The Long Recessional
Kipling regarded the Indian treatment of women as the main obstacle to closer relations between the natives and their rulers, for how could the British understand India when they were unable to see through the purdah and the latticed windows to that half of the population living beyond them? Yet he also considered the situation of women, chained by custom and domestic tyranny while their men demanded Western freedoms for themselves, as responsible for the worst social evils of the Subcontinent. His 'pet subjects,' he told his former schoolmaster Crofts, were infant marriage and enforced widowhood. The partiality of elderly Brahmins for child-brides led naturally to a proliferation of young widows who, neglected by their families and prevented from remarrying, were often forced into prostitution. Claiming an 'extensive and peculiar' experience of this problem, he estimated that the widows became prostitutes in seventy-five cases out of a hundred.
One instance of male tyranny particularly enraged him. An articulate and educated Hindu woman called Rukhmabai refused to live with her husband Dadaji, an indolent and dissipated individual to whom she had been married at the age of 11. She had remained, however, in her mother's house, experiencing a growing aversion to her husband and a determination never to live with him. At the age of 22, when Dadaji went to court to obtain his conjugal rights, she defended her case by claiming that he was diseased, impecunious and immoral. But Rukhmabai was not merely interested in justice for herself. As she showed in two letters published pseudonymously in The Times of India, she was determined to make her case a matter of principle, to become if necessary a martyr for the cause of Hindu women, hoping by example to improve the wretched existence imposed on them by infant marriage, drudgery, compulsory widowhood and lack of education.
The judge in the Bombay High Court, Justice Pinhey, found in favour of Rukhmabai, declaring that it would be a 'barbarous,' 'cruel,' and 'revolting' thing to compel her to live with Dadaji who, he added, should not have attempted 'to recover her person, as if she had been a horse or a bullock.' A few months later, in April 1886, the verdict was overturned, the Court of Appeal deciding that, according to Hindu law, Rukhmabai was obliged to reside with her husband. The following year, when another judge ordered her to go to Dadaji's house, Rukhmabai declared that she would prefer to suffer the maximum legal penalty, six months in prison.
The case caused uproar in the Indian and Anglo-Indian press. While Hindu traditionalists feared that Pinhey's verdict was an attack on their culture and presaged an upset of their social order, British journalists tended to use it as a way of demonstrating the moral superiority of their national values. The British had previously been reluctant to interfere with native practices, making exceptions only where those practices, such as suttee (widow-burning) and female infanticide, were a form of murder. Kipling usually supported that reluctance, but on the sufferings of Indian women he refused to compromise. After learning the verdict on Rukhmabai's appeal case, he wrote a strong editorial article for the Gazette condemning the 'utter rottenness' of Hindu law and declaring that the society which tolerated its 'cowardly cruelty' placed itself 'below all civilisations.' When Rukhmabai was sentenced to prison for refusing to join her husband, he demanded reform of the Hindu marriage laws, arguing that the Hindu millions would be grateful to any power that struck a blow at the 'ghastly tyranny' of the Brahmins and regretting that the Government was 'unreasonably frightened by a portentous Hindu bogy, which only needs to be faced with steadfastness to collapse and shrink into nothingness.'
In January 1887, in the middle of the saga of Rukhmabai, Kipling observed in the Gazette that, although the British had educated 'Young India' a good deal, 'we have not yet educated him up to the level of recognising his wife as his equal.' The occasion was an article in support of Lady Dufferin's Fund which had been set up to provide medical aid (supplied mainly by female doctors from England) to Indian women who were denied access to male doctors and consequently suffered appalling levels of mortality during childbirth. Three weeks later, after the foundation stone had been laid for a women's hospital in Lahore, he published 'For the Women,' simultaneously a bitter attack on Hindu men, 'Servants of the Cow,' and a plea that they, beneficiaries of the West in so many ways, should allow their women to enjoy the benefit of medical aid. After describing the 'foul horrors' of childbirth, and the dirt, danger and superstition attending it, he made his entreaty:
Help here—and not for us the boon and not to us the gain;The following year, on Lady Dufferin's departure from India, a group of Bengali women sent her a farewell message of gratitude that Kipling transformed into 'The Song of the Women,' a mawkish though powerful poem about the blessings her work had started to bring. But his most incisive comments on the issue of Indian women appeared in an article deriding the 'very pitiful' judgement of the Indian Mirror, a native paper in English, on the case of Rukhmabai:
Make room to save the babe from death, the mother from her pain.
Is it so great a thing we ask? Is there no road to find
When women of our people seek to help your womankind?
No word to sap their faith, no talk of Christ or creed need be,
But woman's help in woman's need and woman's ministry.
Such healing as the West can give, that healing may they win.
Draw back the purdah for their sakes, and pass our women in!
'Anomalies, however outrageous, must be for a time tolerated, if only for the sake of social traditions which are after all the backbone of a nation.' And so the article runs on, showing behind every line of fluent English, the bound and crippled spirit of the ultra-orthodox Hindu, very careful that the 'sacredness' of the marriage tie shall shackle women only. Then our contemporary, having done its duty, launches into its usual clamour for 'representative institutions', its proofs that the Hindu is intellectually equal to the Englishman, and the supreme necessity of giving salaried appointments to the Bengali. It is time that this double-faced policy were abandoned. A class cannot claim all the advantages of Western civilization, and avoid all the responsibilities which that civilization entails, on the plea that it is a very venerable race, highly sensitive, and bound hand and foot by the traditions of the priests. English instinct revolts at this; recognising the race that babbles of High University Education one moment, and the sacredness of wedding babes to babes at the next, as a hybrid, and therefore a lower people. Honest paganism, naked and unashamed before the sun, men can understand and respect; but the shifty, crafty composite creed that cries:—'Are we not all brothers, and are not my women-folk cattle as the law directs?' is worthy of nothing but scorn. For his own sake, if ever he wishes to be taken seriously, the 'enlightened' native must look to it that the progress he is so proud of reaches his family, and is not merely a weapon to use in the struggle for appointments.Kipling's other 'pet subject' was sanitation in the cities. Indians, he told readers of the Gazette, were 'undeveloped on the sanitary side, children in their inability to understand the dangers of dirt, and fatalists in their apathetic indifference to those dangers.' The old city of Lahore, he believed (until he saw Calcutta), was as filthy as any place could be, and its municipality, composed exclusively of native members, was a slothful, negligent, stupid and 'irreclaimably perverse body' of men. Its equivalent in Calcutta was no more distinguished, boasting that its city was a metropolis when in fact it was a midden crying out for a bucket and broom. The appointment of a British health officer to the city in 1886 provoked outrage in the Indian press which argued that a native should have been selected for the post. Kipling was brusquely dismissive of the fuss. 'Sympathy with native wants etc' was a 'pretty sentiment,' but in sanitary matters it was a dangerous delusion. It might be a 'great and desirable virtue' to sympathize with the 'teeming millions,' but the less an Englishman sympathized with their views on sanitation, 'the better it is for the "teeming millions." They live longer.'
He returned often to the subject, urging municipalities to spend more money on sanitation and less on education. A single 'decent primer on Sanitary Engineering and sewage disposal,' he said privately, would be worth more than 'all the tomes of sacred smut ever produced.' But he never expected the municipalities to instigate the improvements themselves: indeed they were so lazy and incompetent that he hoped, one day in the distant future, that their 'futile bickerings' would be replaced by a 'large and enlightened city despotism.' Educated Indians, especially Bengalis, irritated him by proclaiming their readiness for self-rule while appealing to the Government for help on 'every conceivable trifle' and demonstrating their inability to 'perform the simplest duties of corporate life.' He was convinced that Indians needed—and would continue for a long time to need—British supervision; as soon as that disappeared, 'the old, old, racial ineptitude' would reassert itself. In troubled times the 'childish pride,' the 'slackness of brain' and the love of authority for its own sake would give way to 'dazed bewilderment.' At moments he came close to suggesting that Indians were congenitally useless and inferior. The theory (which he did not truly hold) would at least have explained the fact that three decades of peace and British effort had bred no artists or engineers, or that 'of all the disabilities under which the land lay, not one had been lifted by its own endeavours.' But it never seems to have occurred to him that permanent subordinates treated as perpetual children are unlikely to develop qualities of leadership and initiative.
Kipling associated indigenous shortcomings with the Indians he least liked: Bengalis, of whom there were 69 million in 1881; well educated natives, estimated at about 50,000 at this time; and the 73 founding delegates of the Indian National Congress, who held their inaugural conference in 1885. But he knew hardly anyone belonging to these groups; he seldom met middle-class Indians even in Lahore. Mistrust of Bengali babus was of course an old British tradition. Viceroys in India and secretaries of state in Whitehall alternated dismissive comments about their loquacity with anxieties that the encouragement of native ambitions might lead to 'the supremacy of Baboodom.' On the ground district officers regarded them as 'the curse of the country,' compared them to snakes and Pharisees, and wished they were dealing with more manly peoples such as Sikhs, Rajputs and Pathans. Among the most senior British figures in India at that time, only Ripon seems to have realized that the future governing elite would come not from the princely families but from the growing, Bengali-dominated class of educated natives.
Contempt for babus was one of the few Anglo-Indian prejudices that Kipling adopted without examination. Long before he visited Bengal he mocked them in the pages of the Gazette as smooth, seditious, garrulous and ineffectual: to the 'obstinacy of men,' they added the 'unreasoning petulance of small children, always morbidly afraid that someone is laughing at them.' When he finally saw them in their own province 'among ledgers,' he admitted they made excellent accountants—and that was what they should remain. In crises they were useless, running to the British for help or running away altogether. Their problem, according to Kipling, was their hybrid nature, an unsuccessful product of superficial Western education grafted on to the obscurantism of the Subcontinent. This type of grafting had been precisely the objective of earlier British administrators such as Lord William Bentinck and Thomas Babington Macaulay. Kipling disagreed with it entirely. Indians should study subjects useful for their country and themselves, not alien writers such as Wbrdsworth; they should remain Indians rather than become brown Englishmen.