It’s been a while since I read Rudyard Kipling – more than forty years, I think. Yet the music of poetry ensures that I can, to this day, recite an entire poem about keeping my head when all about me are losing theirs, without missing a beat. Whether I can fill the unforgiving minute remains to be seen. My relationship with other Kipling poems and stories, notably Gunga Din, is more complicated. It might have something to do with having a preference for R.K Narayan instead of R Kipling when I was younger. Or it may have something to do with the elderly gent who quoted Gunga Din at me in a Perth bookshop a long time ago and expected applause or at the very least, gratitude.
Or again, it might have something to do with my grandfather.
He takes me for a walk every morning before school. I am probably six years old, because he dies the year I turn seven. He wears a top hat and carries a walking stick. There is a fob watch chained to a striped waistcoat. We stop by a bench outside the local park. He sits down. ‘There was a sign here,’ he says, ‘before you were born. It was painted on. It said – no Indians and dogs beyond this point.’ He scratches his goatee and ruffles my hair. ‘They used to call us Gunga Din. We had to call them Sahib. Do they teach you Gunga Din in your school?’ I shake my head. I have no idea why he cries and I wonder who Gunga Din is.
It is much later that I discover the power of the written and spoken word. How and when we are named and un-named. When our names are considered too much trouble to be pronounced correctly, or at all. When our children can’t wait to shed our ethnicity and our language so they won’t stand out, like we do. When we are told our food or clothing or skin is exotic, and we don’t know how to react. Because our understanding of the word exotic has something to do with dancing, and not in a good way. When we read the masters who write the classics, we discover more words that describe people like our grandfather. Words like disorderly and native and mutinous and confused. We learn that civilisation comes at a cost and the price our fathers and mothers had to pay was their freedom. We are told we don’t know what to do with freedom anyway – look at the anarchy, the violence, the chaos in our motherland. At least there was order in the Empire along with roads and railways. And we mustn’t mind the Kiplings and the Forsters and the descriptions of our men as dangerous and lustful and our women as weak and mute. After all, isn’t it ironical that we resist them in their language?
And so we adjust to dreaming in a single language and smiling when English relatives remind us to visit Kipling’s house when we are next in Sussex.