THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN
Losing our heads to Kipling?
Fine words strung together in praise of the morally indefensible: that was Kipling every time, and the sonorous cadences of “If”, alas, are no exception.
Faithful readers — and I know I have a few — are aware that I have had a few unkind things to say about Rudyard Kipling over the years, in this space and elsewhere. But there was one work of his I was very fond of when young — and n
o, I’m not referring to his precious Jungle Book, with little (white) Mowgli surrounded by all the menacing (sub-human) animals of the Indian jungle. The words of Kipling’s that I most admired, and often recited, were those of his poem “If”:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master,
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools...
And so on it went, but these were the lines that rang resonant in my impressionable mind, especially the bit about Triumph and Disaster. The poem seemed to me to speak immortal truths that all individuals of conviction had to live by: the need to stand up for what you believe in even if your ideas are scorned, your motives suspected, your performance distorted; the need to persist doggedly on the right path despite the hecklers and naysayers around you; the need, above all, to have faith in yourself and not be swayed by either pressure or pleasure. Of course the poem weakened somewhat in its second half, with the lines “If you can make one heap of all your winnings/ And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss”, an exhortation to gamble that I thought irresponsible even in my teenage years, and the nakedly sexist imperialism of the closing lines, “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, /And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” But on the whole, I said to myself, Kipling may have been a racist thug who suffered from bipolar disorder and opium addiction, but he certainly had a way with words, and the words in this poem were not only inspirational, they were rhythmically recitable — and they rhymed pretty well too.
Well, all of us grow up, and in time I too outgrew my lingering respect for Kipling as anything but a wordsmith — a craftsman of high talent without a soul. So it might have passed — with all due contumely for the inventor of the notorious phrase “the white man’s burden” and the equally racist assertion that East and West could never meet. But when I recently discovered that Indian schoolchildren of my acquaintance were still reciting “If” in elocution contests and learning it by heart for literature courses, I felt I had to raise my voice in protest. Because, in celebrating Kipling’s poem, we are not merely celebrating a benighted imperialist — we are unconsciously paying homage to a specific incident in the nasty annals of imperialism.
For “If” was written for a purpose, and the purpose was to honour Kipling’s friend Leander Jameson, one of Africa’s nastier colonists in the service of Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. Jameson had won fame for a military misadventure baptised by the British media as “Jameson’s Raid” — an assault in 1895 on the elected Boer government of South Africa, which he hoped to overthrow and replace with a more congenial alternative — congenial, that is, to British imperialism. Jameson and his raiders were soundly thrashed and widely pilloried even by many Englishmen; many historians consider that his attack began the unfortunate cycle of events that was to lead to the outbreak of the Second Boer War. The government in London, which historians believe to have been behind the raid, cynically disowned Jameson and his men and even put him in jail for his pains, much to the outrage of Kipling and his fellow jingoists. The poet wrote “If” in response, to urge Jameson to ignore his detractors and persecutors.
So what many see as an inspirational poem full of stirring aphorisms for young people to live by is in fact little more than an apologia for an imperialist misdeed. In that, “If” is little different from the Kiplingesque effort by Britons in India two decades later to raise funds in support of Brigadier Dyer, the butcher of Jallianwallah Bagh. Fine words strung together in praise of the morally indefensible: that was Kipling every time, and the sonorous cadences of “If”, alas, are no exception. It is time to retire this poem from our curriculums. It is time to relegate Kipling to the darkest recesses of our history, where he and his ilk belong. And then perhaps we can offer new closing lines to our fellow citizens who spurn Kipling: “Yours is the land and everything that’s in it, /And – which is more – you’ll be an Indian, my son!”
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