Kipling Sahib, By Charles Allen

East and West in a single head

Hurree Babu in Kim is the type of native particularly detested by Kipling, and many Englishmen like him: the hybrid Babu. As Charles Allen notes in his study of "India and the making of Rudyard Kipling", "the most offensive" of Kipling's articles are those that mock Anglicised Indians.

Kim, one of the two great novels of Anglo-India, subtly reproduces some of these prejudices, tending to contrast the obese Hurree Babu unfavourably with sporty Englishness and such "pure" natives as Mahbub Ali, the frontier horse-dealer. And yet, towards the end of the novel, Hurree not only saves his companions but also the entire British Raj from the machinations of "foreign agents". Told of Hurree's feat of physical bravery and cleverness, Kim exclaims: "What a beast of wonder is a Babu!"

It is a phrase that encapsulates the contradictions at the heart of Kipling's own responses to India and Empire. Hurree is both less than human (a beast) and something extraordinary (a wonder). Often, critics tend to focus on one pole of this contradiction. But any understanding of Kipling has to take both aspects into account, and this is what Allen achieves in his new biography of the Raj's favourite writer.

Allen focuses on Kipling's formative years, his childhood, precocious youth in India and quick fame in London (1889-99), providing a delightful account of the times and personalities. He adds an "envoi" to cover the post-1900 period, perhaps because Kim, started much earlier, was published only in 1901. It is a wise demarcation, for earlier biographies have sometimes reduced his interaction with India to a level simpler than Kipling's fiction and poetry warrant.

It is fascinating to read of "Ruddy" growing up in India, a child-despot in a realm of servants, picking up their language, once holding hands with a servant and walking off, with these farewell words in Hindustani to his mother: "Goodbye, this is my brother." Then follow years of relative deprivation, discipline and narrow order in England, years that left their mark on both Ruddy and his sister, Trix. The Kipling who returns to India in 1882 is already a composite personality or rather, because the public persona he adopts often permits only one side to be openly acknowledged a torn one.

Allen quotes a Kipling poem that heads a chapter of Kim to define the author as a man of contradictions: "Something I owe to the soil that grew / More to the life that fed / But most to Allah Who gave me two/ Separate sides to my head.// I would go without shirts or shoes,/ Friends, tobacco or bread/ Sooner than for an instant lose/ Either side of my head." Allen is also good at registering how Kipling consciously chose to lean towards one side of these contradictions in his journalism, even at times (as in "The White Man's Burden") in his poetry and fiction.

Yet at its best as in Kim Kipling's creative writing explodes the boundaries of the political and cultural discourses that sometimes limited him as a person. Something similar happens in the best of his poetry, including the ballad that begins with what Allen calls the most misunderstood lines by Kipling: "Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." The poem concludes by narrating exactly the meeting that its opening aphorism denies.

Kipling's significance lies less in his ability to speak "unblushingly" about "sentiments" such as a soldier's relationship to women of different sorts that were not common in the drawing rooms of Chelsea and Kensington in 1890. By placing the enactment of these "sentiments" in exotic Oriental parts, Kipling did not go much beyond what had been done a century earlier by, say, Thomas Beckford in Vathek. What he did do was to narrate many of these sentiments in a literary version of the voice of the Victorian working man, as Allen also notes.

But, above all, Kipling's significance lies in the fact that what his poems, characters and fiction claimed to show and what they actually narrated were often in a curious tension. The "beastly" Babu turned out a "wonder"; East and West ended up meeting in the teeth of that opening aphorism.

Herein lies Kipling's greatness, and it reflects poorly upon our age that the most popular of Kipling's poems today, "If", is also among his least complex. Allen's Kipling Sahib is an excellent, immensely readable, strikingly illustrated introduction to this lost complexity.

Tabish Khair's novel 'Filming' is published by Picador

Little, Brown 20 (426pp) 18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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