regular use just forty years ago and which is now as dead as a dodo. In Anglo-Indian a jam was a Gujarati chief, a sneaker was ‘a large cup (or small basin) with a saucer and cover’, a guinea-pig was a midshipman on an India-bound boat, an owl was a disease, Macheen was not a spelling mistake but a name, abbreviated from ‘Maha-Cheen’, for ‘great China’. Even a commonplace word like cheese was transformed. The Hindi chiz, meaning a thing, gave the English word a new, slangy sense of ‘anything good, first-rate in quality, genuine, pleasant or advantageous’ as, we are told, in the phrase, ‘these cheroots are the real cheese.’

  Some of the distortions of Indian words—‘perhaps by vulgar lips’—have moved a long way from their sources. It takes an effort of the will to see, in the Anglo-Indian snow-rupee, meaning ‘authority’, the Telugu word tsanauvu. The dictionary’s own title, chosen, we are told, to help it sell, is of this type. It originates in the cries of Ya Hasan! Ya Hussain! uttered by Shia Muslims during the Muharram processions. I don’t quite see how the colonial British managed to hear this as Hobson! Jobson!, but this is clearly a failure of imagination on my part.

  It’s just about a century since this volume’s first publication, and in 1886 it was actually possible for Yule and Burnell (whom it’s tempting to rename Hobson and Jobson) to make puns which conflated Hindi with, of all things, Latin. The Anglo-Indian word poggle, a madman, comes from the Hindi pagal, and so we’re offered the following ‘macaronic adage which we fear the non-Indian will fail to appreciate: pagal et pecunia jaldé separantur.’ (A fool and his money are soon parted.)


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