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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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