Monday, May 23, 2005

Kipling: a tribute to a master

I think I'll make one day a week "Kipling Day".

Rudyard Kipling is one of the most unappreciated writers of English-language literature in the world. All of us have heard the name (and if you haven't, you should broaden your horizons.) Most of us think little of him, except that we may have seen "The Jungle Book", which is a Disney movie, or read "KIM". Or "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi", or some other story of his which is generally considered a 'childrens story'.

The truth is, Kipling (1895 - 1936) didn't really write for children. Mostly, he wrote about the area of human conflict.

Kipling wrote about war.

Did you never see the movie "The Man Who Would Be King", starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery? It's a story about two British soldiers, around the turn of the century in 'Kafiristan' (Afghanistan? The Khyber Pass?) who are mistaken for gods ... with a disastrous and gruesome ending.

Ever hear of "Captains Courageous"? "Gunga Din"? "Wee Willie Winkle"?

Kipling wrote all of these, and more. Much, much more.

Last year, I was fortunate to find a 9-volume set of Kipling's writings in a used book store. I bought them for $35 dollars ... a steal at five times the price! For example, Volume I includes:
  • Soldiers Three
  • The Story of the Gadsbys.
  • In Black And White
Well, perhaps you haven't heard of these stories. "Soldiers Three was the basis for at least 4 movies, from 1913 to 2003.

Perhaps more important, Kipling wrote poems. He wrote 'Barracks Rooms Ballads'. He wrote ... and wrote ... and wrote!

After I started reading Kipling in earnest, I discovered an almost fatal flaw in the 9-volume series I had bought. This set of Kipling was published in 1895. The literature was set, but Kipling kept on writing!

I bought a couple more Kipling anthologies from Amazon dot com, and discovered that after his son was killed in WWI, Kipling senior became very disenchanted with war and its conduct. Some of his best writing was done AFTER WWI.

But still: his poems ... his poems captured the very essence of the fighting man and what it is like to be the very bottom of the food chain in a battle.

And some of them, perhaps even most of the, are entirely applicable to the present.

Consider "The Young British Soldier", which ends:
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
(Geirge Dzundza's character learned this in the movie "The Beast Of War".)

As a tickler to your memory, perhaps you will recall this ending to "Gunga Din":
Though I've belted you and flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
I was going to end this piece with "Snarleyow", from "Barracks Rooms Ballads". I think you should read it, certainly, and think about what it really says. But for this moment, it may be better to make another choice to quote here in full. I can't find this reproduced anywhere else on the Internet.

Perhaps that is because it is so long.
Perhpas because it is really not Politically Correct in concept or in choice of words.

Or perhaps because it is so gruesome.

"The Grave of the 100 Head"
-Rudyard Kipling

There's a widow in sleepy Chester
Who weeps for her only son;
There's a grave on the Pabeng River,
A grave that the Bumans shun;
And there's Subadar Prag Tewarri,
Who tells how the work was done.

A Snider squbbed in the jungle
Somebody laughed and fled,
and the men of the First Shikaris
Picked up their Subaltern dead,
With a big blue mark in his forehead,
And the back blown out of his head.

Subadar Prag Twarri,
Jemadar Hira Lal,
Took command of the party,
Twenty rifles in all.
Marched them down to the river
As the day was beginning to fall.

They buried the boy by the river
A blanket over his face --
They wept for their dead Lieutenant,
The men of an alien race --
They made a samadh in his honor,
A mark for his resting-place.

For they swore by the Holy Water,
They swore by the salt they ate,
That the soul of Liutenant Eshmitt Sahib
should go to his God in state,
With fifty file of Burmans
To open him Heaven's Gate.

The men of the First Shikaris
Marched til the break of day,
Till they came to the rebel village,
The village of Pabengmay--
A jingal covered the clearing,
Calthrops hampered the way.

Subadar Prag Tewarri,
Bidding them load with ball,
Halted a dozen rifles
Under the village wall;
sent out a flanking-party
With Jemadar Hira Lol.

The men of the First Shikaris
Shouted and smote and slew,
Turning the grinning jingal
On to the howling crew.
The jemadar's flanking-party
Butchered the folk who flew.

Long was the morn of slaughter,
Long was the list of slain,
Five score heads were taken,
Fiver score heads and twain;
and the men of the First Shikaris
Went back to their grave again,

Each man bearing a basket
Red as his palms that day,
Red as the blazing village --
The village of Pabengmay.
And the "drip-drip-drip" from the baskets
Reddened the grass by the way.

They made a pile of their trophies
High as a tall man's chin,
Head upon head distorted,
Set in a sightless grin,
Anger and pain and terror
Stamped on the smoke-scorched skin.

Subadar Prat Tewarri
Put the head of the Boh
On top of the mound of triumph,
The head of his son below --
With the sword and the peacock-banner
That the world might behold and know.

Thus the samadh was perfect,
Thus was the lesson plain
Of the wrath of the First Shikaris --
The price of a white man slain;
And the men of the First Shikaris
Went back into camp again.

Then a silence came to the river,
A hush fell over the shore,
and Bohs that were brave departed,
And Sniders squibbed no more;
For the Burmans said
That a white man's head
Must be paid for with heads five-score.

There's a widow in sleepy Chester
Who weeps for her only son;
There's a grave on the Pabeng River,
A grave that the Burmans shun;
And there's Subadr Prag Tewarri
Who tells how the work was done.

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