Rudyard Kipling’s West and East Indeed Never Meet
Kipling owes a lot to that catchy “Jungle jungle baat chali hai...”.
Kipling owes a lot to that catchy “Jungle jungle baat chali hai...”.(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@HelpForWriters)

Rudyard Kipling’s West and East Indeed Never Meet

(This article was first published on 18 January 2018. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Rudyard Kipling’s birth anniversary.)

Strange are the machinations of memory. What it chooses to put in the box of forgetting is often more important than what is remembered. Like, I do not remember much about Rudyard Kipling’s most loved and iconic creation, The Jungle Book. What I do remember is the jingle penned by Gulzar for its televised adaptation.

Kipling owes a lot to that catchy “Jungle jungle baat chali hai...”. After all, we don’t really care about his blatant racism as long as it comes wearing a chaddi like the newly-blossomed flower the jingle serenades.

Jungle Book. 
Jungle Book. 
(Photo Courtesy: Youtube.com)
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Cultivating Collective Memory

Coming back to memory, simplification aids memory and vice versa. We place items that we frequently need in a permanent location, like keys in a holder or stationary in a box on our desk. We also, often, use labels and signs. The aim is to manage our lives better by keeping things simple and by forming certain habits.

This is similar to how the West aimed to “manage” the Orient. Simplify through stereotypes, put labels, and form cognitive habits. That the Orient is inferior to the West is par for the course.

Kipling’s writings furthered the idea that India, though a beloved land, can thrive only in the able hands of the British. His India was not an evolving society but a static world frozen in time. His native characters are less sharply defined, lack the complexity that the European characters are endowed with, and are only a little better than stock characters — a part of the chorus that exists only tell the tale of the real players: the participants in the Great Game.

The Kim Factor

Kim is one of Kipling’s most problematic works in terms of its depiction of India and its people. While it has been lauded for its realism and the honesty with which it portrays the beauty of the landscape – physical and social – the novel is an exercise in (over)simplification. It contributed to how the West “contained and represented” the Orient, to borrow Edward Said’s words. Neat labels, repetitive stereotypes ensured that the only way the colonised are remembered is through the gaze of the West.

Rudyard Kipling’s <i>Kim</i> has long baffled his critics.&nbsp;
Rudyard Kipling’s Kim has long baffled his critics. 
(Photo: iStock)

That’s how memories are created. The India of Kim is the India that exists in the collective memory of many a white men and women, who might never have set foot in the country. Yes, not all of these westerners are Macaulay-like in their disdain for all things Indian. However, they are still the Kims that need to be “saved” by the Hurree Babus of Vrindavan or Varanasi or even Kasol!

A Reluctant Orientalist?

A Nobel laureate for Literature at 42, Kipling once had the world literati eating out of his hand. His dedication to Bombay, the city of his birth, is both evocative as well as emotive:

Mother of cities to me, for I was born in her gate. Between the palms and the sea, where the world-end steamers wait.
Rudyard Kipling

How could such a man further the agenda of the colonisers? How did the ‘White Man’s Burden’ replace the joyful weight of nostalgia and belongingness? Writing on his desk in Naulakha, his house in Vermont, did Kipling actually see India, his birthplace, as a land of “lying Orientals” or was he merely a cog in the wheel of the juggernaut called British colonialism?

These speculations have been adequately dealt with by Kipling’s critics over a century now. Perhaps, like Kim’s relationship with the lama, Kipling’s only real connect with India was nothing more than a means to absorb an object – to secure a job when he could not make it to Oxford and to embellish his writing with the native “material” that found a ready market in the heyday of British colonialism.

His West and East, despite living in close proximity, indeed, never do meet.

(We Indians have much to talk about these days. But what would you tell India if you had the chance? Pick up the phone and write or record your Letter To India. Don’t be silent, tell her how you feel. Mail us your letter at lettertoindia@thequint.com. We’ll make sure India gets your message.)

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