Mowgli, the wolf-raised child in a central Indian jungle, and Kim, the orphan drawn into the “Great Game”, may be his most enduring child characters, but Rudyard Kipling is responsible for other irrepressible young heroes too. Changing literary politics have, however, regrettably obscured the tales of the children who could influence the Viceroy’s council or view an unprecedented natural spectacle in the Garo Hills.
Kipling (1865-1936) has had a chequered legacy. Proficient and prolific, across genres, in both poetry and prose, he was among the earliest — and the first English language author — to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1907) and is still popular.
On the other hand, his “imperialistic” depiction of Raj are not much appreciated in our post-colonial times. But this is unfortunate for, despite reflecting some prevailing norms, readers — those without ideological blinkers — will find Kipling’s works offered many other points of view — of common British soldiers, Indians of all classes, women (British and Indian), even animals and especially children.
Take these three short stories with two plucky British and an Indian boy.
“Tods’ Amendment”, from Kipling’s first short story collection “Plain Tales from the Hills” (1888), is about the youngster’s intervention to protect interests of local cultivators.
But Tods is special. Known to all Simla (as it was then spelt) due to his mother being a “singularly charming woman”, the six-year-old is “the only baby who ever broke the holy calm of the supreme Legislative Council”.
This happened when his pet goat fled up the hill into the Viceregal Lodge lawn as the Council was meeting. “… after an interval, was seen the shocking spectacle of a Legal Member and a Lieutenant-Governor helping, under the direct patronage of a Commander-in-Chief and a Viceroy, one small and very dirty boy in a sailor’s suit and a tangle of brown hair, to coerce a lively and rebellious kid”.
This breaks the ice between the Legal Member and Tods, who freely mixes with Indians and is told their problems. This assumes significance when he joins an after-dinner discussion on the “The Sub-Montane Tracts Ryotwari Revised Enactment” with the Member, asking if it has been “Murramutted–mended.–Put theek, you know….”
Questioned further, he inquires: “You don’t speak my talk, do you, Councillor Sahib,” and told no, says, “Very well. I must fink in English” — and goes on to bring out the weakness as per the feedback he has obtained. This convinces the Member of the shortcomings and leads to a change — hence the story’s title.
The hero of the title story in “Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories” (1888) is Percival William Williams, who “picked up the other name in a nursery book”. The son of the 195th’s Colonel, he comes under military discipline as soon he is old enough, with rewards for good and bad behaviour (but is mostly the latter, “for India offers so many chances to little six-year-olds of going wrong”).
Given to instant likes and dislikes, he numbers among the first a new subaltern whom he nicknames “Coppy”. Happening to see Coppy romancing a senior officer’s daughter, he questions him about it but obeys his request to keep it a secret (though embarrassing the girl, Miss Allardyce, by keeping a keen watch on her).
This helps when Winkie, under “house arrest” for some mischief, sees her riding out in the morning across the river in defiance of advice. Breaking arrest, he follows her on his pony into Afghan territory where he finds her injured, scolds her and sends off his mount to guide a rescue party to them.
Though armed Afghans “with evil faces” approach, “Wee Wee Willie Winkle, child of the Dominant Race, aged six and three quarters” stands up to them. “And if you do carry us away, I tell you that all my regiment will come up in a day and kill you all without leaving one….” As rescue approaches, he tells her “the wegiment is coming and its all wight. Don’t cwy!” But as we learn, he soon “needed the advice himself”.
Then there is “Toomai of the Elephants” (“The Jungle Book”, 1894). The 10-year-old Toomai, who helps his father Big Toomai tend working elephants like their “Kala Nag” (who has seen service in Abyssinia and the Afghan frontier), makes a name by perilous slip into the “keddah” (stockade) to retrieve a dropped rope.
After this feat, he is introduced to Petersen Sahib, “the man who caught all the elephants for the Government of India”, who tells Toomai that he will never be a full-fledged elephant-handler until he has seen the elephants dance (a proverbial impossibility). Tommai is keen despite his father’s disapproval but one night before they return to the plains, Kala Nag takes a hand in his young master’s education.
These and a few more are not exceptions but rather symbols of a hybrid culture, where cultures, races and even “imperial duty” and respect for the subjects’ civilisation merge in some manner — and maybe portray Kipling’s own view of the Raj. That is why he’s still worth reading.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])