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Joseph Rudyard Kipling (30 December 1865 – 18 January 1936)

A series on 20th Century Classics that has concentrated on writers on the colonies would clearly be lacking if it omitted Rudyard Kipling. He was the first British writer who made his name by writing about India, and is still I think one of the most instructive. Of course he began writing in the 19th century, and had in fact long left India behind as a subject by the time the last century began. Still, he continues to be known best for his Indian writings, the short story collection ‘Plain Tales from the Hills ‘, with which he made his name, ‘The Jungle Book’, the strangely wistful poetry, notably ‘The Road to Mandalay’ and ‘Gunga Din’, and of course his masterpiece, ‘Kim’.  

Understandably enough, given the time at which he wrote, he was not an analyst of the colonial experience, as Forster and Scott were, or Joyce Cary for Africa, whom I had hastily to read up when I was asked to teach a course on Colonial Literature when I began working at Peradeniya. The contrast between the presentation of the two situations made clear what Scott enunciated so forcefully, when he talked of the long embrace between India and Britain ‘an imperial embrace of such long standing and subtlety it was no longer possible for them to know whether they hated or loved one another, or what it was that held them together and seemed to have confused the image of their separate destinies.

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E M Forster in Indian dress, 1921

Perhaps the most unusual of the British writers who achieved classic status in the 20th century was E M Forster. He published no fiction between 1924, when ‘A Passage to India’ came out, and his death in 1970. Yet his reputation continued to grow, and it did not suffer when one of the principal reasons for his long silence became public after his death, with the publication of what he had in fact written in the interim, namely a novel and several stories with homosexual theme.

This was followed by virtual canonization, with the release of several films that were the high water mark of British nostalgia about its imperial past. The film of ‘Passage’, with a splendid portrayal by Peggy Ashcroft of its strange old heroine Mrs Moore (and a preposterous caricature by Alec Guinness of Prof Godbole, Forster’s own bizarre interpretation of spiritual India) joined the television serial based on Scott’s Raj Quartet (called with no sense of Scott’s sense of irony ‘The Jewel in the Crown’) and ‘Gandhi’ as essays in romantic nostalgia.

True, they all portrayed ugly aspects of empire, the bloodshed of partition, the patronizing insensitivity of several representatives of the Raj, but all this was secondary to a sense that really the vast majority of the British were pretty good chaps, even if it was only the women (Peggy Ashcroft again superb as the sympathetic missionary Barbie Batchelor in ‘The Jewel’) who could express what they really felt. What they suffered from their countrymen when they did this was sanitized out of the picture.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2010
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