Indian Summers With Kipling and Yeats — A Plain Tale From the Bicentennial Hill
My wife and I celebrated Christmas Day in Simla, the former summer capital of British India. The only catch is it’s not really Simla, it’s the Masterpiece Theatre series Indian Summers, filmed on location — in Malaysia.
As it happens, Rudyard Kipling’s 150th birthday is today, December 30, 2015, and the lively, elegant nightmare of a doomed society that is the Simla Club in Indian Summers (“No Dogs or Indians”) evokes, for better or worse, the writer who put Simla on the map in 1888 in his first and most famous story collection, Plain Tales from the Hills. Half a century later in the PBS series being billed as “Downton Abbey Goes to India,” it’s 1932, Gandhi is on a hunger strike and Kipling’s “imperialist claptrap” is being mocked by two of the most likeable characters in the series, a politically passionate Parsi girl and a haplessly heroic Scotsman. They’re talking about the man George Orwell nonetheless credited for “the only literary picture that we possess of nineteenth-century Anglo-India,” something Orwell claims could be accomplished because Kipling “was just coarse enough to be able to exist and keep his mouth shut in clubs and regimental messes.”
After admitting his own “shameful pleasure” in Kipling, Orwell asks the obvious question: “Why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly?” Some answers can be found in a 1941 article by T.S. Eliot celebrating Kipling’s “second sight,” his “consummate gift of word, phrase, and rhythm” and his technical mastery in both verse and prose (“no writer has ever cared for the craft of words more than Kipling”).
In the 1959 edition of The Autobiography, Mark Twain recalls a visit from a 24-year-old British journalist whose name was not known to him but of whom Twain’s family “often spoke wonderingly,” aware that “they had been in contact with an extraordinary man.” Writing in 1906, Twain says that his daughter Susy kept Kipling’s card “and treasured it as an interesting possession. Its address was Allahabad,” a name evocative of the “imaginary land” that “India had been to her up to this time … a dreamland, a land made out of poetry and moonlight” and that “doubtless Kipling’s flesh and blood and modern clothes realized it to her for the first time and solidifed it.” Even so, Twain doubted that the family had perceived the young man’s “full magnitude,” which he compared to the “horizonless extent” of a “continent.” Less than a year later the “stranger” had become “universally known … the only living person, not head of a nation, whose voice is heard around the world the moment it drops a remark.”
Twain concludes his account of Kipling’s visit with a reference to his own journey to India in 1896, which he says was worth taking if only to “qualify myself to read Kim understandingly and to realize how great a book it is. The deep and subtle and fascinating charm of India pervades no other book as it pervades Kim …. I read the book every year and in this way I go back to India without fatigue — the only foreign land I ever daydream about or deeply long to see again.”
While India’s not the only foreign land I daydream about and long to see again, I know from experience what Twain means when he says the way to appreciate Kim is to read it after you’ve actually been there. Though I had read very little Kipling at the time, I felt his presence in India the same way I could feel the presence of Dickens in England. This was especially true during the three weeks I lived in Allahabad, where Kipling had edited and written for a newspaper called The Pioneer while residing in a bungalow near Allahabad University. Back home, I began seeking out “quaint and curious volumes” of Kipling, in particular the copies of early stories in Wheeler’s Indian Railway Library, published in Allahabad.
It was like being there again to read the Allahabad editions of The City of Dreadful Night or The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Eerie Tales, which includes “The Man Who Would Be King.” My response to the opening pages of that story — like my response to the opening scene of the 1975 John Huston/Sean Connery/Michael Caine film where Kipling is played by Christopher Plummer — was heightened by a first-hand knowledge of Anglo and native Allahabad, the sunrises and sunsets at Sangam where the Ganges and Jumna converge, of chai wallahs, rickshaws, mad-eyed sadhus, and long jackal-haunted walks to the cantonment where the offices of The Pioneer had been. Having worked for 12 years on a weekly newspaper in Princeton, I could also relate to Kipling’s account of a night when it was his “pleasant duty to put the paper to bed alone.” Whenever “a King or courtier or a courtesan or a community was going to die or get a new Constitution, or do something that was important on the other side of the world,” the paper was to be “held open till the latest possible minute in order to catch the telegram.” On this particular “pitchy black night” with the west wind “booming among the tinder-dry trees and pretending that the rain was on its heels,” it was “a shade cooler in the press-room than the office,” where “the type ticked and clicked, and the night-jars hooted at the windows, and the all but naked compositors wiped the sweat from their foreheads and called for water.”
Kipling wrote of his visit to Twain, cabling the account to The Pioneer from a “frowzy hotel” in Elmira, N.Y. He opened with a cynical, tenuously playful salute to his Anglo readership summering in Simla: “Some of you are Commissioners, and some Lieutenant-Governors, and some have the V. C., and a few are privileged to walk about the Mall [in Simla] arm in arm with the Viceroy; but I have seen Mark Twain this golden morning, have shaken his hand, and smoked a cigar — no, two cigars — with him, and talked with him for more than two hours! Understand clearly that I do not despise you; indeed, I don’t. I am only very sorry for you, from the Viceroy downward. To soothe your envy and to prove that I still regard you as my equals, I will tell you all about it.”
There’s a certain irony in the fact that by the time I was majoring in English at Indiana University, Kipling was nowhere to be found on the syllabus — denied entrance, in effect, to the Simla Club of English literature.
Enter W.B. Yeats
It’s been an Indian Christmas for sure. Kipling and Indian Summers plus a remastered DVD of Jean Renoir’s quietly haunting The River, not to mention some memory flashes of Christmas and New Years alone in Katmandu and early spring in Kashmir wrapped in a blanket reading Yeats in a houseboat called The Little Mona Lisa. What’s William Butler Yeats doing in a piece on Kipling, you may ask. As Billy Collins has written, poets do have a way of appearing out of nowhere like the Lone Ranger knocking at your door, delivering the poem, and disappearing into the night. In fact, this is a shared bicentenary. Yeats was born half a year before Kipling, June 13, 1865. Kipling died in January, 1936, Yeats in January 1939.
Another thing the two men have in common is the Nobel Prize, which Kipling received at 42 in 1907, Yeats at 58 in 1923. Yeats stressed Irish nationalism and cultural independence in his acceptance speech while the Swedish academy presentation to Kipling paid tribute “to the literature of England, so rich in manifold glories, and to the greatest genius in the realm of narrative that that country has produced in our times.”
An Evening at the Club
Now if you’ll permit a little time-travel and a lot of poetic license, let’s go back to Masterpiece Theatre’s Simla Club on New Year’s Eve 1932, where Yeats and Kipling, both 67, are on hand to lend some literary charisma to the occasion. Though Yeats is the most renowned poet of the day while Kipling’s reputation has gone way way south, it’s only to be expected that the propagandist for the Empire is the object of a veritable orgy of fawning while the Irish poet and playwright is off in a corner drinking Irish whiskey with the outcast Scotsman, Ian McLeod. The club’s merry, ruthless, proto fascist owner Cynthia Coffin (played to the hilt by the show-stealing Julie Walters) is in her element as she introduces Kipling, who, after sneaking a comradely wink in Yeats’s direction, proceeds to read “Lispeth,” the first of the Plain Tales, about a beautiful hill woman not unlike the untouchable who gave birth to the Viceroy’s secretary’s illegitimate son, an event the monstrous Cynthia has schemed and lied to cover up. The gist of Kipling’s story is that the good Christians who took Lispeth in and raised her to be a semblance of “one of them” destroyed her with a lie. Kipling’s ringing Indian-accented recitation of her parting words — “You are all liars, you English!” — leaves the festive audience groaning and gasping.
Yeats, bereft of his customary reserve (he who could order a mutton chop “as if it were the Holy Grail”), rises to his feet and begins reciting “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” with special emphasis on the “glimmering girl” of the second stanza “who ran and faded through the brightening air.” Is it an Irish Lispeth he’s conjured? No one seems to care as the old poet shakes his white mane, all but singing, “I will find out where she has gone … and kiss her lips and take her hands …” (the women are swooning) “… and walk among long dappled grass … and pluck till time and times are done … the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.”
And would you believe the March 2015 conference celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of William Butler Yeats and Rudyard Kipling (“Yeats and Kipling: Retrospectives, Perspectives”) took place at Oberoi Cecil Hotel in Simla?