The Poets Trail

Understanding Rudyard Kipling ; the Bard of the Empire
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was one of the most important novelists of his age. As the “Bard of the Empire” he has left us a series of literary gems, many of which remain bestsellers today : The Jungle Book, Kim, The Man Who Would be King, Gunga Din and “If”, perhaps Britain’s most celebrated poem, exemplifying the Victorian stiff-upper-lip spirit, and including the lines “if you can meet Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same” famously engraved at the players entrance to the center court at Wimbledon.
As a writer, Kipling embodied all the hopes and fears of his countrymen in a voice that the people loved….and, he also reflected the views and prejudices of his time. He was born in Bombay and heavily influenced by India, but remained convinced of the Empire’s right to rule and the “white man’s burden” (words that he coined) as a force for good. When the times changed, Kipling did not change with it. And so his legacy today is mixed; admired for his literature but derided for his imperial jingoism, and viewed sometimes by his detractors as a bit of an old hat, unfashionable and politically incorrect.
Kipling’s parents, Lockwood and Alice, had met at Lake Rudyard in the English midlands, and so decided to name their first born after the place where they met. Just a few months after their marriage, Lockwood accepted a job as teacher in the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Bombay, and the young couple had left for India with Alice pregnant. Rudyard was born on December 30, 1865 in Bombay. The bungalow where he was born still stands in the JJ School of Arts.
Rudyard spent the first five years of his life in Bombay, and in his biography “Something of Myself” he fondly recalls visiting the fruit markets, talking in Urdu with household servants, and being reminded by his ayahs to speak English when he’d spend time with his parents. He writes fondly about Bombay…

“Mother of cities to me,
For I was born at her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait”

Kipling’s carefree days ended abruptly when he has five, with him and his younger sister Twix being sent to England. They stayed near Portsmouth with a couple that took in young children of Britons living abroad. Why Alice and Lockwood decided to board them in such a formal arrangement is not known, specially when family members in England could have cared for the siblings. But it clearly left emotional scars for both children. Kipling wrote extensively of the terrible six years he spent at Portsmouth, and it wasn’t till he was eleven that his mother, noticing how miserable he seemed, pulled him put of this arrangement and admitted him to a boarding school, United Services College in Bideford, Devon. The headmaster of this school was a family friend of the Kiplings and he took young “Ruddy” under his wing, encouraging his talent for poetry and writing. Rudyard blossomed, and never looked back.

Rudyard Kipling : literary genius who drew heavily from India, and reflected the views of his time
Meanwhile, Kipling’s parents had moved out of Bombay for Lahore, and Alice was determined for her boy to join them. So, immediately upon leaving school, Rudyard interviewed for and got the job of assistant editor at the Civil and Military Gazette, the leading English newspaper in Lahore. In October 1882, the seventeen year old Kipling landed back in Bombay, the city of his birth. He was immediately familiar with the sights and sounds, “my English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength”* He boarded the Frontier Mail, and after a two day journey arrived to join his family in Lahore.
Rudyard Kipling would spend seven years in India. It is these years as a cub reporter in Lahore and Shimla that shaped his writing. He broke all the rules, regularly taking a walk on the wild side in the walled city of Lahore where the English would never go. As a teenager, Kipling explored the underbelly of the city, having opium and frequenting prostitutes “which is good for health and the softening of ferocious manners” (the phrase we use now, “the oldest profession in the world” is coined by Kipling). These nocturnal adventures colored Kipling’s attitude towards Indian life with a lurking sense of insecurity and danger…”immediately outside of our own English life is the dark and crooked and fantastic and wicked life of the native”. His grounding as a journalist allowed Kipling to get close to his subjects and then take off from there, using fiction to tell the tale. During his years in India he wrote many short stories, published his first book “Plain Tales from the Hills”, and eventually when he left India he summed up his Indian education as “I’ve had a good time, I’ve tasted success and the beauty of money. I’ve mixed with fighters, statesman, administrators and the women who control them. It was vivid and lively and gloomy and savage. I’ve tried to get to know folk from the barrack room to the brothel to the ballroom and the Viceroy’s counsel and I have in a little measure succeeded. My training has been extensive and peculiar and I am now going to come home and see how it works”.
Once back in London, Kipling rented a flat in Villiers Street, close to Charing Cross station, in a building that now bears his name. I visited his ex-residence, exiting the tube station to find two mounted policemen trotting down the brick paved Villiers Street. Kipling House was easily found, a blue English Heritage plaque announcing that the Empire’s most famous author had lived here between 1889-91.

Unchanging London : mounted policemen on Kipling’s pedestrian-only Villiers Street
Today’s Villiers Street is posh. Sloping upwards between the Thames embankment and the bustling Strand, all the local landmarks were in place when Kipling had lived here and he had probably frequented them. The majestic Savoy Hotel on the Strand, the nearby Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, and Cleopatra’s Needle soaring besides the Thames, forever pointing upwards towards the grey London sky. However Kipling seemed unimpressed when he lived here, finding the area “primitive and passionate in its habits and population” and describing his rooms as “small, not over-clean or well kept” with the noise of the Charing Cross trains rumbling through his dreams.

At the age of twenty-six, Kipling married Carrie Balestier, the sister of his friend Wolcott with whom he had co-authored a book. They remained together for over forty years, till Rudyard’s death in 1936. Unfortunately the couple had wretched luck with the health of their kids. Kipling’s first born daughter, Josephine, for whom it is said he wrote “The Jungle Book” died of pneumonia when she was just six. His son, John, joined the British Army for the first World War and died at the Battle of Loos in 1915, aged just eighteen. His body was never found. Kipling spent years searching for his lost son hoping he was alive as a prisoner. He quizzed men from John’s battalion and wrote to all the contacts he knew in the military. His son’s death changed Rudyard, making him bitter and angry. From being a war supporter he now grew critical, his literature tinged with sadness as in the poem Common Form; “If any question why we died/tell them, because our fathers lied”.

Kipling House in Villiers Street : Rudyard’s bachelor pad for 3 years
The Kiplings finally found peace at their idyllic home Bateman’s in the English countryside, which they bought in 1902 and lived in contentedly for more than thirty years till Rudyard’s death. Batemans is an old Jacobean-era house set in a shallow valley near the village Burwash, about a ninety-minute drive from London. Today, it is managed by the National Trust as a museum to Kipling.

Bateman’s : Kipling’s “good and peaceable place” where he lived thirty-four years
I visited Bateman’s, and it was a most worthwhile trip. To begin with, everything was preserved exactly as Kipling left it, the furniture unchanged and arranged precisely the same. It was like being transported to a living, breathing space with a real sense of the people who lived there. As the guide put it; “If Kipling were to come back today, he would not say what have you done to my house but what are you doing in my house”.
There was humor here and sadness too. At the entrance, beside the front door was a bell-pull that was specially sentimental for Kipling. This was the doorbell of his aunt Georgina’s house in Fulham in London, where the young Kipling and his sister would find fleeting happiness during Christmas visits, away from the cruelty and bullying of his boarding at Portsmouth. When his aunt moved home from Fulham, Kipling asked for this bell-pull as remembrance of the “paradise which I verily believe saved me” and used it in his own home.

The interiors of Bateman’s was wood paneled, with heavy furniture, wrought-iron fireplaces and tall glass windows that let the sunlight stream in. It is how I would imagine a writer’s home to be. Everywhere were artifacts and knick-knacks from India. Ceramic plates depicting Indian scenes, made by Rudyard’s father Lockwood, were mounted on the walls. Ornate Indian wooden boxes lay on the tables including a small statue of a smiling Lord Ganesh. Kipling’s large study, where he did all his writing, was on the first floor overlooking the garden. The walls of the study were lined from floor to ceiling with leather-bound books, many of them reference titles on India ; Indian Trees, Romantic Tales from the Punjab, Elphinstone’s History of India, Glossary of Anglo-Indian words, Early Records of British India, The Frontiers of Baluchistan….

The bell pull, so special and sentimental for Kipling
Also on the first floor was John’s bedroom, Kipling’s young son who died in battle and who’s death had so affected his father. John’s bed was turned down as if awaiting him, and a wooden cupboard was hung with his clothes and shoes including a cricket bat, ready for use. One could sense young John’s presence, the stories he would have read and the adventures he had with his father.

The wood paneled reception room with its benches and chairs for visitors

Music and conversations in the Living Room : a gramophone that still works. The three small children’s paintings on the wall say “happy Christmas Josephine”, scribbled for his elder daughter who died of pneumonia aged just six

The book lined study ; where the magic writing happened.

John Kipling’s room ; the son who never returned

Ceramic tiles with Indian themes hang on the walls. Made by Lockwood, Rudyard’s father
Kipling’s green Rolls Royce car was parked in a garage beside the home. He had been a proud owner and a self-confessed car “maniac”, flaunting his motor car on the local country lanes and driving it as far as Europe. Kipling kept diaries of his motor tours, with vivid descriptions of the places he visited, the lodges he stayed in and the people he met. He liked his car to play its part and announce his arrival in style. One of his complaints was that this car was too silent…”it is true that she is noiseless, but so is a corpse, and one does not get much fun out of a corpse.”
Bateman’s was for me an immersive and “up-close-and personal” view of Kipling the man. As a writer, Kipling had experienced more fame in his lifetime than either Shakespeare or Dickens, and had won the Nobel Prize for Literature (displayed in Bateman, now I know what the Nobel Prize Certificate looks like!). And yet, he has always remained a controversial literary figure, lionized by some as “the Bard of the Empire” and maligned by others as a “prophet of British Imperialism”. Whatever the view one takes of Kipling; his family, his works and his achievements will always be a cultural touchstone linking England and India.
* “Kipling Sahib” by Charles Allen, page 189

Kipling versus Tagore

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), one the “Bard of the Empire” and the other the “Bard of Bengal”, were contemporary literature giants . Both lived in the same era, had similar achievements, both won the Nobel prize for Literature a few years apart, and both were tied together by the Empire. However, they never met. And in case they had met, they would certainly not have liked each other.
Kipling and Tagore were poles apart in thoughts and ideals, viewing society and the Empire from opposite ends of the spectrum. Kipling was strongly nationalistic, while Tagore was a humanist and against the idea of nationalism and the British Empire (actually, for such a passionate anti-nationalist, its ironic that Tagore’s poems are today national anthems for two nations, India and Bangladesh!). Their backgrounds too were very different. While Kipling was from an educated middle class family, they were not moneyed, and the gaining of financial security was always important. In fact, Kipling’s father Lockwood’s decision to go out to India as teacher in the JJ School of Arts was basically driven by the financial need to do so. Tagore on the other hand was born wealthy, in to a family of enormous influence and privilege in Calcutta.
I visited both their houses in London; First, Kipling House on Villiers street in the historic heart of London, which Kipling had described as primitive and “not over clean”. And later, I visited where Tagore had stayed in 1912, a stately villa on Hampstead Heath, set beside green nature trails with scampering squirrels and sparkling ponds. They couldn’t have been more different from each other. And I also discovered another interesting fact ; Tagore is honored with his very own bronze bust in London, unveiled by no less than Prince Charles in leafy Gordon Square in central London. There is no such luck for Rudyard. In my view, this speaks volumes for the cosmopolitan, inclusive kind of place that is London.

Tagore’s elegant home in 1912 ; Villa on the Heath, with the English Heritage blue plaque announcing that Tagore lived here. Apparently, Tagore first shared the Gitanjali collection of poems with English poets in this house.

Tagore is honored with a bust in central London.

How to get here:

Take the highway A21 south from London, and once you pass Turnbridge Wells look for signs for a smaller country road A265 towards Etchingham. Drive past the village of Burwash and then follow the prominent National Trust signs for Bateman’s.

Information:

  • Open all days, 10am to 5pm
  • Car Parking
  • Ticket costs £12 for an adult
  • Toilet facilities
  • No Wheelchair access

Sources:

  1. “The Long Recessional : The imperial life of Rudyard Kipling”. By David Gilmour. Published by Penguin
  2. “Rudyard Kipling : a Literary life”. By Phillip Mallett. Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2003
  3. “The Complete Works of Rudyard Kipling”. Delphi Classics
  4. “Kipling Sahib”. By Charles Allen. Published by Abacus, 2007
  5. BBC Video by Patrick Hannessey
India Heritage
Adil Ahmad
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Adil Ahmad has worked with Multinational companies across India, England, Mideast, East Asia….but his passion has always been in history and culture! Adil is deeply curious and about India’s heritage and its many stories, and being widely travelled and a voracious researcher of all things historical, loves discovering ‘hidden gems” that he knows will interest other readers. Adil is a history graduate from Delhi University (where the seeds of his heritage-passion were sown…) and an MBA. Having finished with his corporate career, he is now a full-time heritage nerd.