Kedgeree and Kipling at 150

Poet and critic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra pays tribute to Rudyard Kipling on his 150th birth anniversary

Rudyard Kipling was born 150 years ago on December 30, 1865. Painting by John Collier. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Rudyard Kipling was born 150 years ago on December 30, 1865. Painting by John Collier. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Every 150 years, but perhaps more frequently than that, we need to remind ourselves about whose descendants we are. We are all, as everyone who reads and writes English knows, descendants of Rudyard Kipling. Not because we carry the white man’s burden, for that is a burden only a pucca white man carries, but because we use his language, which is sometimes English but mostly not while still being English.

Long before there was the kedgeree that Salman Rushdie served up in Midnight’s Children, and long before we had Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August with its ‘Hazaar fucked’, we had Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), most of the tales written when he was an upcoming journalist, aged twenty-one or twenty-two, which is about the age when most young Indians today are finishing their first worthless university degree.

One of the tales in the book is ‘The Three Musketeers’ which describes the encounter between three privates—Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd—in a line regiment and a newly-arrived visitor, Lord Trig, to the cantonment. Trig has expressed a desire to inspect the troops but has the reputation of afterwards insulting the commanding officer on the appearance of his men. The troops have come to know this and are indignant. The day before the inspection, Trig goes out shopping and while he’s in the bazaar waiting for the colonel’s barouche to come and fetch him he sees the three privates, who, not ones to let a chance slip by, send him on a ride that he will not easily forget:

Pristinly, he sthrols up, his arrums full av thruck, an’ he sez in a consiquinshal way, shticking out his little belly, “Me good men,” sez he, ‘have ye seen the Kernel’s b’roosh!”—“B’roosh?” says Learoyd. “There’s no b’roosh here—nobbut a ekka.” – “Fwhat’s that?” sez Thrigg. Learoyd shows him wan down the street, an’ he sez, “How thruly Orientil! I will ride on ekka.” I saw thin that our Rigimental Saint was for givin’ Thrigg over to us neck an’ brisket. I purshued a ekka, an’ I sez to the dhriver-divil, I sez, “Ye black limb, there’s a Sahib comin’ for this ekka. He wants to go jildi to the Padshahi Jhil” –’twas about tu moiles away—“to shoot snipe—chirria. You dhrive Jehannum ke marfik, mallum—like Hell? ’Tis no manner av use bukkin’ to the Sahib, bekaze he doesn’t samjao your talk. Av he bolos anything, you just choop and chel. Dekker? Go arsty for the first arder mile from contonmints. Thin chel, Shaitan ke marfik, an’ the chooper you choops an’ the jildier you chels the better kooshy will that Sahib be; an’ here’s a rupee for ye!”

The ekka-man knew there was somethin’ out av the common in the air. He grinned an’ sez, “Bote achee! I goin’ damn fast.”

What does this strange language tell us about ourselves? It tells us that we live in a linguistic soup and always have, just as much as we belong to a genetic one and always have. As for the soup itself, you only have to travel from Allahabad (where Kipling once lived and worked for The Civil and Military Gazette) to Varanasi, stopping for tea and snacks at Handia. Ask for Shri Ramu Sweet & Dosa Chow Mein Corner. It’s near the bus stand. You can also Google it.