Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rudyard Kipling in Retrospect:

Schools should study Rudyard Kipling more, especially when covering British literature. Neil Gaiman mentions that the original Jungle Book influenced The Graveyard Book strongly, and even Robin McKinley has her title character from Beauty reading Kim in a library with books that haven't been written yet. No mention that Rudyard Kipling wrote about India with affection from the perspective of an English imperialist, yet he was a great writer of his time. Raised in what he considered the mother country, he nevertheless soon came to live in both England and the United States for short periods of time.

What I admire

His courage- Kipling knew he wanted to be a writer when he graduated from school. His family encouraged him, and he took on as many journalist opportunities as possible to support himself while working on his book. He was quite willing to live on a few pennies a day and risk bankruptcy. Even after he was published, Kipling wrote what he wanted despite the criticism he received; he believed in himself, whether writing a propaganda piece for an unpopular war or a series of schoolboy adventures.

His view of human nature- Kipling's best works are when he shows people as people, faults and all. In his autobiography he includes a short story based on abuses he had suffered as a child, which immunized him for life from suffering. This is also prominent in The Jungle Book and in fact the reason I couldn't read the story as a child. I grew up on the Disney version where the tiger didn't get his own back until the end- and in the first chapter of the Jungle Book Shere Khan convinces the wolves to kick Mowgli out of the pack. Harsh indeed, and harsher when Mowgli learns to become a man in the local village and gets kicked out on charges of sorcery. The story nails human nature at its worst; never fear, though, because Kipling also captures human behavior at its best when talking of Mowgli's human mother and how she eventually helps him return to mankind (seen in The Second Jungle Book).

What I Dislike

Kipling's Benevolent Portrayal of Englishmen in Comparison to Indians. This happens a lot; remember how I mentioned that Kipling nailed human nature? In The Jungle Book, he applies the good and the bad to every human and animal except the off screen Englishmen. The off screen Englishmen are honorable gents who would never tolerate an angry mob when facing a feral child. I mean, seriously; consider the English witch hunts and immigration into the New World.

Using the "n" word to describe an Indian- Happens in Kim with a British soldier describing the Indians they're ruling over; at that point I stopped reading the book. Once again, seriously? If Mark Twain cannot use the "n" word as a non-offensive common way to describe black men, then neither can Kipling. That is fairness.

Authors are people and are thus complex. You cannot simply label them as good or bad because they use racist terms or come from imperialistic perspectives. You cannot thus censor their books out of context, although the idea is tempting. Was Rudyard Kipling more racist than Mark Twain? Yes, because of his attitude about native Indians and applying the worst of human nature to them. I am prejudiced because I am Indian and feel that these are personal attacks, but I can also admire an author who knew what he wanted and did all he could to get it in the world of literature.

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