Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Kipling conundrum

Fears of a storm of belated anti-British Raj feeling have scuppered plans to erect a new shrine to Rudyard Kipling in part of the Mumbai house where his father once lived. Would Kipling care? Almost certainly not.
Firstly, Kipling was a man who felt he needed no public acclamation beyond the cash register. During his lifetime he declined all political recognition. His house in Sussex, Batemans, is already a museum, and that would probably have been enough for him.
Secondly, this rebuff could only pale alongside all the other discourtesies repeatedly heaped upon his head, especially in Old Blighty, where his oeuvre still hangs as a skeleton in the British literary closet. Repeated attempts to rehabilitate him have failed not with the public, who adored him them and indulge him now but with the liberal-academic intelligentsia, whom he hated and who loathed him in return. For them his support for the British Empire at its proudest has been impossible to overlook, and he has had to be pardoned repeatedly by generations of critics and fellow writers. W H Auden only felt able to forgive him for writing well.
And he did write well. But what exactly was he writing? Was Kipling really a paid-up imperialist racist?
It’s hard to know, because Kipling used such an extraordinary range of voices across his prodigious output that it is extremely difficult to tell what his opinions really were. He spoke from the points of view of men and women of all social classes, both British and Indian, and expressed opinions true to his characters.
The dusty old excuse, that Kipling was no more than a man of his times can certainly be brought out again to explain some of his racial attitudes. He knew that colour was a strong marker in his society, and he counselled that men and women, both dark and fair, should marry within their hue and caste. But this makes him no more a racist than many middle-class Indian parents today who want their children to find partners within traditional lines of acceptability.
Unusually for a Victorian author, he had surprisingly little sense of the superiority of either Western or Christian values. Speaking in the voice of a (habitually) racist British soldier in Gunga Din, he willingly concedes that Gunga Din is the better man. In The Ballad of East and West the British soldier can find no fault in Kamal, his Pathan opponent.
Full report here The Times of India

No comments:

Post a Comment