Rudyard Kipling, India and Edward Said

by Ibn Warraq (March 2010)

There is a marvellous passage in Kim where Kipling good-humouredly pats himself on the back and is asking for our applause for the way that he has totally immersed himself in India, and has mastered all the nuances of caste, creed and etiquette. Practically every Westerner writing gushingly about India commits unforgiveable solecisms- there are traps for the unwary and untutored. Modern films like the ridiculous “Gandhi’ are the most egregious sinners. Here is the passage from Kim,

“[Lurgan Sahib’s] shop was full of all manner of dresses and turbans, and Kim was apparelled variously as a young Mohammedan of good family, an oilman, and once — which was a joyous evening — as the son of an Oudh landholder in the fullest of full dress. Lurgan Sahib had a hawk’s eye to detect the least flaw in the make-up; and lying on a worn teak-wood couch, would explain by the half hour together how such and such a caste talked, or walked, or coughed, or spat, or sneezed, and since ‘hows’ matter little in this world, the ‘why’ of everything. The Hindu boy played this game clumsily. The little mind, keen as an icicle where tally of jewels was concerned, could not temper itself to enter into another’s soul; but there was that in Kim which woke up and sang with joy as he put on the changing dresses, and changed his speech and gesture therewith. Carried away by enthusiasm, he volunteered to show Lurgan Sahib one evening how the disciples of a certain caste of faqir, old Lahore acquaintances, begged doles by the roadside, and what sort of language he would use to an Englishman, to a Punjabi farmer going to a fair, and to a woman without a veil. Lurgan Sahib laughed immensely, and begged Kim to stay as he was, immobile for half an hour — cross-legged, ash-smeared, and wild-eyed, in the back room.”

Those are the words of a writer who has India in his blood, who writes both with deep affection and great knowledge, alive to every subtle variation in tone, speech and dress of her diverse people. Kipling repeats several times how beautiful the country of his birth was, “A fair land — a most beautiful land is this of Hind — and the land of the Five Rivers is fairer than all,” Kim half chanted. “Into it I will go again if Mahbub Ali or the Colonel lift hand or foot against me. Once gone, who shall find me? Look, Hajji, is yonder the city of Simla pahar. Allah, what a city!”

And again, “‘And who are thy people, O Friend of all the World?’

‘This great and beautiful land,’ said Kim, waving his hand round the little clay-walled room where the oil-lamp in its niche burned heavily through the tobacco-smoke.”
Was Kipling a racist, as Edward Said claims? Consider this poem:



All good people agree,


And all good people say,

All nice people, like Us, are We


And every one else is They:

But if you cross over the sea,


Instead of over the way,

You may end by (think of it!) looking on We


As only a sort of They!’
Relativism, like cholesterol, comes in two forms: good and bad. Kipling’s poem reminds us that the good type of relativism was originally only a way of preaching tolerance of others—the Other. And yet, Edward Said wants us to believe that Kipling’s views of Orientals in Kim are ‘stereotypical,’ that Kipling considers all Indians as inferior, and that he posits a colonial divide that could not be bridged.[1] Said gets much of the import and tenor of Kipling’s novel flatly wrong. Said also has the irritating habit of claiming to know how the “Indian reader”[2]will react to the novel. I am an Indian reader, and do not read it as Said’s ideal Indian reader does, and I shall quote other Indian readers who do not either.
Craig Raine, in a splendid article in the Kipling Journal, defends Kipling from charges of racism. He quotes two letters, revealing “the private man in the secrecy of his correspondence,” written between late 1885 and early 1886, to Margaret Burne-Jones, when Kipling was working at the Civil and Military Gazette. In one, Kipling attacks the very notion of the stereotypical ‘native’:

“When you write ‘native,’ who do you mean? The Mahommedan who hates the Hindu; the Hindu who hates the Mahommedan; the Sikh who loathes both; or the semi-anglicised product of our Indian colleges who is hated and despised by Sikh, Hindu and Mahommedan…”.

As Raine remarks, “Kipling recorded these distinctions. He didn’t invent them. And they still exist. In the aftermath of the recent race riots in Oldham, the Today Programme had an interview in which a Hindu woman complained about the blanket label ‘Asians’—and blamed the riots on sections of the Moslem community.”
The second letter talks of

“the immeasurable gulf that lies between the races in all things, you would see how it comes to pass that the Englishman is prone to despise the natives—(I must use that misleading term for brevity’s sake)—and how, except in the matter of trade, to have little or nothing in common with him.

“Now this is a wholly wrong attitude of mind but it’s one that a Briton who washes, and don’t take bribes, and who thinks of other things besides intrigue and seduction most naturally falls into. When he does, goodbye to his chances of attempting to understand the people of the land.”

As Raine informs us, Kipling then describes his novel Mother Maturin as an attempt to penetrate the authentic native life, which remained unaffected by British rule.

“The result has been to interest me immensely and keenly in the people and to show me how little an Englishman can hope to understand ’em.” Of this life, Kipling avers that “our rule, so long as no one steals too flagrantly or murders too openly, affects it in no way whatever…” The letter continues with a remark often quoted against him: that the Indians are a cross between children and men, “touchy as children, obstinate as men.” But Kipling goes on: “the proper way to handle ’em is not by looking on ’em ‘as excitable masses of barbarism’ (I speak for the Punjab only) or the ‘down trodden millions of Ind groaning under the heel of an alien and unsympathetic despotism,’ but as men with a language of their own which it is your business to understand; and proverbs which it is your business to quote (this is a land of proverbs) and byewords and allusions which it is your business to master; and feelings which it is your business to enter into and sympathise with.”
Craig Raine quotes a letter from Kipling criticizing a clergyman for his insensitivity:

“[16 October 1895]: it is my fortune to have been born and to a large extent brought up among those whom white men call ‘heathen’; and while I recognise the paramount duty of every white man to follow the teachings of his creed and conscience as ‘a debtor to do the whole law’, it seems to me cruel that white men, whose governments are armed with the most murderous weapons known to science, should amaze and confound their fellow creatures with a doctrine of salvation imperfectly understood by themselves and a code of ethics foreign to the climate and instincts of those races whose most cherished customs they outrage and whose gods they insult.” 

Kipling is equally shocked by Americans [From Sea to Sea (Vol 2, p 61)]: “Very many Americans have an offensive habit of referring to natives as ‘heathen’. Mahomedans and Hindus are heathen alike in their eyes…”

These are hardly the words of a racist. Kipling was a far more complex man than assumed by Said in everything he writes of him. Ambiguity and complexity always pose a problem to anyone who has a Manichaean view of the world in the way Said does.

Raine offers an ingenious interpretation of Kipling’s famous poem White Man’s Burden, addressed to the people of the United States:

“The poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ has been widely misread. In effect, critics have stopped, affronted, at the first stanza: “Your new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half-devil and half child.” It is the imputation of childishness that lodges in the throat—and, alas, in the brain. Has anyone, I wonder, read to the end of the poem and understood it? The reward for taking up the White Man’s Burden is stated in the last line: “The judgment of your peers!” Who are those ‘peers,’ those equals? Since the poem is addressed to the USA, you might think that “peers” refers to British imperialists. But you would be wrong. The “peers” in question are the “new-caught, sullen peoples”—raised to equality. As the previous three stanzas make clear.


‘Take up the White Man’s burden–


And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better,


The hate of those ye guard–

The cry of hosts ye humour


(Ah, slowly!) toward the light: —

“Why brought ye us from bondage,


“Our loved Egyptian night?”


Take up the White Man’s burden–


Ye dare not stoop to less–

Nor call too loud on Freedom


To cloak your weariness;

By all ye cry or whisper,


By all ye leave or do,

The silent, sullen peoples


Shall weigh your Gods and you.


Take up the White Man’s burden–


Have done with childish days–

The lightly proffered laurel,


The easy, ungrudged praise.

Comes now, to search your manhood


Through all the thankless years,

Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,


The judgment of your peers!’

“In this account, the imperialist aim, which mustn’t be rushed, is eventual independence: ‘Nor call too loud on Freedom / To cloak your weariness.’ In other words, grant freedom at the proper juncture, when the moment is ripe—and not because fatigue makes you want to rest. Kipling’s penultimate stanza ends explicitly with the judgment of the colonised on the colonisers: ‘The silent, sullen peoples / Shall weigh your Gods and you.’ But Kipling waits until the last line of the poem to spring his surprise—a surprise marked by an exclamation mark. There he makes it clear that, in the end, the judgment of the colonised on the colonisers will be the judgment of equals, ‘the judgment of your peers.’ The aim, then, is not subjection and exploitation in perpetuity, but ‘Freedom’ with a capital ‘F’ and elevation to equality.”[5]
If correct, Raine’s interpretation would be one refutation of Said’s critique of Kipling. Under this interpretation there is no permanent racial divide, nor a permanent empire.

Kipling laments the lack of a bard of the Eurasians: “we know nothing about their life which touches so intimately the White on the one hand and the Black on the other….Wanted, therefore, a writer from among the Eurasians, who shall write so that men shall be pleased to read a story of Eurasian life; then outsiders will be interested in the People of India, and will admit that the race has possibilities.”
[6] Kipling saw a racial mixture as inevitable in the United States. “Wait till the Anglo-American-German-Jew—the Man of the Future—is properly equipped. He’ll have the least little kink in his hair now and again; he’ll carry the English lungs above the Teuton feet that can walk for ever; and he will wave long, thin, bony Yankee hands with the big blue veins on the wrist, from one end of the earth to the other. He’ll be the finest writer, poet, dramatist, ‘specially dramatist, that the world as it recollects itself has ever seen. By virtue of his Jew blood—just a little, little drop—he’ll be a musician and a painter too.”[7]
Other evidence outside Kim for Kipling’s lack of racism is his membership of a masonic lodge where he met “men of different religions on an equal footing: his ‘brethren’ there included members of the Islamic, Sikh, Christian and Jewish religions.” Though he rarely attended their meetings, “he appreciated Freemasonry for its sense of brotherhood and egalitarian attitude to diverse faiths and classes.”
In Kim itself, Creighton tells Kim, “There is a good spirit in thee. Do not let it be blunted at St.Xavier’s. There are many boys there who despise the black men….[D]o not at any time be led to contemn the black men.” A little later, Kim tells Mahbub, “‘They say at Nucklao [Lucknow] that no Sahib must tell a black man that he has made a fault.’ Mahbub’s hand shot into his bosom, for to call a Pathan a ‘black man’ [kala admi] is a blood-insult. Then he remembered and laughed, ‘Speak, Sahib. Thy black man hears.'” Not only is this a reminder that political correctness is as old as Simla, but that racism between Indians—the lighter skinned Aryans despising the darker Dravidians in the South—was also a reality that Kipling was perfectly aware of. In Chapter Thirteen, Kipling refers to some Indian coolies who are “used to comprehensive ill-treatment from their own colour.”

In reading Kipling, it is always advisable not to take everything he says literally, and to remember the philosopher, W.V.O. Quine’s remark that it does not matter what you believe as long as you are insincere. Time and again we come across Kipling expressing the most bigoted views imaginable, and then retracting or contradicting them as his prejudice is countered by his experience of individuals, and more intimate contact with other peoples and cultures: Chinese, Japanese, and the Jews.
Coming back to Said’s more specific charges about Kim, as Kinkead-Weekes
[10] has written, Kim was “the answer to nine-tenths of the charges levelled against Kipling and the refutation of most of the generalisations about him.” Let us take the charges one by one.
Said claims that Kipling’s India has “essential and unchanging qualities”
[11]. Kipling talks of ‘a large manufacturing city, and the crowded tram-car’, hardly signs of an unchanging, promitive country. But more decisively, Kipling writes in Chapter Four, “Nowadays, well-educated natives are of opinion that when their womenfolk travel—and they visit a good deal—it is better to take them quickly by rail in a properly screened compartment; and that custom is spreading. But there are always those of the old rock who hold by the use of their fore-fathers…” Times are changing. “Nowadays”—in other words, it was not always like that. Then we have, in Chapter One, the decisive, “The Curator smiled at the mixture of old-world piety and modern progress that is the note of India to-day.”
According to Said, “Kipling is less interested in religion for its own sake.” This is a gross mis-reading of the whole novel and Kipling’s attitude to religion in general. Here is what Lionel Trilling, a far more subtle literary critic, said: “[Kim] suggested not only a multitude of different ways of life but even different modes of thought. Thus, whatever one might come to feel personally about religion, a reading of Kim could not fail to establish religion’s factual reality, not as a piety, which was the apparent extent of its existence in the West, but as something at the very root of life…”
Nirad C. Chaudhuri considers Kim to be “the finest novel in the English language with an Indian theme, but also one of the greatest of English novels in spite of the theme…Kim is great by any standards that ever obtained in any age of English literature.” He also makes it clear that religion is one of the four major themes in Kim, and anyone who gets that wrong has not “quite understood what Kim is about.”
[13] Here is one ‘Indian reader’ who evidently does not behave in a way Said should like.
Kipling understood Buddhist philosophy, had evidently taken the time and trouble to read extensively on it, and was proud of his own countrymen’s re-discovery of Buddhism. “For the first time he heard of the labours of European scholars, who by the help of these and a hundred other documents have identified the Holy Places of Buddhism.”

The novel slowly unfolds the symbiotic relationship of the Lama and Kim, each on his particular quest, for the “River that washes away all sin,” and for Kim a search for his identity; the Wheel and the Way, the illusion and the reality, the beginning and the end.
[14] The Lama realizes that his way of life depends on the freedom and protection guaranteed by the Raj, which defends “weaponless dreamers” like him. But Kim, too, changes, grows spiritually:

“I was made wise by thee, Holy One,” said Kim…forgetting St. Xavier’s; forgetting his white blood; forgetting even the Great Game as he stooped, Mohammedan fashion, to touch his master’s feet in the dust of the Jain temple. “My teaching I owe to thee. I have eaten thy bread three years. My time is finished. I am loosed from the schools. I come to thee.”

Throughout the novel, Kipling contrasts the Christian Bennett, and his intolerance with the deep natural piety, and to a certain extent the superstitions of the people of India, and their natural veneration of the Lama despite the doctrinal differences:


“[The Lama] began in Urdu the tale of the Lord Buddha, but, borne by his own thoughts, slid into Tibetan and the long-droned texts from a Chinese book of the Buddha’s life. The gentle, tolerant folk looked on reverently.”

“The family priest, an old tolerant Sarsut Brahmin, dropped in later, and naturally started a theological argument to impress the family. By creed, of course, they were all on the priest’s side, but the lama was the guest and the novelty. His gentle kindliness, and his impressive Chinese quotations, that sounded like spells, delighted them hugely; and in this sympathetic, simple air, he expanded like the Bodhisat’s own lotus, speaking of his life in the great hills of Such-zen, before he said, ‘I rose up to seek enlightenment.'”

“‘How thinkest thou of this one [the lama]?’ said the cultivator aside to the priest.

‘A holy man—a holy man indeed. His Gods are not the Gods, but his feet are upon the way,’ was the answer. ‘And his methods of nativities, though that is beyond thee, are wise and sure.'”


“These merry-makers stepped slowly, calling one to the other and stopping to haggle with sweetmeat-sellers, or to make a prayer before one of the wayside shrines—sometimes Hindu, sometimes Mussalman—which the low-caste of both creeds share with beautiful impartiality.”

“[The Lama] was prepared to spend serene years in his quest; having nothing of the white man’s impatience, but a great faith.”
Contrast the above with the following: “Bennett looked at him with the triple-ringed uninterest of the creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title of ‘heathen.'”

Kipling admires the way Hindus and Muslims share wayside shrines, and points to the pessimistic view of the Reverend Arthur Bennett, who believed that “[b]etween himself and the Roman Catholic Chaplain of the Irish contingent lay…an unbridgeable gulf….”

Said devotes several pages to the Great Mutiny—pages full of tendentious reading of Indian history. He writes, “For the Indians, the Mutiny was a nationalist uprising against British rule….” It is Said himself who takes it to be so: “In such a situation of nationalist and self-justifying inflammation, to be Indian [sic!] would have meant to feel natural solidarity with the victims of British reprisal. To be British meant to feel repugnance and injury—to say nothing of righteous vindication—given the terrible displays of cruelty by ‘natives,’ who fulfilled the roles of savages cast for them. For an Indian, not [Said’s emphasis] to have had those feelings would have been to belong to a very small minority. It is therefore highly significant that Kipling’s choice of an Indian to speak about the Mutiny is a loyalist soldier who views his countrymen’s revolt as an act of madness. Not surprisingly, this man is respected by British ‘Deputy Commissioners’ who, Kipling tells us, ‘turned aside from the main road to visit him.’ What Kipling eliminates is the likelihood that his compatriots regard him as (at very least) a traitor to his people.”
Much of this is gobbledygook; and note Said’s use of “Indian,” implying to be Indian could only be one thing. The Mutiny has been analyzed in a masterly fashion by Geoffrey Moorhouse, an author quoted favorably on another issue by Edward Said. Moorhouse concluded, “What the whole episode never remotely [emphasis added] resembled was a national struggle for independence….” Here is what really happened. First, “it was restricted to a comparatively small area of the sub-continent. There were uprisings in Bombay, in Hyderabad and in Indore, all swiftly put down by military force before they got out of hand. Otherwise the country outside northern India never made a move, and even there the rebellion was localized. Neither the Sikhs nor the Gurkhas, the Rajputs nor the Marathas raised a hand against the British. Few of the native princes allowed themselves to become involved, and some put their resources at the Government’s disposal. Thousands of Indian troops remained loyal to their officers while others were butchering anyone associated with the white regime.” The loyalist soldier in Kim is not an isolated Benedict Arnold but one of many thousands who remained loyal to the Raj. In fact the mutineers were decidedly in the minority, since only about a quarter of the sepoys in the Army of Bengal joined the revolt!
[15] Kipling did not eliminate a likelihood; it is Said who introduced an improbability.
Second, “the insurgence,” continues Moorhouse, “consisted of varied elements and grievances. There was a largely high-caste army of sepoys in the Bengal Army, inflamed by what they saw as a religious threat, which included their gradual displacement by lower castes in the military structure and on the land. There was a rural rebellion of peasants against social displacement caused by land reforms, which had them more than ever the prey of moneylenders; yet the toughest peasant rebels were those who had resisted social upheaval and had complaints about taxation.” Thus, it was not a simple rebellion against colonial rule.

Third, “[m]any Indians, too, shared this nightmare, for the disorder of the Mutiny became a great excuse for the settling of old scores, and plenty of natives perished because they were suspected of casting spells or had given offence in some quite trifling way.” Indian themselves suffered from the violence of other Indians, and were glad when the nightmare was over. Thus they would have thanked the loyalist soldier, not treated him as a traitor.

Then there is the old “Orientalist” charge laid against Creighton. “Everything about India interests Creighton, because everything in it is significant for his rule.” The thought that Creighton might actually have interests, and a passion for Indian things for the sake of knowledge, never enters Said’s head. Here is how Kipling characterizes that aspect of Creighton that has nothing to do with subduing recalcitrant natives: “No money and no preferment would have drawn Creighton from his work on the Indian Survey, but deep in his heart also lay the ambition to write ‘F.R.S.’ after his name. Honours of a sort he knew could be obtained by ingenuity and the help of friends, but, to the best of his belief, nothing save work-papers representing a life of it-took a man into the Society which he had bombarded for years with monographs on strange Asiatic cults and unknown customs. Nine out of ten would flee from a Royal Society soirée in extremity of boredom; but Creighton was the tenth, and at times his soul yearned for the crowded rooms in easy London where silver-haired, bald-headed gentlemen who know nothing of the Army move among spectroscopic experiments, the lesser plants of the frozen tundras, electric flight-measuring machines, and apparatus for slicing into fractional millimetres the left eye of the female mosquito. By all right and reason, it was the Royal Geographical that should have appealed to him, but men are as chancy as children in their choice of playthings.”

That is an explicit, and a decisive refutation of Said, and a summary of one of the main theses of this book: the intellectual curiosity of Western man. Kipling ends the paragraph by observing, “So Creighton smiled, and thought the better of Hurree Babu, moved by like desire.” Kipling finally and touchingly concedes that people like Hurree Babu, though sometimes slightly absurd figures who seem to have swallowed an English dictionary whole, are not simply aping the White Man, but are motivated by a “like desire” to acquire knowledge, and are intellectually overwhelmed even by the whole new world of the mind opened up by their contact with Western learning. For Said, Babu remains a “grimacing stereotype of the ontologically funny native, hopelessly trying to be like ‘us.'”
[16] But Babu is, like Creighton, eager for knowledge. Babu is not trying to be like white men but being true to himself, as someone enamored of learning. Toward the end of Chapter Twelve, Kipling presents a respectful portrait of Huree Babu as a changed man influenced by the Lama: “but, as he was ever first to acknowledge, there lay a wisdom behind earthly wisdom—the high and lonely lore of meditation. Kim looked on with envy. The Hurree Babu of his knowledge—oily, effusive, and nervous—was gone; gone, too was the brazen drug-vendor of overnight. There remained—polished, polite, attentive—a sober, learned son of experience and adversity, gathering wisdom from lama’s lips.” Not only India but her people can change.

[1] Edward Said. Culture and Imperialism. London:Vintage, 1994, p.162

[2] Edward Said. Culture and Imperialism. London:Vintage, 1994, p.163

[3] Craig Raine. Kipling: Controversial Questions, in Kipling Journal, September 2002, 10-29,pp13-14.

[4] Craig Raine. Kipling: Controversial Questions, in Kipling Journal, September 2002, 10-29,pp.15-16., the joining lines in between the quotes from Kipling’s letter are Raine’s as well.

[5] Quoted by Craig Raine. Kipling: Controversial Questions, in Kipling Journal, September 2002, 10-29,pp17-18.

[6] Craig Raine. Kipling: Controversial Questions, in Kipling Journal, September 2002, 10-29,p.18.,quoting R.Kipling, From Sea to Sea, Vol.2, London:Macmillan,1914, p.263.

[7] Rudyard Kipling From Sea to Sea, Vol.2 , op.cit., p.131 quoted by Craig Raine. Kipling: Controversial Questions, in Kipling Journal, September 2002, 10-29,p.26.

[8] David Gilmour. The Long RecessionalThe Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.p.17.

[9] All discussed in Craig Raine’s very lucid and balanced exposition in Craig Raine. Kipling: Controversial Questions, in Kipling Journal, September 2002, pp.10-29.

[10] Kinkead-Weekes. Vision in Kipling’s Novels., in Andrew Rutherford,.Kipling’s Mind and Art, London:Oliver & Boyd, 1964,p.233.

[11] E.Said. Culture and Imperialism, op.cit.,p.162

[12] Lionel Trilling, Kipling in The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent. Selected Essays. New York:Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2000, p.65

[13] Nirad C.Chaudhuri. The Finest Story about India –in English, in John Gross ed., The Age of Kipling, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972 p.29

[14] See Indian scholar and former editor of Kipling Journal, Sharad Keskar’s Introduction to Kim at .

[15] Denis Judd. Empire, London:Fontana Press, 1997, p.72

[16] E.Said. Culture and Imperialism, op.cit.,p.185.

To comment on this article, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish interesting articles such as this, please click here.

If you have enjoyed this article by Ibn Warraq and would like to read more, please click here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

Order here or wherever books are sold.

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend