This short story presents a very complex look at India and 19th century British rule. There is a lengthy discourse early in the tale which includes this passage:
The setting is Lahore where a courtesan named Lalun hosts a salon in her apartment on the city’s wall. If you want to know what is going on the city, Lalun’s apartment is the center of information and gossip. Two visitors usually there include Wali Dad, a native Muhammadan with an English education, and the narrator (a detached version of Kipling). The tale is relayed as it appears to the narrator, with holes and gaps filled in later as he finds out more information.Gentlemen come from England, spend a few weeks in India, walk round this great Sphinx of the Plains, and write books upon its ways and its works, denouncing or praising it as their own ignorance prompts. Consequently all the world knows how the Supreme Government conducts itself. But no one, not even the Supreme Government, knows everything about the administration of the Empire. Year by year England sends out fresh drafts for the first fighting-line, which is officially called the Indian Civil Service. These die, or kill themselves by overwork, or are worried to death, or broken in health and hope in order that the land may be protected from death and sickness, famine and war, and may eventually become capable of standing alone. It will never stand alone, but the idea is a pretty one, and men are willing to die for it, and yearly the work of pushing and coaxing and scolding and petting the country into good living goes forward. If an advance be made all credit is given to the native, while the Englishmen stand back and wipe their foreheads. If a failure occurs the Englishmen step forward and take the blame. Overmuch tenderness of this kind has bred a strong belief among many natives that the native is capable of administering the country, and many devout Englishmen believe this also, because the theory is stated in beautiful English with all the latest political colours.
Wali Dad is a powerful symbol of the hybrid Indian of the day: contemptuous of his fellow countrymen while knowing he will never be fully accepted in the English world as an equal. The contempt is shared by Khem Singh, an old Sikh who has been imprisoned for rising up against the English armies but recently given a guarded freedom in Lahore. Singh’s contempt is different, as he finds the younger generations would rather cooperate with the Raj than fight for their freedom.
Many symbols highlight the India of old vs. the current setting: the “red tombs of dead Emperors beyond the river” with the collegiate cricket field next to the river, and the active Khem Singh vs. a passive Wali Dad (although both end up resigning themselves to their individual failures) to point out two obvious sets. But how does Kipling (or the narrator) feel about the imperial situation? I sense a complex resignation of head winning out over heart. He senses the majesty and honor of India past, but acknowledges the benefits of English rule. Kipling clearly paints the Captain in the most unflattering of lights, but shortly afterwards highlights the potential powder keg of religious strife to which the soldiers successfully intervene. While the current situation is far from what he would like to see, I get the feeling he sees the absence of the British would be a far greater calamity. I found it interesting that two different native characters commented on the foolishness of the mercy shown by the English.
The options of the actors seem to be a choice between delusion and futility. Wali Dad can not change who he is—he will never be fully accepted in English society nor trusted by his countrymen. He has rejected everything, caught in temporary religious fervor that causes him to betray Singh’s conspirators. Khem Singh explores his options, one that can not be completed while the other is full of dissatisfaction. The only character that seems fulfilled in the story is Lalun, and her mission in life is to serve.
Highly recommended for Kipling’s complex take on late 19th century India and colonial rule. Next up: Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” and the 1975 movie version.