Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling
Great Britain during the Victorian era was the light of civilization, the hearth of industry and as a consequence was at a stage of development that far exceeded that of its continental neighbors. A country that was crisscrossed by canals, railways and metalled roads, where urban conurbations had sprung from rural hamlets and where a revolution had taken place in sanitation that’d introduced a populous to clean running water, sewer systems and even soap. Medieval London had been all but demolished and a steam-driven Babylon had emerged in its place; a state of the art metropolis, the envy of the civilized world. Given England’s position at the forefront of technological advancement it was said that human kind had never before witnessed such advances in the fields of science, industry and learning. Britain was a world of realized science fiction, and with the advent of industry, mechanization and commercial domination literally crushed all other nations in its path in pursuit of empire. That being so it’s hardly surprising that the British regarded themselves as superior and that the glorious work they’d been given was divinely endowed. Is it any wonder then that there was a sense of superiority? Rudyard Kipling, an author, poet and literary super-star of his age, celebrated through his work the very premise of empire. His descriptions, stories, and poetry allowed for a glimpse into the far-flung corners of Queen Victoria’s extended kingdom His was a voice that was adored by a people who were convinced of their own preeminence and who earnestly believed that all foreigners were inferior and therefore worthy of British contempt. That being said when we review Kipling’s work from the retrospective pedestal of an illuminated twenty-first century, it’s hard not to wince when reading it. His work is Anglophilic, filled with racist and cultural slurs and steeped in xenophobic prose. This being the perceived truth, Kipling has gone out of fashion and his empirical viewpoints discarded by all but those on the distant right of the political spectrum. The question remains though, is that really the case? Was Kipling such a heinous figure or where his writings merely representative of a moment in time that we today find hard to comprehend, or was he saying something else? By discovering his poem Gunga Din through the medium of historical and formalist critic we’ll see that Kipling was merely a writer expounding a new world view. Rather than racist, the views he expressed, in my opinion, although convoluted are easier to understand for the modern reader when one walks a mile in the shoes of a Victorian Britain. In point of fact, the poem is an enlightened piece of work and sorely misread and Kipling himself misconstrued by his contemporary critics.
Gunga Din is a fireside soldier’s tale that first appeared bundled in Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads, a collection of poems and songs that were representative of Britain’s armed forces and their stations of duty around the globe that appeared in print in 1892. The British Empire covered very nearly a third of the globe and encompassed one half of the world’s population at that time. The poem is a revelation of a soldier who has served in India and who under the duress of battles has come to understand and respect an Indian native. The poem describes the hardships of campaign, the arduousness of the country and the thousand difficulties with which he was confronted. His reflection reveals and affinity with a man by the name of Gunga Din a water carrier, “a bishti”, belonging to the lowest caste whose job it was to fetch and carry water for the troops. The man is beggarly and naked but for a loin cloth naked, whose skin is tanned and leathered, his face worn. He’s cursed and beaten and sorely abused by the British troops and must, upon their whim, perform their will. Despite the circumstance or danger he’s ordered to fetch and carry water. No sooner has he carried one load then he must return for the next, and so his hours are spent in continual industry while his betters, the British, lounge around and complain about the heat. The nature of the British expedition is of course to subdue and conquer the natives and so the narrator is frequently in battle. He tells of the dangers they were forced to endure and how death was ever-present and yet alongside death there was another who stood closed by; Gunga Din. The Indian water carrier was never far from the front line and endured the same withering fire the soldiers did, experienced the same dangers. During the heat and smoke of battle the soldiers would call for fresh cartridges to fill their empty ammunition pouches and also for Gunga Din to replenish their canteens. Din as required would do their bidding and alongside his task of water carrying would also aid the wounded, running to where they lay despite the bullets that splashed the ground around him. The story teller praises the Indian native for his bravery, how if it wasn’t for Din he would have been dead. Having fallen to enemy fire he is carried from the field and laid on a stretcher and tended by the Indian who whilst busied in his task of rescuing the soldier is shot dead. The soldier’s admiration for the water carrier is unbounded as the last lines of the poem state:
“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!”
So who were Gunga Din and his ilk? It wasn’t uncommon for Indian natives to be employed by the Army in menial tasks, in fact Indians from higher castes were even utilized in regiments composed primarily of Indian soldiers and led by British officers. The association between the common soldier and the Indians would have been quotidian, as far as logistics and the preparation of the necessities such as cooking and cleaning were concerned, and so there would have been constant contact between the colonial oppressors and the indigenous population. Their experiences are expressed in Kipling’s poem and the descriptions although harsh are those of alien white men in a foreign land where everything and everybody is different from that to which they are accustomed. Gunga din is consequently abused at the hands of the Imperialist invaders.
“You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!
“Hi! Slippy hitherao!
“Water, get it! Panee lao
“You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.”
There is a clear shift in nineteenth century Victorian values when one considers the spirit of abolition in the early part of the century that are replaced in the later, with the sense of empire that promotes the British as a super-race. This is the where the confusion arises. What changed and how did a people who were fervently for the rights of the subjugated become the subjugators? Some blame the spread of Empire with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, others the economic malaise of the later part of the century. Britain despite its industry found itself in an economical down turn due to the surplus of manufactured goods and limited markets in which you sell them. A shift in policy from mercantilism to free trade would almost certainly have put financial pressure on Britain, as now it was possible for other markets to thrive. It’s easy to see how foreign goods coming ashore in England and tales of far-flung empire could have created a sense of xenophobia and self-righteous superiority. One only has to take the very modern example of Chinese goods flooding the United States today to understand the perceptions of Victorian Britains.
Kipling is decried by modern critics for his overtly racist descriptions of Gunga Din, his lyrical lines of subjugation; but is that fair? Kipling goes out of his way within the lines of the poem to describe the torments and pains of the “bishti,” of how the oppression of Indians is felt to be quite ordinary by the British soldiers. Kipling within the poem points out the qualities of what is essentially a fellow-man who, despite his color, is a human as they. He pays the Indian the metaphorical compliment, despite his “brick-dust” colored exterior, of being “white inside.”
“An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide
‘E was white, clear white, inside
When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!”
The man who is lower than the muck on their shoes performs the actions of a lion, is a brave as any uniformed soldier of the queen and therefore worthy of poetical praise. Kipling on the contrary, I feel, is highlighting the idiocy of racist stereotypes and instead offers an image of humanity rather than one of discrimination. Yes, he demonstrates racism, and yes he offers a portrait of British callousness, but it’s the ignorance that is shown to be ridiculous. Gunga Din is a brave soldier, a man of empathy and integrity, and possessed of all the virtues the English espoused for themselves. Having spent time in India in his youth, Kipling was acquainted with India and the Indians and therefore wrote from a position of firsthand experience. His are the words of a man who’s been and seen rather than one who’s heard and gossiped.
Kipling eulogizes Gunga Din and that’s why, despite its post-colonial undertone, the poem survives today. Critics rather than judging his words as monochromatic should realize that in order to understand it, they have to adopt a Victorian mindset. To judge anybody from a position of historical retrospect is naive and inevitably flawed. Gunga Din is still read because its sympathies stand in two camps; one that demonstrates racial ignorance, the other which promotes the institution of common humanity and global consciousness. Although later works do appear to show Kipling’s true tendencies we also know that he wrote for an audience. Kipling wrote crowd-pleasers, that which he knew his readership wanted to hear. Gungs Din should be digested as a historical piece that identifies a duality of attitudes and subsequently is more than worthy of a modern audience and positive criticism.