How the literary chameleon got his kudos

Today, a new set of stamps marks the centenary of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. Do they - or their author - deserve such an accolade? Boyd Tonkin considers the remarkably resilient reputation of one of our most enigmatic literary figures
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The Soldiers of the Queen patrol the streets of old Kabul. Down on the North-West Frontier, Peshawar or Quetta may erupt at any time. A vanguard of the white sahibs pursues bandit fugitives across the Afghan peaks. And over in the Kashmir hills, more sedition stirs...

Although the calendar reads "2002", the new year's headlines suggest it must have skipped a century. As high-minded imperialism makes its curious comeback, and the craggy fringes of the Raj again become a playground for plotters, Her Majesty's Royal Mail has delivered the spirit of the age. Today, a new set of stamps marks the centenary of the Just So Stories for Little Children. They will, quite literally, bring back into the public gaze the most gifted writer ever to promote the British Empire and its martial mission as what Tony Blair would call "a force for good" – Rudyard Kipling.

The stamps depict the tales that the author started to write for his three children – Josephine, Elsie and John – in the late 1890s. Already an international celebrity, Kipling remained nomadic, unsettled, and – after the death of "Effie" aged six in 1899 – shadowed by grief. Yet these stories, which date from a time of bereavement and upheaval, draw with zest and glee on a multicultural mythology. They mingle the wildlife and folklore of Asia, Africa, Arabia, Australia and Amazonia, as Aesop-style fables sit alongside sly Darwinian jokes. The yarns account whimsically for how the elephant got his trunk, the camel his hump, the whale his throat, the rhinoceros his horn, the leopard his spots, and so forth.

These are stories fashioned for telling as much as reading, crammed with clever nuances of rhythm. Kipling's kids demanded that they always be recounted "just so". In fact, they survive better from the parent's mouth than on the cold page – whether with the Cat That Walked by Himself, "waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone", or the elephant child who tangles with a crocodile "at the very edge of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees".

Sharad Keskar, the Bombay-born editor of The Kipling Journal, reports that the writer had a sing-song voice that children loved. However, teachers surveyed recently felt more self-conscious about Kipling's cadences than their pupils: "They thought the language was archaic, not of the playground. But it's not that the children have lost their innocence; the adults have lost theirs."

What the Just So Stories never do is condescend. Too much of Kipling's imagination stayed rooted in the story-filled bazaars of late-Victorian Lahore for him to neglect the child's eye and ear. G K Chesterton noted that the fables, far from sounding childish, read like "fairy tales told to men in the morning of the world".

In our present time-warp, with distant Pashtuns and Tajiks the stuff of media chit-chat, it comes as no surprise that Kipling's ambiguous magic works again. The Prime Minister has reportedly taken down the wonderful 1901 novel, Kim, from the shelves at Chequers. Nearby, he could surely find a copy of the story "Dray Wara Yow Dee". Here, a horse-dealer, one of Kipling's many brave but wild Afghans, tries to lure the narrator up to his chilly northern paradise, where "a hundred fires sparkle in the gut of the Pass, and tent-peg answers hammer-nose, and pack-horse squeals to pack-horse across the drift-smoke of the evening".

Afghani scenes and characters always represented risky excitement for Kipling. As a young reporter in Lahore, he interviewed a captured Afghan bigwig who had annoyed the Raj. The chieftain tried to secure his help with offers of first cash, then a gorgeous Kashmiri girl, and finally (his top whack), seven handsome horses. The Afghan province of "Kafiristan" features as a Utopian journey's end in that magnificent satire on the whole imperial shooting-match, The Man Who Would Be King.

Yet, if all that tempts the PM to prolong the British presence, he should glance at the Barrack-Room Ballads of 1892. There, he'll see "The Young British Soldier", with its minatory finale: "When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains/ And the women come down to cut up what remains,/ Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/ An' go to your Gawd like a soldier." When his imagination let rip, Kipling the imperial recruiting-sergeant could turn into a one-man peace party.

There's scarcely a writer who arouses more complex emotions. Salman Rushdie wrote that "the early Kipling is a writer with a storm inside him, and he creates a mirror-storm of contradictory responses". Kim and the Indian tales lie in the hinterland of Midnight's Children, Rushdie's post-colonial landmark, and a novel that celebrates the downfall of everything the official Kipling held most dear. Yet the unofficial Kipling foresaw, even relished, the prospect of that ruin. He never lost sight of the looming moment when: "The tumult and the shouting dies/ The captains and the kings depart". To read him today is to plunge into a raucous souk of clashing perceptions and beliefs.

Crass stereotypes and deep human sympathy, brilliant craftsmanship and boorish ideology, jostle for supremacy even within a single paragraph. "I have never been able to read Kipling calmly," says Rushdie. "Anger and delight are incompatible emotions."

One test of a classic writer's endurance is the roster of major authors who feel compelled to wrestle with their work. On this score, Kipling looks safely immortal. T S Eliot, Angus Wilson, V S Pritchett, Edmund Wilson, W H Auden (who claimed poetically that time would "pardon Kipling for his views"), George Orwell, Craig Raine – all have been ensnared by his troubling artistry. The maverick Bengali intellectual Nirad Chaudhuri championed the man who enjoyed insulting Bengali intellectuals; while his younger namesake, the Calcutta novelist Amit Chaudhuri, wrote powerfully in the London Review of Books recently about the bundle of paradox he calls "a very great writer, and a writer of fictions in every sense of the word". According to the Delhi-based social thinker Ashis Nandy, Kipling mistrusted weedy, bookish Bengali "babus" because the bespectacled Lahori scribe so much resembled them. Sent back to England, young Rud looked just like "a conspicuous bicultural sahib, the English counterpart of the type he was later to despise".

Surely a children's book remains immune to all these thorny ambivalences? Not at all. The Just So Stories may not reflect the intimate Indian world of Kipling's youth as closely as The Jungle Books, written a few years before. Yet you can still locate intriguing chunks of hidden autobiography in them. Look, for instance, at the leopard as he gains his spots. Along with an Ethiopian hunter, he has stood out far too prominently on the African savannah, and: "The long and the little of it is that we don't match our backgrounds". So, with his fingers the hunter dapples the beast's pelt until the camouflage is complete: "You can lie out on the bare ground and look like a heap of pebbles. You can lie out on the naked rock and look like a piece of pudding-stone. You can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunlight sifting through the leaves; and you can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular. Think of that and purr!"

To vary the animal analogy, Kipling flourished by becoming just this sort of chameleon. He was born in 1865 in Bombay, the son of a liberal aesthete who was later curator of the Lahore museum. He died, in Sussex in 1936, an ancient monument to redundant manly virtues and racial arrogance. In between, the Hindustani-speaking bazaar boy who "thought and dreamt" in the local vernacular had mutated into a preacher of "The White Man's Burden" to his American friends. An instinctive champion of the underdog – the despised British Tommy, the Indian girl forsaken by her sahib lover, or just the mongoose facing a cobra – hardened into a public bully who more or less proclaimed that might is right. And the lover of traditional lore and myth strapped on the armour of an apostle of technological progress and Western domination. Kipling could never look like "nothing in particular", but he blended his own spots with a striking variety of backgrounds.

It seems fated that such a rich confusion should breed an author preoccupied with spying, masks and disguises. In Kim, the Lahore street urchin Kimball O'Hara grasps that his shape-shifting destiny lies in the "Great Game" of anti-Russian espionage on the Empire's borders. But first, the dark-skinned "Little Friend of all the World", who speaks English rarely, has to submit to a Catholic education fit for sahibs. He must learn to worship the alien goddess that his Afghan mentor calls "Bibi Miriam".

Disturbed, Kim "looks at his boots ruefully. 'No; I am Kim. This is the great world, and I am only Kim. Who is Kim?' He considered his own identity, a thing he had never done before, until his head swam." Lying and performing for the Queen-Empress will, so he hopes, lift Kim out of "the roaring whirl of India" – a whirl he adores, but that threatens to swallow him whole. This frantic search for a perfect mask moulded both the writer, and the man.

On three surviving documents, this author has signed his name in Urdu. Each time, he gets the orthography slightly wrong: "Kinling", "Kiplig", or "Kipenling". Who is Kim? Who is Kipling? Few people ever knew – least of all the signatory himself. It's no wonder that the elusive Mr Kipling made such exceedingly good fakes.

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