Anglo-Indian Society

by Rudyard Kipling
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First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 29 January 1887

Background
Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, pp. 73-4

Since this is written in imitation of what a tourist might be imagined as writing about India, it cannot be taken as Kipling speaking in his own voice. But as with other writers who have used the traveller from afar as a way to secure a hearing for their own ideas, Kipling has probably put a good many of his own convictions and observations into this commentary on the Indian scene. Which parts are testimony, and which parts are dramatic imitation, the reader may determine for himself. [T.P.]




The birds of passage who annually flutter through India in the cold season, look about them a good deal during their short stay. Many of the wanderers will, perhaps, try to write books about what they have seen. Meantine, as a specimen of the sort of notes they are collecting, we are able to publish a few extracts on India generally, and Anglo-India in particular, from the home letters of one tourist who lately spent a few months in India, but who is now beyond the reach of vengeance. The matter may be interesting, as showing, in some measure, ourselves as others see us: —

Extract from a letter
You believe that Anglo-Indians are domineering and arrogant in their habits. So do — or rather so did — I. What I had read in the Anglo-vernacular newspapers — and you know I used to be a careful student of them — certainly prejudiced me against the men with whom I am staying. I fancied that, though the complaints were exaggerated, there must be a solid foundation of brutality to account for them. You may imagine, of course, that I looked out keenly for anything of the kind among my hosts, especially in regard to their servants, about whom I have heard so much. So far as I was able to judge, my first notions were altogether wrong.

Every Anglo-Indian house is, as you know, full of servants, but the amount of work exacted from each is very little indeed. In one household of three people, something like £100 is paid yearly for service only, out of an income of perhaps £900 a year. But to return. The relations between master and servant are peculiar, and closer, it seems to me, than with us in England. A man who has been five years or so in India, has generally gathered round him a little knot of dependents and their families, and never thinks of changing them, or they of leaving him. They come to him as a matter of course for medicines when they are ill, and in many cases he is the arbiter in their disputes — as I have seen. He knows, more or less, about the state of their families and the ailments of their children, and, I think, interests himself in their welfare. In one instance the wife of one of my host’s table-servants was seriously ill, but the husband objected to taking her to the hospital, which I was told was the only chance of saving her life. My host delivered himself of a string of abuse in the vernacular, and then and there, threatened his servant with a sound thrashing and instant dismissal, without payment, if the woman was not at once taken over. The threat told, and the woman was eventually cured. What seemed to irritate my host most, was his servant’s pretension to caste prejudice. ‘The man’ he told me ‘is a low-caste Mahommedan — I knew his father before him. The idea of his swaggering about his caste!’ According to my host, the man would sooner have let his wife die, to gratify his vanity in keeping the women of his house — such a house, a mud hovel, with a little screen of rags and bamboos in front! — than allow her face to be seen. Curiously enough, my host admitted frankly, that had the man been a high caste man, he would not have done anything in the matter. This I own I cannot understand; for where a human life was involved, I should have felt justified in forcing my way into any zenana (women's quarters) or whatever they call it, with a doctor. Their acceptance of caste scruples is one of the most striking things about Anglo-Indians. I confess that the refusal of a native — Hindus I think have this prejudice — to take away an empty plate, would make me very savage. But as the case above shows, Anglo-Indians of any experience resent at once any attempt to establish caste scruples where the position of the man does not entitle him to it.

There is no society in India as we understand the word. There are no books, no pictures, no conversations worth listening to for recreation’s sake. Every man is in some service or other, has a hard day’s work to do, and has very little inclination to talk or to do anything but sleep at the end of it. The officers of the many regiments are the only people who seem to have any leisure; and it is mainly to them that any little social festivity is due. They organise the races, dances, balls and picnics, and seem to manage most of the flirtation in the country. Nothing can exceed the hospitality and kindness either of a Mess or any officer of one. It is curious to think how little we in England see or know of our army. In India they are one of the most prominent features of the social landscape. I owe them many kindnesses.

Indeed, throughout my tour I have been everywhere received with frank and cordial hospitality. Armed with a few letters of introduction, I travelled from one end of the country to the other; men taking it as a matter of course that I should stay at their houses — never asking me at all, but simply directing that my baggage should be put down in such and such a room. All the same, though I was in their life, I felt that I was in no way of it. Every one seemed so busy. I got quite accustomed to the announcement the morning after my arrival: — ‘Well, Mr — , I must hand you over to the care of my wife, I’ve got to go to office.’ And to office at ten my host went; returning at five or half past, tired and jaded. It seemed almost an impertinence that an idler for the time being should intrude himself on so workful a life. The strain even in the cold weather must be severe. In the hot weather it must be heart breaking. Men age very rapidly in India, and I have seen young men of even five and six and twenty wrinkled, and grey on the temples. Looking down a dinner table, it is curious to notice the decisiveness and look of energy in the faces of the men — especially the younger ones. In England there is a certain flat uniformity of unformedness about our young men that covers them all. The older men invariably talk of their own work or pay or prospects when two or three gather together; and the young men, if in the army, talk of their horses. In a country where every Englishman owns at least one horse, this is natural but monotonous. No one talks lightly and amusingly as in England. Every one works and talks and thinks about his work, it must be a ghastly existence, when the brain and body both begin to tire with the approach of old age. Very few Englishmen in India seem at all contented, though they are enthusiastic enough about their work — always their work; though, to do them justice, they don’t talk about it with a capital W.

You know the sailor’s answer to the Gospel Reader’s question as to whether he liked his profession? The man looked at the deck, looked at the masts, and then into the hold — lastly at his scarred hands and said: — ‘Like it! D n it, I have to like it’. This somehow seems to be the mental attitude of many Anglo-Indians. They have to like their work, and they do it well; but, according to their own account, it must be hopeless enough, with no prospect to brighten it beyond that which power and authority confers. And power and authority are not everything. The curious clinging dependence of the native on the Anglo-Indians is very striking. Everything that has to be done must be supervised and pushed along by an Englishman; or the ‘labour is naught’. For instance, directions which an English carpenter, tailor, smith or builder would grasp at once, have to be repeated again and again before natives can understand their purport; and throughout the whole progress of the job the puzzle-headed man comes a dozen times at least to his employer for help and explanation. You know my weakness for machinery in any form, as the highest concrete expression of man’s intelligence. Natives — here I can speak authoritatively from what I have seen — have no conception of the proper care of the machinery.

This seems beyond their scope altogether. I have seen engines running under charge of native drivers, which, according to English notions, should never have left the cleaning-shed, and which bore in every part of them, from the axle-boxes upwards, marks of gross mismanagement and neglect. An English driver or fireman, who dared to run his charge in such a condition — but no driver would, so my indignation is wasted. The stories I have heard of native management of good, first-class locomotives made my blood boil; but everything is accepted out here as a matter of course, because the general policy seems to be to give the natives as much work as possible, at any cost. That is the keynote of everything, and allowances are made accordingly. Perhaps it is wrong to generalise from one class only; but if I were to judge India from the engine-drivers I have seen, I would avoid it for ever. When I first came to India I fancied, from the tone of the native papers I had read, that all Indians were independent and self-helping. A good many things have made me change my mind since. One never hears anything about the independence of natives from Anglo-Indians; but a good deal about their helplessness. Every Englishman I have met seems to say the same thing, and to put up with shortcomings that would drive an English employer of labour mad. Here is an instance. A native clerk, the other day, was set to copy some pages of printed matter for a gentleman in whose house I was staying. Remember that the clerk had had, what they call here, an English education, and could speak English fluently. He missed out, through sheer carelessness, three lines in one page, one in the next, and two in the third; thus making the whole stuff nonsense; and he also did not put in a single stop from beginning to end. I saw the paper, and if a boy of sixteen, on fifteen shillings a week at home, had done it, I should have dismissed him at once. And that same clerk was as vain as a peacock, and talked to me about the ‘political future of India’. He may be an exception to his fellows. I hope he is.

All the work that I have seen turned out by native hands is bad. Doors don’t come up properly to the jambs; windows are never straight; there is no finish in the roofs. Floors and plinths are badly put down, and timber is wastefully misused without any increase of strength. Native hinges and locks, and iron-work generally, are all abominations to English eyes. There is no correct rabbeting, mortising, mitreing, dovetailing or joinery of any sort in the land — as far as I have seen; and this disgusts me a good deal. The English newpapers, excepting two Bombay ones — where they use steam — are badly enough printed, even under European supervision; but the native papers are something atrocious. Some of them would be a disgrace to a tenth-rate bill-sticker. It is very funny to read all the flowing and civilized sentiments set up and printed in a manner which proves, literally on the face of it, that savages have been playing with English machinery and type. I enclose you one or two specimen cuttings — not the worst by any means. Aren’t they shameful? Also I send you by post a hinge, a lock and a couple of links of chain turned out by natives and sold to Englishmen. These will tell you a good deal more than I can. Really these Anglo-Indians might make some attempt to teach the natives to turn out work properly. To me at least the natives are exasperatingly stupid, but something ought to be done. There are no large centres of supply anywhere, and if you want anything made, outside the towns of Bombay and Calcutta, you must advance the workman the money and he takes from one to three weeks over the most petty job. A cheerful and barbarous country for our purposes, isn’t it? And these Anglo-Indians go on talking and writing about the ‘political education and advancement’ of the natives, and the educated natives do the same thing in those infamously printed papers! Just look at my cuttings! No English house would turn out an ABC for pauper children as vilely as this rhodomontade is printed. They may want political education — that is no business of mine, but I do know, before they are fit for anything, they must be taught to use their hands and English machinery a little less like Australian aborigines. This slackness and want of straight lines goes all over India. The very keys on the railway lines seem as if they had been hammered in by a man who did not know which end of the hammer he ought to use. Everything here is raw, unfinished, misjointed, slack and wrongly built. The Anglo-Indians have a beautifully expressive word for all this — ‘kutcha’. Everything is ‘kutcha’ — which means everything is just as an English workman would not turn it out. The natives talk — talk immensely. My hosts introduced me to a lot of English-speaking native gentlemen everywhere. They were all very much alike to look at, and they all spoke English beautifully. Also they all talked in much the same strain about the ‘disabilities of natives’, and my views on the Government of India. I heard an enormous amount about the reforms they wished for, as they seemed to think I was a man of influence at home or in Parliament; but all their reforms are purely political, and seem rather purposeless. They say India would be better for natives in the Legislative Council, and for the employment of natives in most of the posts where Anglo-Indians are now. Perhaps this is true, but they would have to be quite different natives from the printers and engine drivers and locksmiths I have met. I used to begin by asking these gentlemen about manufactures and so on — you know why I came out. (I hope the shareholders will take my advice, that’s all.) But I found out, after a little, that none of these men knew anything about what I wanted, or the possibility of starting a factory in India with agencies at all the sea-port towns. All the information I got, came from the Anglo-Indians, and they discouraged me a good deal. (My other letter contains my views on the purely business part of my tour — at length. You will see what I had to contend with. But to go back to my friends in turbans and velvet skull-caps.)

They did not know anything about their own country from a commercial point of view; but they prosed away about politics for hours. Now their kind of politics didn’t interest me, though I tried to seem interested in order to get them to talk business later on. But they were a misty, cloudy lot altogether, and I had to go back to the Englishmen. Indeed, they told me that the Anglo-Indians knew more about that sort of thing than they did, and I found they were right. My hosts were exceedingly courteous to these gentlemen, but somehow there seemed to be nothing in common between them. I didn’t wonder at it. The natives simply revel in words, and I don’t think they understand half they say. They certainly are not at all connected in their conversation, and contradict themselves over and over again. A man must have a head for business before he can take up politics successfully. However, I’m out of my depth here.

You want to know what Anglo-Indian women are like? Well, they are very much like English ladies all the world over; but they aren’t pretty. The climate kills good looks, and, taking one thing with another, they are as plain as they can be. Where they aren’t plain, they are sickly and sallow. A little beauty goes a very long way in India. Nevertheless, they are exceedingly nice, and have much more individuality than English women. They know more of life, death, sickness and trouble than English women, I think; and this makes them broader in their views — though they talk about their servants as much as women do at home.

All the stuff that one hears and reads in England about their being ‘fast’ is utter rubbish. Of course there are some exceptions, but the bulk of them are a good deal steadier than women at home. Their life is very quiet, and everybody, everywhere, knows everything they do. Besides this, married couples live year after year alone by themselves in forsaken places, scores of miles away from anything like civilization; and I fancy that a woman who has helped her husband through an abomination of desolation like this ‘out-station’ life, as they call it, gets to be exceedingly fond of him. This is rather curious, but I believe it to be the fact. If they were prettier, the English-women in India would be delightful. I admit that their ‘belles’ startle one rather. They would be out of consideration in a small county town in England. As a general rule, only the older women try to be ‘fast’, and their fastness is very modified; but it lasts for many years. Women of from forty to fifty and upwards — I’m not exaggerating, I assure you — are the Lillie Langtrys of India, and the youngest men are their worshippers in a lukewarm sort of way.

Nothing seems to impress the Anglo-Indians except their work. They call the Himalaya mountains — ‘the hills’; when a man dies he ‘pegs out’; when he is ill he is ‘sick’. When a mother nearly breaks her heart over the loss of her first child, they say ‘she frets about it a little’. They are more than American in their curious belittleing of everything, and they take everything as a matter of course, and when a man does anything great or heroic — and I have heard of some wonderfully grand things being done by officers and civil servants — they say ‘not half bad’. That is their highest praise. I don’t think you could startle an Anglo-Indian under any circumstances. He is a very queer person, and I don’t see what there is in his life worth living for. His amusements are very forlorn affairs, and there never seems to be any ‘go’ about him; though I have been told that this is not the case. All his jokes are old ones from England, and the local jokes can’t be understood, unless you have been years in that particular place. He hasn’t even any vices worth speaking of, and he smokes tobacco strong enough to blow your head off. Nearly all Anglo-Indians smoke heavily, and they all ride — down to the children. They have no notion of walking; but as a class they ride beautifully. I never wish to be better or more kindly entertained than I have been; but somehow their life repels me — it’s so dreary. You would understand it better if you were out here. They don’t seem to be paid as well as I expected, and the prices of any English-made things in India are absurdly high. All their money seems to go in insurance and remittances for their children; and you have no idea what they lose by exchange.

But this is the one country where they know and practise charity. The towns are full of subscription lists — an institution unknown at home. I honestly believe, if I were to take a piece of paper and write at the top ‘Subscription required for a worthy object. Please pay bearer’, I should get money from nine out of ten men. They subscribe to charities, and for orphans, and beggars, and widows and churches — for anything in short in a wonderful way, and they never stop to think about the creed they are helping. Roman Catholic, Baptist, Wesleyan, Episcopalian is all the same to them. I can’t see why they subscribe, because it doesn’t amuse them, and amusement is what they want most. Their play is as depressing as their work.

If I weren’t afraid of seeming to despise the men and women who made my trip to India so pleasant for me, I should sum up all the Anglo-Indians as — ‘poor devils’. Yet if I were brought to book, and made to answer for my words’. I couldn’t say exactly why I thought of them in this light. But it is so. Men and women alike, one feels sorry for them, though I believe they would be the first to resent any pity. They have a very high opinion of themselves, and I think they have a right to, so far as work goes. But they don’t seem to realize any of the beauties of life — perhaps they haven’t time. It’s a queer country. If you can dissuade any youngster you know from coming to live and work here — do so. I can’t tell you why you should exactly, but I know you will do well.

P.S. This letter has been full of Anglo-Indians — not natives — and you wanted to hear about natives. I’ll tell you frankly, I can’t get on with them, and I am not going to support any people that turn out work as bad as the samples I have sent you. My private belief is, that nothing short of a new Deluge and a new Creation could improve them — at least the ones I’ve seen. They talk too much and do too little.