The Sunday Times of India, December 2
Nina Martyris meets Charles Allen who was in Mumbai to promote his new book on Rudyard Kipling, "that most awkard, most contentious son of Bombay"
As a boy in public school in England, Charles Allen was asked as part of a classroom assignment to choose his favourite poem. Having been born in British India (Cawnpore), lived for seven years in Bihar and Assam, and grown up in a house walled with Rudyard Kipling's novels, he happily picked the barrack ballad Gunga Din.
One of Kipling's most popular poems, Gunga Din reeks of the Raj. It narrates in rhyme the story of a poor bhisti or water carrier who throws his life away to save an out-and-out racist British Tommy who, after mocking the bhisti through the poem for being a 'heathen' and a 'grinnin', gruntin' fool, finally bestows the grating tribute, "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din."
Charles's choice of poem earned him a rebuke and a detention. "The teacher thought I was trying to be sarcastic, that I had no taste,'' he says, blue eyes still widening with traces of surprise. "You know, at that time in Britain everyone was terribly conscious of the evils of colonialism and were therefore extra mindful of India's feelings.''
Indians would be rather bemused by the English schoolmarm's extraordinary sensitivity, given that Gunga Din continues to be declaimed here with relish at the annual elocution contest. But perhaps the teacher was not all that way out either, for in the post-Independence years, Kipling was viewed as an ultraright sahib whose early thoughts on Hinduism, the Congress, and the Bengali Babu in particular (effeminate, oily, giggling) were startlingly offensive.
But therein lies the rub, for as later writers who rehabilitated the misunderstood Rudyard are anxious to point out, Kipling was a formidable paradox__Salman Rushdie calls it the dichotomy between Ruddy Baba and Kipling Sahib. "I call it the Good Kipling and the Bad Kipling,'' says Allen. "He was the ultimate shape shifter. On the one hand, an arch-colonialist, on the other, a passionate India lover who made a special trip to Bombay to see his childhood ayah and who gave the world the beloved man-cub Mowgli and the great spiritual adventure, Kim. I think of Kim as a very pro-Hindu, pro-Buddhist book''. According to some sources the name Mowgli is a corrupted form of the Marathi 'mulga' or boy, which Ruddy's ayahs must have addressed him as in Bombay.
A veteran India hand, who has written almost 20 books on India including the memorable oral history tract, Plane Tales From The Raj, Allen was in Mumbai to release his new book. Kipling Sahib is an exploration of the India chapters__Ruddy's first six years in Bombay where his father Lockwood was dean at the new Sir JJ School of Art, and his return as a teenager who is anxious, neurotic and so rude that he's thrown out of the club three times. Lahore, though, where Lockwood was stationed at the Mayo School, was a city that drew the young Kipling like moth to flame. He was utterly taken by Islam which he thought of a manly, clear-cut religion. "And he also loved wandering through the red-light quarter, he was 17 and his hormones were raging,'' laughs Allen. "He had great affection for the whore.''
But his experience of Allahabad where he joined the Civil and Military Gazette (a newspaper owned by Allen's grandfather) was painfully different. Still shattered by the Great Uprising, the predominantly Hindu city was hostile and closed to the English, and Kipling despised it. Writing with pace and an eye for detail, Allen takes the reader through the dramatic turning point when Kipling goes from hating India to falling in love with it, after he is unspeakably moved by a servant's unflinching loyalty to him when he is stricken with cholera.
Speaking at the JJ School, Allen clarified, to the disappointment of the students, that the charming green-gabled Kipling Cottage on campus was not the house in which "this most awkward, most contentious son of Bombay was born''. He was almost certainly born at the same spot but under a much humbler roof__"you could call it a jhopri or a pandal or a little shed,'' says Allen. "You see, in 1865, when he was born, Bombay was only just beginning to be built into one of the grand cities of Asia. The JJ building did not exist as we see it today, nor did any of these other huge buildings. Alice, Ruddy's mother, complained that in the monsoon the mud floor in their shack turned slushy and sprouted fungus and mushrooms.''
From his extensive research, in which he was helped by Mumbai historian Sharada Dwivedi, Allen says that while Ruddy shared a rapport with his father__the little boy used to run into sculpture class and pelt the students with lumps of clay__his interaction with Alice seemed more limited. "It was a feature of British India to dump the children with the ayahs,'' says Allen. "All we hear about Alice is her going out to a dinner party or coming back from a ride. I think she was a neglectful mother. And the proof of that is that Kipling's best writing is about orphan boys. Mowgli and Kim are both brought up by surrogate parents. And, of course, the most harrowing thing to happen to young Ruddy was to be thrown out of Eden and sent back at the age of six to England where he was miserable. Decades later, as a family man in America when his daughter Josephine died and the shutters came down, someone asked Kipling what he wanted to do. He replied, "I don't want to do anything, I want to go back to Bombay.''