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, and heard a little laugh from behind the grated window.” Soon the two are lovers, and Trejago enters “a double-life so wild” he’ll later only have the scars, literally, to prove it wasn’t a dream.
“You are an Englishman. I am only a black girl,” Bisesa says, during the tiff that triggers the climax, a double-whammy of violence delivered within a few shocking sentences, but not before something strange happens within the texture of the story itself. Kipling’s narrator suddenly intrudes, saying: “She was fairer than bar-gold in the Mint.”
The poetic compression of phrase, and the nature of the metaphor it contains, tells us so much more about Kipling’s double-headed nature than the waffling homilies with which “Beyond the Pale” begins. Fairer than bar-gold in the Mint: Kipling is smitten, like his hero, by the beauty and passion of the forbidden that he too longs to possess, and of course we understand that it’s India herself that, for Kipling, is fairer and more desirable even than “bar-gold.”
These early stories are told in a flash and have a terrific verbal intensity. Each of them is propelled by this same swooning love of the country they pungently evoke while featuring white men and women going to pieces, a sense that the English in India are clinging to the precipice of a dizzying, teeming world they can never hope to understand, let alone fully conquer.
In “To Be Filed for Reference” an expatriate drowns himself in native Indian life while trying to research and write the great novel of Indian urban life that he will die failing to complete, and in “Thrown Away” the narrator/Kipling figure is called upon to help cover up a suicide. He arrives at the bungalow where the death has occurred:
Just then I saw through one of the windows a little hurricane lamp burning. This was at four in the afternoon. We both stopped dead in the veranda, holding our breath to catch every sound; and we heard, inside the room, the “brr-brr-brr” of a multitude of flies.
The body of the young officer has been there a while already. The suicide has blown his head off with a gunshot. The narrator, as part of the cover up (the lie will be that the unlucky high-strung officer died from cholera), looks around for a lock of hair to send to the family back in England. “But there were reasons why we could not find a lock fit to send.” The head, in other words, is now just a mess of blood, brain, and buzzing flies. Even as a young writer, Kipling was a master of restraint.
Plain Tales from the Hills features army officers and their wives, puzzled and embattled regular soldiers, gawky daughters of the regiment, bank-fraudsters, con men, horse dealers, and opium addicts. Not all of these characters are English, and by no means are the worst of them Indian. Kipling left India in 1889, traveling through China, Japan, and the United States, arriving in London to find that Plain Tales from the Hills had made him famous.
An extraordinary career was launched, and the longer Kipling went on — and he went on for a very long time — the less he wrote like Poe and de Maupassant, his early models, and the more he became like Henry James. The forty-plus stories collected in The Man Who Would Be King span his entire career and thus show the development.
“The Strange Ride of Morrowbee Jukes” was written, astonishingly, when Kipling was only seventeen, predating even the youthful products of Plain Tales from the Hills. It features an engineer who rides out in a rage one night and falls into a pit filled with Indian pariah, men and women who were thought to have died in a cholera epidemic but somehow survived. Their society found no alternative but to treat them as if they are actual corpses by hiding them away in tomb-like circumstances. Gogol’s Dead Souls reconfigured as horror, this story most closely resembles, in theme and structure, his own “Ba Ba Black Sheep,” where Kipling evokes the terror of his boyhood years in England, dumped with an abusive foster parent in a cold, damp boarding house in Southsea. “Aunty Rosa” didn’t coddle him and call him “sahib,” as had the family’s servants in India, but beat him and persecuted him without mercy. It was the first of Kipling’s lacerating traumas, a hell from which, like the trap into which Morrowbee Jukes is plunged, there seemed no escape. No wonder W.H. Auden called Kipling “the poet of encirclement.”
Kipling moved to art through journalism but kept something journalistic in his art. He never stopped being a great observer and reporter. He takes the side of underdogs. Many of his stories concern men and women who find themselves in one portion of hell or another, suffer unbearable loss or physical harm, don’t get what they want, or achieve only to fall. Even his avowedly imperial politics are ambiguously handled. The famous story “The Man Who Would Be King,” for instance, is both a marvelous compressed epic and an allegory for the fate of every would-be conqueror in Afghanistan. The grandeur of the ambition leads to blindness and death.
Kipling’s son John Kipling died at the Battle of Loos in 1915, and Kipling, who had lobbied hard to get John a military commission, was almost crippled with guilt. Grief surges beneath “Mary Postgate” and “The Gardener,” two late, great stories. In the first, the grief of a repressed woman bursts through in the form of cruelty and madness. In the second, a woman who has lived a lie finds redemption in a veterans cemetery that is still under construction, amidst “a merciless sea of black crosses.” The final effect of “The Gardener” is like a blow but hinges on a single word of dialogue that can easily be missed; by this time Kipling’s style is pared down beyond ellipsis to the point of ambiguity. Patriotism is not the issue here, let alone jingoism. This is a tale told in the whispering voice of a man who knows loss in his bones, burns with rage, but still feels the impulse towards reticence. The emotion could scarcely feel more contemporary.
Kipling is a fundamentally dark writer. Undercutting the melancholy is the speed of his telling and a prose style that can shine with pinpoint incandescence. In “Wireless,” setting the scene for an unexpected wonder that’s about to occur, Kipling describes a chemist’s shop as though it were a setting worthy of Scheherazade.
Across the street, blank shutters flung back the gaslight in cold smears; the dried pavement seemed to rough up in goose-flesh under the scouring of the savage wind, and we could hear, long ere he passed, the policeman flapping his arms to keep himself warm. Within, the flavours of cardamoms and chloric-ether disputed those of the pastilles and a score of drugs and perfume and soap scents. Our electric lights, set down low in the windows before the tun-bellied Rosamond jars, flung inward three monstrous daubs of red, blue, and green, that broke into kaleidoscopic lights on the faceted knobs of the drug-drawers, the cut-glass scent flagons, and the bulbs of the sparklet bottles. They flushed the white-tiled floor in gorgeous patches; splashed along the nickel-silver counter-rails, and turned the mahogany counter-panels to the likeness of intricate grained marbles — slabs of porphyry and malachite.
It’s amazing writing, high-voltage yet wonderfully precise (those verbs — ‘scouring’, ‘disputed’, ‘flung inward’, ‘flushed’), and I’d venture that both Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald were influenced by Kipling’s style, standing as it does in the gateway between Dickens and modernism. In 1907, when he was only 42, Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and he has remained its youngest-ever recipient. He died in 1936, after which he dropped from fashion like a lead bucket dropped in a lake. In the early 1940s Edmund Wilson published an essay titled “The Kipling Nobody Reads.” Yet many of his books have never been out of print and people do go on reading him. These days he’s admired by Salman Rushdie, Tariq Ali, and Hanif Kureishi, to name but a few: admired in the complicated ways that Borges suggests, but admired nonetheless. Nobody has ever got India better. Rushdie’s words, not mine.
White liberal critics have more trouble with him than anybody else, but they should look again, or more carefully, maybe beginning with “The Finest Story in the World,” in which a bank clerk with aspirations to write unknowingly rediscovers a previous life as a Greek galley slave, seeing an ocean wave topping the bulwarks of his sinking ship and pausing “like a banjo string drawn tight.” The image is wonderful, as is that of the sunlight squeezing through the oar-holes of the galley’s darkened lower decks “and wobbling about as the ship moves.” In this story Kipling considers the creative process, and maybe the mystery of his own gift. He was magical.