Thus the midday halt of Charnock – more’s the pity! –
Grew a City
As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed
So it spread
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built
On the silt
Palace, byre, hovel – poverty and pride
Side by side
And above the packed and pestilential town
Death looked down.
Boy, that Kipling. it’s not enough for him to implore people to take up the White Man’s Burden, he had to cast a bunch of shade on Calcutta too? Even from the grave that guy is the gift that keeps on giving.
Let’s talk a little bit about Kipling, shall we? Or as I like to put it, the white person who gives the rest of us a bad name (because there’s only one, obviously…) Before I moved to India, I didn’t think much about this Nobel-Prize winner author (you read that correctly. Rudyard Kipling has a nobel prize for literature and I don’t. There is no justice.) The most interesting thing to me about Rudyard Kipling, the man who gave the world such classic works like The Jungle Book which in its originality is a lot more racist than Disney would have you believe (and you know something is deeply racist if even Walt Disney was like, whoa, guy, slow down, let’s make this a little tolerant, shall we?) and The White Man’s Burden is that Kipling, by his own omission, loved India. Or at least, he loved the India he knew, a British Colony owned and operated by the English crown.
Kipling was born here in Bombay, as he described it in his poetry:
Mother of Cities to me,
For I was born in her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait
And he grew up in the kind of bizarre existence that made a lot of sense to Victorian English people because if there is one group of people who knew how to really live, it’s the group that believed a bustle was a cool female fashion trend. Basically, Kipling’s parents were what was called Anglo-Indians, British people living in India who still wanted their children to grow up with proper appreciation of Queen and country. Kipling describes his childhood thusly: In the afternoon heats before we took our sleep, she (the Portuguese ayah, or nanny) or Meeta (the Hindu bearer, or male attendant) would tell us stories and Indian nursery songs all unforgotten, and we were sent into the dining-room after we had been dressed, with the caution ‘Speak English now to Papa and Mamma.’ So one spoke ‘English’, haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in”. At the age of five, he and his younger sister were taken to England to be properly educated so they wouldn’t get too Indian. After his rigorous and horrifying English education (his words) he was able to return to India, where he was the first and last person to be super excited to be working in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan. Kipling spent the next decade of his life working as a writer in local papers, and that is how he got his start writing. After publishing stories in local papers, Kipling moved back to England, and began his literary career in earnest, and despite personal issues from time to time was, in his day, a rousing success. In other words, Kipling was one of those guys who lives in India for a while after college graduation to, like, find himself and stuff, and then goes home and becomes an investment banker.
Kipling was one of the most famous writers of his time, and now we think if him, if at all, as the racial supremacist who gave us a bear named Baloo. But Kipling is more interesting than that, and more complex. He was, for a long time, the primary chronicler of India. There were other writers, of course, but few so popular, well-known, loved, and pervasive as Kipling. Simply put, he changed the way a generation of children thought of India (and Africa), and it’s difficult to erase the knowledge learned in childhood. It is because of Kipling that people the world round know the Hindi word for tiger, Shere, and for king, Shah. It’s also because of Kipling that idiot children stick their hands into the bear habitats of zoos hoping their friends will come play with them, but to be fair, they probably would have done it anyway. Bears are adorable. Fact. The point is in many ways, in his day, Kipling was the person who represented India to the Western World.
For a long time, for me, Mr. India was the person who represented India for me. This was a role he was very reluctant to play, constantly wishing for a reliable understudy. To his credit, his biggest anxiety was always misrepresenting his country. When I asked a general question, he would struggle to answer it fairly, always trying to find the best way to represent his own life experience as a singular one. I, quite unfairly at times, would take Mr. India’s word as a kind of iron clad rule about India, which would concern and infuriate him, but in my defense, I was like an old Victorian lady listening, wide-eyed, to Kipling at a lecture, drinking in his Just So stories like cholera-infested water. I hadn’t been to India before I moved here, and I was trusting Mr. India to be my sherpa and my guru. The problem is, he wasn’t exactly thrilled about either role. So coming here has been a relief in that way, I know, because now I can represent India to myself, I can form my own opinion. That’s a lucky thing, though, isn’t it. Not everyone can go everywhere and decide everything for themselves. When it comes to opinions about the world, who do we really deserve to trust?
More so than India in general, Mr. India had told me a lot, sometimes voluntarily, sometime through a cacophony of questions, about Kolktata. It is always fascinating to see someone’s hometown, isn’t it? Mr. India got to hang out in Philadelphia quite a bit before we left the States, but this was my first time visiting his childhood home in Kolkata. Mr. India grew up in a large household full of people, his own family, servants, workers, just spending a week and change in his house meant I felt like I was in a lovely, well maintained merry-go-round, with constant changes and new faces. As I sat working on a couch and watched ten people enter and exit over the space of a few hours, I realized, or recognized, I suppose, because I always knew, that while we live in India, we don’t, really, live like Indians here in Mumbai.
I’m used to living a life that is far more private and segmented than is typical here. I like it that way. The idea of having a plethora people come do things for you seems invasive to me, I can’t see the benefit, really. I think this is because I value routine and a concept of privacy as a way to control my space far more than I value convenience. I would always rather do things for myself, so I can control their outcome and my life. Control is paramount, and comfort is its byproduct. So when living in a place in which there is constant service, I feel overwhelmed. Mr. India, on the other hand, grew up with this. And while I’ve always known that, I never realized it so clearly as when I was watching it happen.
I wonder what Kipling liked best. I suppose for him service was a part of life, lives were permeable in all ways because of class and social issues. I wonder what it was like, being raised by Indian maids as primary care givers and being told you were really British. What an identity crisis. No wonder the post-colonial hangover remains a part of life here. How do you shake so potent and pervasive a feeling? Kipling couldn’t. And the fact that there are not one but two live action versions of The Jungle Book coming out in the next few years, it seems like we’re not done with Kipling yet, either.
I don’t agree with him about Kolktata, though. It’s a nice city, at least, it is now. Coming from Mumbai, with its traffic and it’s noise and its desperate press of humanity, Kolkata seems practically serene. But then, everything exists in comparison, doesn’t it?