Monday, March 01, 2010

'kipling abroad' edited by andrew lycett

Rudyard Kipling, the travel scribe
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 1 March 2010

Seventy-four years after the death of the Indian-born British author and poet Rudyard Kipling, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907, his reputation is still hotly debated. This is partly because of his support for British imperialism, and his chronicling of the British Raj.

The controversy over Kipling led recently to the abandonment of plans to transform the house in Mumbai in which he was born in 1965 into a Kipling museum. Instead, the house is to become home to a collection of paintings by local artists.

The house is on the campus of Sir J J Institute of Applied Art, of which Rudyard’s father Lockwood Kipling was the first dean. There were worries that to establish a Kipling Museum there might lead to political uproar.

Mukund Gorashkar, head of the project to renovate the house for the JSW Foundation, was quoted in the London-based Daily Telegraph as saying: “If we tried to convert it into a Kipling museum simply because Kipling was born there, that would ruffle quite a few feathers. In the political storm, you may find that the conservation effort would be set aside.”

The Chairman of the Kipling Society Sharad Keskar reportedly said: “You have a fairly ignorant officialdom in India who don’t know much about Kipling apart from that he was an imperialist or part of the Raj. Officially he’s still persona non grata. I think that is changing, but it’s rather a slow change.”

The shelving of the plan for a Kipling Museum happens to coincide with the publication by London publisher I. B. Tauris of “Kipling Abroad: Traffics and Discoveries from Burma to Brazil”, introduced and edited by the prominent British biographer Andrew Lycett. The book was launched last week at the Nehru Center in central London with a talk by Lycett followed by a reception and book signing. Lycett has already done invaluable work in providing a more nuanced and rounded view of Kipling through his biography of the author published to critical acclaim in 1999.

For “Kipling Abroad”, he has selected excerpts from Kipling’s work – including stories, poems, letters and journalism – to highlight his gifts as a travel writer who roamed the globe to an extraordinary extent.

Kipling was a great recorder of places. “Not just the physical places, but their peoples, their quirks, their smells – indeed the total experience of being at a particular place... He was such a brilliant observer of the world around him,” Lycett writes.
In addition, Kipling was fascinated by social and historical change and was aware of living at a time when the nature of travel was changing. “No longer were heroic individual expeditions being mounted. Rather, he found himself at the cusp of an age of mass travel when tourism was becoming a commodity and with his journalistic instincts he was determined to exploit this.”
Kipling’s writings are peppered with observations about the business and practice of travel, whether poking fun at Western globetrotters in India or railing against mass tourism in the United States. He was also interested in the mechanics of travel, and how it was affected by forms of transportation such as cars, trains and ships. Kipling is associated above all with India, his country of birth. Although he never returned to India after the age of 26, his birthplace of Mumbai was “to remain a positive influence and memory throughout his life.”

In his autobiography “Something of Myself” Kipling wrote: “My first impression is of daybreak, light and colour and golden and purple fruits at the level of my shoulder. This would be the memory of early morning walks to the Bombay fruit market with my ayah and later with my sister in her perambulator, and of our returns with our purchase piled high on the bows of it.”

He went to school in England, in Westward Ho! In Devon, and on returning to India he worked as a journalist in Lahore on the Civil and Military Gazette (CMG) for which he reported from various places. The short stories in “Plain Tales from the Hills”, which first made his name when it was published in book form in India in 1888, were first published in the paper.

In late 1887 Kipling resigned from CMG, and went to work on its sister paper, the Pioneer, in Allahabad. His travel reports for that newspaper were collected in the volume “Letters of Marque” published in Allahabad in 1891. In one article for CMG he describes how, unable to sleep in the humidity of a Lahore night, he ventures to the walled City of Dreadful Night. In “Taj Mahal and the Globe-Trotter” he makes fun of a young male traveler from Manchester who is “doing India.”
Apart from India, Egypt was the first foreign country Kipling recalled visiting, having passed through it as a child on the way to Europe. In 1913 he spent several weeks travelling in Egypt, and his articles on this trip were published as “Egypt of the Magicians” (1913).

He returned to Egypt in 1929 and also went to Palestine where he visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. “In his regular search for winter sun, he also travelled to Algiers, which reminded him of Bombay”, writes Lycett.
In 1889 Kipling had left India and travelled on an eastward voyage to America and England. He was favorably struck by Burma, which inspired his poem “Mandalay.” China gave him the creeps and he much preferred Japan; so much so that he returned there on honeymoon with his wife Caroline Balestier in 1892.

Kipling’s bride was American, and he built a house ‘Naulakha’ in her hometown of Battleboro’ in Vermont. Kipling had robust opinions on the places he visited. San Francisco was “a mad city inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people whose women are of a remarkable beauty”. Put off by the crowds of tourists in one major attraction he wrote: “To-day I am in the Yellowstone Park, and I wish I were dead.” He was appalled by Chicago and its stock yards where livestock were slaughtered en masse.

In 1896 Kipling returned from America to England and settled in the county of Sussex for which he developed a great fondness and which inspired his books “Puck of Pook’s Hill” and “Rewards and Fairies.” He enjoyed owning cars, and did a great deal of driving in Britain. When he became rich he indulged his passion for Europe and liked to be driven around France in his Rolls Royce. For some years he spent part of every winter in South Africa, and he also visited South America and the Caribbean.

Interviewed on BBC radio the day after the launch, Lycett was asked whether it is time for Indians to reappraise Kipling. Lycett said: “I can well understand why Indians look askance at him in this day and age, because he was an imperialist, he was not a supporter of Indian nationalism. On the other hand he was the first great Indian writer in the English language. And he was very highly regarded amongst a lot of Indian writers.”

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