Today is the birthday of Rudyard Kipling (30 December 1865- 18 January 1936). Born in Bombay, now called Mumbai, he died in London.
Calcutta, now called Kolkata, has come to be called the “city of the dreadful night”. Even newspapers in Calcutta use that phrase as a synonym for the city. However, Kipling’s short story, The City of Dreadful Night, is set in Lahore, and not in Calcutta. It describes people sleeping in the street, inert as corpses, and ends with a description of a woman’s body being taken to the burning ghat. “So the city was of Death as well as of Night, after all,” Kipling writes in the last sentence.
Calcutta is described in newspaper sketches like A Real Live City, On the Banks of the Hughli, With the Calcutta. They were compiled in the book, The City of Dreadful Night and Other Places, first published in 1891. Maybe that’s how Calcutta came to be called the City of Dreadful Night. The book was published without Kipling’s permission and so he had suppressed, according to a bibliography of Kipling’s works I found on Google.
The uproar in Singapore against Pastor Rony Tan, who was questioned by the authorities and had to apologize for mocking the religious beliefs of Buddhists and Taoists, reminds me of the controversy surrounding a famous writer.
Rudyard Kipling was born in Mumbai, in the JJ School of Art, where his father was the dean. The bungalow is being restored and will be turned into a museum, but it will feature paintings by local artists instead of showcasing Kipling memorabilia. Local officials frowned on plans to include a Kipling room because he is seen as an imperialist, reported the Telegraph. Young Indian students interviewed by the BBC World Service, however, said they were proud he was born there.
I heard it on the BBC arts programme Strand on the day the Straits Times reported the pastor had been questioned by the authorities. You can still hear it here.
Kipling also glorified Christianity at the expense of other religions. He wrote the poem, The White Man’s Burden, and about “lesser breeds without the law”. Racism is blatant in that line from his poem, Recessional.
And yet it is a surprisingly poignant poem. Written in 1897, during Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, it reflects on the decline and fall of empires and is a prayer to God to spare the British and forgive any sins of vainglory:
Englishwomen in the early 19th century bathed only twice or thrice a week in India – and mocked the Indians for bathing every day. The memsahibs – Englishwomen – were bathed in their bathtubs by their maids who soaped and scrubbed them, asking what to them sounded like “Cushy?” “Cushy?” — if they were satisfied. So the maids were called “cushy-girls”. In Bengali and Hindi, “khushi” – which to the English sounded like “cushy” – means “happy” or “pleased”.
Little nuggets like this fill the pages of Sea of Poppies. The author, Amitav Ghosh, shows how Indian languages and culture and cuisine made inroads into Anglo-Indian society – the Britons in India. They had their own code. They were expected to speak only “bazar Hindustani”, a pidgin language, and inter-racial sex was frowned upon. Yet, there’s one scene where a rich Indian’s mistress observing the guests at dinner from behind a screen (because Indian women at the time were not allowed to be seen by strangers) is startled to see an elderly Englishman. He had sex with her when she was a courtesan, she tells her female companies, describing in Bengali the things he did to her. The Englishman, who overhears her, flies into a rage and has to be restrained by others from beating her up with his walking stick. It turns out he knows Bengali. “There’s not a word of your black babble I don’t understand,” he says.
It’s a comic scene, but it underlines the racism of the British rulers in India.
Sea of Poppies shows the suffering they caused. Peasants were forced to cultivate poppies instead of food crops and sell the harvest to the English India Company, which ruled the country and held a monopoly in the opium trade. There’s a harrowing description of an opium factory where the poppies were converted into balls of opium, which were then shipped to China. The novel is set in the 1830s when the Chinese rulers banned the opium trade, provoking the British to go to war to lift the ban by force.
The opium trade had far-reaching consequences, leading not only to the Opium War and the British conquest of Hong Kong but also contributing to the Indian diaspora. Indian peasants who got into debt and lost their land were sent off to remote British colonies to work as indentured labourers.