Kipling, Calcutta and The City of Dreadful Night


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.

Kipling compares Calcutta with London in A Real Live City but is then revolted by the stench and corruption.  Calcutta was the capital of India at the time and this is how Kipling begins his piece: Continue reading “Kipling, Calcutta and The City of Dreadful Night”

Kipling, race and religion

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:

Continue reading “Kipling, race and religion”