Thursday, June 7, 2012

Must Be Experienced To Be Appreciated

What I find most moving about Kipling's life is the overflowing of emotion that he expresses in recounting his return to India in 1882:

So, at sixteen years and nine months, but looking four or five years older, and adorned with real whiskers which the scandalised Mother abolished within one hour of beholding, I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not. Other Indian-born boys have told me how the same thing happened to them.

There were yet three or four days’ rail to Lahore, where my people lived. After these, my English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.

Kipling went to work writing for the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, contributing verse and, later, short stories. In 1888 he wrote one of the finest of his stories, "The Man Who Would Be King". It is so much more than a tall tale, which the John Huston film reduces it to - though marvelously. Although mostly the story of Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, two English loafers who, Peachey claims, managed to find the legendary country Kafiristan and where Dravot becomes its king, there is a long brilliant passage in which the narrator, who doesn't name himself but we may easily guess is Kipling, describes life in an Indian newsroom:

Then I became respectable, and returned
to an Office where there were no Kings and
no incidents except the daily manufacture of
a newspaper. A newspaper office seems to
attract every conceivable sort of person, to
the prejudice of discipline. Zenana-mission
ladies arrive, and beg that the Editor will instantly
abandon all his duties to describe a
Christian prize-giving in a back-slum of a
perfectly inaccessible village; Colonels who
have been overpassed for commands sit
down and sketch the outline of a series of
ten, twelve, or twenty-four leading articles
on Seniority versus Selection; missionaries
wish to know why they have not been permitted
to escape from their regular vehicles
of abuse and swear at a brother-missionary
under special patronage of the editorial We;
stranded theatrical companies troop up to explain
that they cannot pay for their advertisements,
but on their return from New
Zealand or Tahiti will do so with interest;
inventors of patent punkah-pulling machines,
carriage couplings and unbreakable
swords and axle-trees call with specifications
in their pockets and hours at their disposal;
tea-companies enter and elaborate their prospectuses
with the office pens; secretaries of
ball-committees clamor to have the glories
of their last dance more fully expounded;
strange ladies rustle in and say:—“I want a
hundred lady’s cards printed at once, please,”
which is manifestly part of an Editor’s duty;
and every dissolute ruffian that ever tramped
the Grand Trunk Road makes it his business
to ask for employment as a proof-reader.
And, all the time, the telephone-bell is ringing
madly, and Kings are being killed on the
Continent, and Empires are saying, “You’re
another,” and Mister Gladstone is calling
down brimstone upon the British Dominions,
and the little black copy-boys are whining,
“kaa-pi chayha-yeh” (copy wanted) like
tired bees, and most of the paper is as blank
as Modred’s shield.

But that is the amusing part of the year.
There are other six months wherein none
ever come to call, and the thermometer
walks inch by inch up to the top of the glass,
and the office is darkened to just above reading
light, and the press machines are red-hot
of touch, and nobody writes anything but
accounts of amusements in the Hill-stations
or obituary notices. Then the telephone becomes
a tinkling terror, because it tells you
of the sudden deaths of men and women
that you knew intimately, and the prickly-heat
covers you as with a garment, and you
sit down and write:—“A slight increase of
sickness is reported from the Khuda Janta
Khan District. The outbreak is purely sporadic
in its nature, and, thanks to the energetic
efforts of the District authorities, is now
almost at an end. It is, however, with deep
regret we record the death, etc.”

Then the sickness really breaks out, and
the less recording and reporting the better
for the peace of the subscribers. But the
Empires and the Kings continue to divert
themselves as selfishly as before, and the
foreman thinks that a daily paper really
ought to come out once in twenty-four hours,
and all the people at the Hill-stations in the
middle of their amusements say:—“Good
gracious! Why can’t the paper be sparkling?
I’m sure there’s plenty going on up here.”

That is the dark half of the moon, and, as
the advertisements say, “must be experienced
to be appreciated.”

It was in that season, and a remarkably
evil season, that the paper began running
the last issue of the week on Saturday night,
which is to say Sunday morning, after the
custom of a London paper. This was a
great convenience, for immediately after the
paper was put to bed, the dawn would lower
the thermometer from 96° to almost 84° for
almost half an hour, and in that chill—you
have no idea how cold is 84° on the grass
until you begin to pray for it—a very tired
man could set off to sleep ere the heat
roused him.

Only someone who has lived in such a climate year-round can appreciate the difference that twelve degrees Fahrenheit can make.

(1) Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown, 1937.

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