Fill the unforgiving minute

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.

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18 responses to “Fill the unforgiving minute

  1. Beautifully written, just as I expected. I am so glad to know this story so far

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  2. Thank you Glen, much appreciated.

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  3. I want to write, ‘I understand,’ but that would be presumptuous, so I will say that I understand why you don’t like Kipling, but I have no idea what it is like to belong to a race who has been mistreated.

    Beautifully written, as always.
    With love. xx

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  4. Powerful. Thank you for sharing

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  5. A beautiful and thought-provoking piece. x

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  6. Yes! So beautifully written Rashida, moving, and profound…”the power of the written and spoken word. How and when we are named and un-named”…this deeply resonates…

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  7. That image of your grandfather and you and the pain of that conversation are so deeply evocative. The precision and sensitivity of your writing is something I admire very much. The world needs to hear more from you Rashida Murphy.

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  8. I can’t add much more than has already been said in the comments above. Your post is both eloquent and forceful. I cannot claim a proper understanding either, but your piece has certainly ‘registered’, as we say.

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  9. Such a thought-provoking piece, Rashida, beautifully expressed. It reminds me of my father who after his last tour as an RAF ‘Pathfinder’, went to fly ‘transport’ in India and Burma until the end of the war. One of his favourite sayings was ‘You’re a better man than I, Gunga Din’. Although I heard it often, I never really understood what he meant until now, in context with the research my hubby has conducted. Thank you.

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    • Thanks, Sue. I, too, have heard that ‘you’re a better man’ phrase several times and I guess, during colonial times and the men who had lived through those times, it was acceptable to view the world in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and not intuit how the same thing can be casual and racist at the same time for different people.

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      • He was never a ‘them’ and ‘us’ person. No, your piece made me read the poem again, in context. Now I understand lots of other things my dad referred to about Indian. I know he had a great affection for those he lived and worked with – whoever they were and it was never dependent on the colour of their skin. They put their lives in each other’s hands – skin colour didn’t come into it. Respect did.

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    • Ah, different experiences … the poem specifically and Kipling in particular remind me of my grandfather and the insults that men of his generation tolerated. I accept that this is a particular view and does not in any way disrespect what right-thinking colonial men did in the colonies.

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