Kipling has always been one of the most prolific writers who managed to capture the essence of a big country being under the imperial foot of a major European power. In Kipling’s case it was India within the English Victorian Empire. The collection of works titled “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows” presents a lesser known side to the writer with the stories in this collection being grittier, filled with realism and often a feeling of hopelessness. Kipling has always been derided for being a proponent of the colonial regime but it makes more sense to regard his infamous “Burden of the White Man” as a satire rather than a genuine statement. At least in the short stories “The Story of Muhammad Din” and “The Bisara of Pooree” it is clear that the author commiserates with the plight of the local dwellers who are misunderstood and disregarded by the representatives of the Empire. The stories have one common denominator and that is the description of the giant void that has always separated the Indian people and the British. Two vastly different cultures, different mentalities, different ways of looking at things, different attitudes towards people – all of these factors have made the coexistence of the British and the Indians impossible. After reading these two stories, it is no longer surprising why Mahatma Gandhi was inspired to rebel against the British Empire and why India eventually reacquired its independence readily in the middle of the 20th century right after World War II. Kipling notes a picture of complete lack of social quality and the disadvantaged position of the Indians within the British framework of existence. He chooses to showcase the mentality of the British filled with the sentiments that they are basically superior human beings compared to the Indians. Even if some in his tales do not have such a mindset, they are still treated by the Indians as royalty, the people with absolute power and privilege of command.
The story about the boy Muhammad Din concentrates on the relationship of the sahib, master and his servants – tahib. The story follows the relationship of an unnamed British person, Imam Din, the khitmagar and clear around the house and the latter’s son Muhammad. The story is told from the point of view of the British man who owns the house, apparently. In this case, there is no aggression on his part to the Indians. He is constantly shown to be understanding and forgiving even when Muhammad manages to misbehave in such a way so as to anger an average Englishman. He observes mostly in a typical English manner describing the events and people with a bit of a humor but doing so in a very much well-meaning manner. He is never angered and he experiences no negative emotions to the servants whatsoever. He is only driven by curiosity when he is willing to find out more about the nature of the polo-ball in Imam Din’s possession. The humor comes through such moments when Imam says: “He will, without doubt, go to the jail-khana for his behavior.” And the author immediately remarks how the “penitent” starts yelling. He understands that there is clearly no need in such drastic punishments. He realizes why the child is so distressed and does everything on his part to reassure the child that no horrible punishment awaits him. The same mild approach is applied when Muhammad constructs his first palace in the garden made of flowers and the half buried polo-ball. When the child was misled that the sahib deliberately destroyed the palace out of anger, sahib reassures the boy that it was a very unfortunate accident for which he was incredibly sorry. The British man constantly encourages the boy in his new “architectural” endeavors and is content to see that the boy is doing what he likes.
What is particularly striking in this story is the amount of piety that the servants exhibit towards sahibs. Without bigger context on who represents the author’s voice, it would be not too far fetching to assume that the narrator is of royal blood or the highest rank in aristocracy. Yet, most likely, it is not so. The high status is defined purely by the color of skin and nationality. The only instance when a representative of the tahib group, Muhammad, notes: “I am not a budmash. I am a man!” This was uttered right after the punishment was averted by the sahib. It must have taken a remarkable amount of courage to say these words, and yet the boy had enough audacity in him to stress the importance of him being a human being first and foremost. After this occasion, there has been mutual respect between unnamed sahib and Muhammad. They constantly greeted each other: “Talaam, Tahib. – Salaam, Muhammad Din.” and even though their conversations started and finished immediately with this brief exchange, there seems a mental connection of understanding between them at least on some level as the author wisely notes the beauty of Muhammad’s creations in the garden equaling him to an architect at times. The narrator goes at great lengths to ensure that Muhammad receives all medical treatment and an English Doctor at the time of need. An English doctor for a tahib was remarkable privilege at the time. The doctor utters one phrase almost at the end of the short story: “They have no stamina, these brats.” With this one sentence Kipling returns us to earth shattering the illusion that there is no huge void between the Indian child and the British homeowner. A doctor is supposed to have at least some compassion for the patient, especially if it is a child. Yet, in this case due to him being from England and the child being an India, “brat” is the best he can come up with. There is no compassion, no respect, no good wish for recovery – not a single positive thought but this mean remark which helps nothing.
The void between the colonists and the natives is shown through the cultural prism in the short story “The Bisara of Pooree.” The story talks about a peculiar artifact of the same title. It has to be stolen or acquired through other foul way. Acquiring it within the boundaries of law and ethics will result in the death of the new owner after three years. The object turns onto the master who obtained it timidly without committing any negative deed. Death in three years is imminent and bad fortune will persist throughout all the lifetime left. The artifact also has the power of love charm aiding the person who stole it. The story follows the collector Churton who does not believe in superstitions, Pack, a bad person serving in the military, and miss Hollis, a single lady who stole Pack’s heart. The fourth side is the mysterious man – the man “who knows” about the nature of artifact and its powers, but keeps the details to himself. It is unclear whether he is an Indian or an Englishman who is simply well-versed in culture and folklore of India. It is shown how Pack steals the Bisara from Churton. The latter’s life becomes much better and, at the same time, unbelievable, miss Hollis decides to be with Pack after all. The Man in the know offer a hypothesis explaining these events. The steal has been discovered by Churton and everything reverts back to the previous state: miss Hollis cancels her agreement to be with Pack and Churton’s bad luck returned immediately in the form of the twisted foot.
It is possible to offer an interesting interpretation that the Bisara is the metaphor for Indian culture which is treated with reverence and piety by the Indian people. The colonists, naturally, have no regard for it whatsoever and simply dismiss it as something silly coming from the world of different civilization influenced by the industrial revolution where there is no longer place for either magic or superstition. The author notes in the beginning of the story that “all its virtue was lost” due to improper transfer from one person to another. At the end of the story we are reassured that no virtue has been lost and the artifact is as strong as it has ever been. This is a metaphorical look at the clash of two civilizations – Western European and Indian. Indian initially might have never had a chance against the influence of the British empire. Against all odds, the Indian culture was strong enough to withstand the British influence and to remain an entity in its own right. The void between the Indians and the British is shown yet again when Churton time after time refuses to believe in the power of the artifact despite numerous evidence. In this story we can see only one common thing between two cultures – stealing has always been present together with bad people who would go for committing crimes. In this way, both Indian and British culture are similar.
The void is illustrated in both stories – one through a tragedy and another through comedy. The most heart-breaking is the story of Mohammad Din in which the representative of the English culture seems to be a genuinely good person who wishes no harm to the people who serve him whatsoever. Yet he could not be further away from both Imam and the boy in terms of the world perception. The only instance when the boy and the sahib are on the same wavelength when they both understand the aesthetical value and beauty of Muhammad’s garden installations. The spiteful comment by the doctor quickly and effectively reassures the readers that the narrator is rather an exception in the rule.
The stories serve as effective testaments which signify why the British and the Indian people never had a chance to coexist peacefully together. The representatives of the empire were too full of themselves and were unable to accept or at the very least try to understand the Indian culture and its peculiarities. The Indians were placed in the limiting position of servitude without the right for voice, opinion, or any influence on what was happening in the country. The Indian society has long been divided into social castes. Ironically, the entire Indian society ending up being the inferior caste without opportunities whatsoever. Kipling perfectly captures the atmosphere of India in the Victorian era and illustrates the dividing lines between two different societies. One can only wonder what would have happened, had the Indians been given more freedoms and had not been oppressed to such an extent so as to be mere servants and to be made to feel inferior to the conquerors.
- Kipling, Rudyard. The Bisara of Pooree, 1888. Web. [Accessed 28 May 2016].
- Kipling, Rudyard. The Story of Muhammad Din, 1888. Web. [Accessed 28 May 2016].