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Monday, December 3, 2007

Mowgli Azam

The Times of India, June 11, 2003, Snapshot

Nina Martyris

Just as Bethlehem has been exalted by the birth of a baby in a manger two thousand years ago, the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai derives its historical heft from the fact that it was the cradle of the unofficial laureate of the empire, Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling, whose writings on India, it is said, bridged the gap between India and Britain more effectively than the Suez Canal, was born in the JJ compound in 1865, the year in which Mumbai's cotton boom had been teased to an impossible frenzy, turning the city into a powerhouse through which, to paraphrase a Kipling line, a thousand mills roared.

Babies have an unscripted way of stealing the show and Rudyard, or Ruddy baba as he was known, has appropriated the J.J. spotlight by the sheer fact of being birthed there. He will always be numero uno on the J.J. roster even though the only prints he ever left behind were the pug marks of the first five years of his childhood before being despatched, as was the expat tradition of the time, to the cravated confines of England. Away from his parents, ayah, household and city, he was miserable.

Despite the fact that the writer's connection with this city was more or less severed after these early years,Mumbai is loath to jettison its Kipling connection, treasuring above all, the ode where he thanks providence for allowing him to be born not in some wild rocky outcrop but in "no mean city" between the palms and the sea. In the poem, Bombay (as the city was known then) is described as 'Mother of Cities to me', a tribute which would logically make Kipling Mumbai's mowgli, or mulga, for official son-of-the-soil status.

But although this line is usually quoted when Kipling's Mumbai connection is recalled, frankly, it is a poor indicator of the emotional bond the boy shared with his birthplace. If one wants really to get an inkling of how that long journey across the seas turned him from "believer to beliefless", the story begging to be read is 'Ba Ba Black Sheep'.

It is a heart-breaking tale of a little boy Punch who has to leave Mumbai from Apollo Bunder in a P&O ship that makes him so seasick that he declares, "When I come back to Bombay.. I will come in a broom-gharri." The seasickness is only a prelude to the misery ahead when Punch is left with a disciplinarian aunt (who he initially confuses for a white ayah) who dislikes him, beats him and calls him Black Sheep. So, the last line of the nursery rhyme is altered—And none for the little boy who lives down the lane.

Critics have often commented on the strange dichotomy in Kipling's writing—on the one hand he was imperialism's chief pom-pom waver, the man who talked of the white man's burden.On the other, he shared an almost organic connection with this heathen burden and its traditions, complexity and richness. Salman Rushdie called it a conflict between two personas—Kipling Sahib and Ruddy baba. The latter sensibility, was shaped, most definitely in Mumbai.

It is as if his ghost is revisiting Mumbai in a broom-gharri now, for if you look around it is truly Kipling season, what with the recent bungalow brouhaha and Jungle Book II running in theatres across the city, and Mr Sher Khan himself putting in a real appearance by leaving a pug mark in Tungareshwar outside Bombay.

But evidence that the feeling of ownership really runs deep burbled forth last week when the students of J.J. rallied to protect what is popularly perceived as the poet's bungalow. Although city historians are at pains to point out that the original bungalow has long been pulled down, this factoid has few takers for nostalgia is remarkably free of the underpinnings of fact. Nostalgia has been leveraged to great effect—it has roused an otherwise moribund campus to action.

Once upon a time India's premier art school, J.J. has long lost its lustre, with an apathetic student body, no dean at its head and the famous bungalow uninhabited. But now, hearteningly, the voice of protest is splattering forth through posters and sitins. Ruddy, or so it would appear, has provided a much-needed rudder.

(This weekly column aims to capture that quintessentially Mumbai state of mind.)


Naulakha said...

Can it be historically documented that the actual building in which Kipling was born, was torn down? If so, the existing bungalow in the Sir J.J. School of Art, which evidently is being claimed as "Ruddy's" birthplace, is being preserved under false pretences. The present bungalow seems well worth preserving, but should the plaque read "Site of the original" or something like that?

Nina Martyris said...

Hello Naulakha. It's common knowledge among heritage circles that the charming green-gabled cottage on campus is not the house in which Ruddy was born; though he was born in situ in a much more humble dwelling. Charles Allen goes so far as to describe it as a "tent or jhopdi". The plaque is so cleverly worded that it's misleading but not incorrect.

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