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Something of myself: the early life of Rudyard Kipling

“My first impression is of daybreak, light and colour and golden and purple fruits at the level of my shoulder.” With this beautiful sentence, so characteristic in its fusion of poetry and physical, bodily detail, Rudyard Kipling evokes the fruit-market in Bombay, the city (now Mumbai) where he was born in 1865. It comes from the first chapter of his posthumously published autobiography, Something of Myself (1937). As the title implies, Something of Myself is a partial offering, in some places inaccurate, in many devious. But its symbolic language doesn’t lie. Kipling would have been four or five at the time his Portuguese ayah and Hindu ‘bearer’ took him and his little sister Alice to the fruit market. The child lives in Paradise, marked not by the English language and English customs, but by the languages and customs of India in all their uncontrollable variety. (Kipling’s opening invocation in Something of Myself is to “Allah the Dispenser of Events.”) The child is open, curious, unconstrained. “Our ayah was a Portuguese Roman Catholic who would pray—I beside her—at a wayside Cross. Meeta, my Hindu bearer, would sometimes go into little Hindu temples where, being below the age of caste, I held his hand and looked at the dimly-seen, friendly Gods. . . . There were far-going Arab dhows on the pearly waters, and gaily dressed Parsees wading out to worship the sunset.” (The Parsee, “from whose hat the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour,” will return in the Just-So Stories, scattering vengeful cake-crumbs in the Rhinoceros’s skin. Kipling forgot nothing.) By contrast the regimen of the Anglo-Indian family is stiff and formal. “In the afternoon heats before we took our sleep, she [the ayah] or Meeta would tell us stories and Indian nursery songs all unforgotten, and we were sent into the dining-room after we had been dressed, with the caution ‘Speak English now to Papa and Mamma.’ So one spoke ‘English,’ haltingly, translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in.”

It doesn’t matter whether this ‘really happened’ or whether Kipling’s early childhood was “really like that.” Biography (which Kipling came to refer to as the “Higher Cannibalism”) has to take account of myth. Kipling is offering us this gift, giving himself away in the only way he knows, that of art. Paradise is light and colour, freedom from narrow-mindedness, and the stories and songs of India, “all unforgotten.” What followed? Exile in England: six years in the “House of Desolation,” the boarding-house in Southsea where his parents inexplicably abandoned him, at the age of five, with his three-year-old sister, for six long years. But that, as Kipling said in one of the most famous of his many catchphrases, is another story.

View of a temple from a window, a sight familiar to Kipling in his early years. Image Creative Commons licence via Pixabay.
View of a temple from a window, a sight familiar to Kipling in his early years. Image by Paul McGowan, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Our evening walks were by the sea in the shadow of palm-groves which, I think, were called the Mahim Woods. When the wind blew the great nuts would tumble, and we fled–my ayah, and my sister in her perambulator–to the safety of the open. I have always felt the menacing darkness of tropical eventides, as I have loved the voices of night-winds through palm or banana leaves, and the song of the tree-frogs.

There were far-going Arab dhows on the pearly waters, and gaily dressed Parsees wading out to worship the sunset. Of their creed I knew nothing, nor did I know that near our little house on the Bombay Esplanade were the Towers of Silence, where their Dead are exposed to the waiting vultures on the rim of the towers, who scuffle and spread wings when they see the bearers of the Dead below. I did not understand my Mother’s distress when she found ‘a child’s hand’ in our garden, and said I was not to ask questions about it. I wanted to see that child’s hand. But my ayah told me.

In the afternoon heats before we took our sleep, she or Meeta would tell us stories and Indian nursery songs all unforgotten, and we were sent into the dining-room after we had been dressed, with the caution ‘Speak English now to Papa and Mamma.’ So one spoke ‘English,’ haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in.

– Extracts from Something of Myself (1937)

Image Credit: Feature Image Taj Mahal, Creative Commons licence via Pixabay

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