Kipling on Madras

Rudyard Kipling, courtesy Wikipedia

I have for some reason never liked Rudyard Kipling. His father, Lockwood, who designed some of the finer aspects of some of Bombay’s Gothic edifices, was a different matter altogether. As for the son, there is such an air of insufferable superiority about the British race in his poems that I shudder to think of how, for so many years they remained a part of school curriculum in India! We also suffered his ghastly stories.

Anyway, A Song of the English is one of those egregious works of his, worse than his ordinary output, which chooses to portray the English conquest of the world as a matter of duty (Oh for God’s sake) and how they had to bear the White Man’s Burden at great sacrifice (no profit sir, no not at all). There are seven sections to it, the first being A Song of the English. Then follow six more –

The Coastwise Lights

The Song of the Dead

The Deep Sea Cables

The Song of the Sons

The Song of the Cities

England’s Answer

There is a free download of this compilation in Project Gutenberg.

The Song of the Cities is a set of verses, each dedicated to one city of the Empire. It has in the order of stanzas Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Rangoon, Singapore, Hong Kong, Halifax, Quebec and Montreal, Victoria, Capetown, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart and Auckland.

The verse on Madras reads as follows –

Clive kissed me on the mouth and eyes and brow,
Wonderful kisses, so that I became
Crowned above Queens—a withered beldame now,
Brooding on ancient fame.

Every Anglophile has subsequently quoted this.

I really don’t see how Clive could have made love to any Indian city. Molestation would have been the best description of anything he did. Anyway, that is beside the point. Kipling left India in the late 1880s and settled in the US sometime in 1893 or so. That is when he wrote this verse. He had obviously not seen much of the change wrought in Chennai’s fortunes by the construction of the harbour and so his view was outdated even when written. And yet it remains the most quoted verse on the city, a 130 years later.

Back then, the city was a withered beldame, chiefly because of imperial policies. Calcutta was the favoured capital – second city of the Empire, Bombay was where all the money was and therefore Urbs Prima in Indis. Madras was as Charles Boyson said, the Cinderella. The city was denied funds for development and even a raging famine in the 1880s did not move the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, to provide any financial package. Any proposal to build a harbour here was blocked by Bombay, Calcutta and more importantly Colombo. It was only a recession in the British steel industry that prompted work on a port here (see Madras gets a port) and even then it took ages. That Chennai survived all that was a miracle. And yes, it did well too – post harbour construction and during the Second World War, after which it never looked back. So if the city was not up to Kipling’s expectations, his cronies in the Government were chiefly responsible for it.

Personally, I would agree with George Orwell’s assessment of Kipling – he was morally insensitive and aesthetically displeasing. This verse is a clear indicator of that – no rhyme or metre.

This article is part of a series on poetry on Chennai. You can read the earlier episodes here