"KIPLING'S CASE IS CURIOUS. For glory, but also as an insult, Kipling has been equated with the British Empire," wrote Jorge Luis Borges in 1941, and, some seventy years later, the curiosity of Kipling's case still persists. On the one hand it's tempting and safe to pigeon-hole him as the author of The Jungle Book for children and the poem "If — ," that corny, beautiful, Buddha-like exhortation to stoicism and self-control. On the other, there are those who, like James Joyce, choose to condemn Kipling for "semi-fanatic" ideas about patriotism and race and consider him barely worth reading. An examination of two new paperback editions of Kipling's shorter fiction reveals something infinitely more complex.
Plain Tales from the Hills was Kipling's first prose collection, originally published in Calcutta when he'd just turned 22. Kipling had been born in Bombay, now Mumbai — "Mother of Cities to Me" as he called it in a poem — on December 30, 1865. Aged six, he'd been taken back to England and left there to be educated according to the Anglo-Indian custom of the day. In England he had a miserable time, to say the least — but more of that later. His parents couldn't afford to send him to Oxford and so in 1882 he returned to India, to the teeming city of Lahore, and a position on the Civil and Military Gazette. His job was to look and report. England fell away as he obliterated himself in the intoxicating heat and smells and visions of his lost childhood. He literally found himself talking in a language that he'd forgotten he knew. It was a return to the land that haunted his dreams, a recapturing, almost, of Paradise — except that by then Kipling had already been rudely severed from his innocence, and so he saw, as well as "the puffs of temple incense," the "sweat and darkness and dirt and lust and cruelty." Soon he was transmuting and transmitting all this, turning characters he met, and situations that fell into his lap, into short fictions that first appeared in the pages of the Gazette.
One of the most famous of these, "Beyond the Pale" begins with a gruff warning: "A man should, whatever happens, keep to his own caste, race, and breed. Let the White go to the White and the Black to the Black," says the narrator, words that would have sounded so ringing and true to conservative imperial ears. But this confident pronouncement is belied by what follows, a compressed tale of interracial love, the passion and savagery of which render hollow any attempt to distill a simple meaning.
Her room looked out through the grated window into the narrow dark Gully where the sun never came and where the buffaloes wallowed in the blue slime. She was a widow, about fifteen years old, and she prayed the Gods, day and night, to send her a lover.
The girl's name is Bisesa, and her prayers seem to be answered when an Englishman, Trejago, wandering aimlessly in the city, appears on the scene: "Then he saw that the Gully ended in a trap, an...read more