(notes edited by John Radcliffe; these are partly new and partly based on the ORG notes edited by Reginald Harbord)
|notes on the text|
My dear Storey, Sorry I can't find a better edition of the following yarn. The Ganges is the Sutlej and Kashi is Ferozepur—the Bridge is now called the Kaisarin i Hind and Amyas Morse has just put in a paper before the Inst. C. E. about its protective works.—The tale is a farrago of bridge-building stories told to R. K. at various times. Hitchcock was an Asst. Engr. called L. G. Prickett who died of cholera in Calcutta and Findlayson is your old friend J.R.B. 23. 4. 03.
During his Indian time the imposing Dufferin (called since 1948 the Pandit Malviya) Bridge was constructed to take the Grand Trunk Road across the Ganges within sight of the temples of the burning ghats. He reported on its building for the Civil and Military Gazette in 1887, the year that it was opened. But the ceremony had been delayed because the bridge had been damaged by flood. In my own experience, the spectacle of the ghat cremations in its juxtaposition of noisy bazaar and silent river, in its vivid colours besides the draining sunshine and heat, and its constant human movement beside the stillness of the dead, heightens the intensity of all one's sense-impressions.Philip Mason (pp.141-2), who worked as an administrator in British India in the best years of his working life, notes:
The bridge is the symbol of modern progress, science and technology; it has been built up at the cost of many lives, much toil and agony of spirit. But all that effort is only dirt digging in the dirt. None the less, the bridge is still standing, when we come back to the workaday world, and it joins the present to the past ... But while Kipling was always on the edge of an awareness of the infinite, there was never any true conflict in his mind about this; he was a Son of Martha, and like Findlayson concerned with stone and concrete, and the strength of good workmanlike building ...J M S Tompkins (p. 192) notes the contrast between the impressive achievement of the nearly completed bridge, and the threat posed by the vast forces of nature:
"The Bridge Builders" puts a question-mark against the whole idea of human effort, displaying its tininess and futility. Men scurrying about like ants busy themselves on things of desperate importance, but they are nothing in the face of eternity. Yet - the message goes - morning will come and the bright sun and we must again be scurrying about our important business.
It is at this point, at what should be the triumph of Findlayson's labours, that they are reduced to nothing by progressive changes of scale. Indra chides the impatience of Mother Gunga:And Jan Montefiore (pp. 62-63), in her chapter on "The Day's Work" stresses that Kipling does not, in fact, let the forces of Ancient Night win out:
`The deep sea was where she runs but yesterday, and tomorrow the sea shall cover her again as the Gods count that which men call time. Can any say that this their bridge endures till tomorrow?'
Ganesh adds: `It is but the shifting of a little dirt.... Let the dirt dig in the dirt ere it return to the dirt.' This chilling vision contracts again, from a geological to a historical scale, when Krishna, who lives with men, tells the other gods that, through the building of bridges and such works as the men from over the water do, the flame will die on their altars, and they will be as they were in the beginning, 'rag-Gods, pot Godlings of the tree, and the village-mark'. But, when they appeal to Indra, they get an answer that dissolves time and place and mass into insubstantiality. They and all things, even Heaven and Hell, are the dream of Brahm.
The bridge survives, Findlayson forgets the whole thing ... and he and Peroo are taken off to safety in a local Rajah's up-to-date steam-launch. Moreover, when Peroo, the most intelligent person in the story, realizes that in daylight the terrible Gods mean nothing to Findlayson, he concludes that they can exist only because men dream them: 'Then it is true. When Brahm ceases to dream, the Gods go' (page 44).See also KJ 92, KJ 100, KJ 247, KJ 238.
Not only the Ganges, but the gap of belief between Englishman and Indian has been bridged by English technology: Peroo the Indian sheds his superstition to enter Findlayson's own realm of materialism and technological mastery, and we last see him taking possession of the launch's steering-wheel and, in imagination, flogging the guru whose service he has outgrown. The dream of the divinities, whose vision reduced humanity to insignificance, has revealed itself as just that - a dream that is itself reduced to insignificance by the daylight reality of skill and labour. As Zohreh T Sullivan says:
... the irony is clear; the gods exist as long as Findlayson remains in his opium dream. And the colonialists exist as long as the natives remain asleep. Rationality, consciousness, enlightenment will gradually awaken the dreamers, and then the gods will die.And yet these ironies do not still the question asked by Indra, the highest of the Gods: 'Can any say that this their bridge endures till tomorrow?' The story suggests that the real reason why men must attend to their duties is to avert their minds from an unimaginable eternity in which nothing they do can matter. The final significance of work seems to be for Kipling, as for Conrad's Marlow in Heart of Darkness, that it offers an escape from the nothingness of the night when no man can work, neither the colonial officer nor the native subaltern.