Concerning One Gymkhana

by Rudyard Kipling

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 11 June 1887

Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, pp. 124-5

The word 'gymkhana' is an Anglo-Indian invention, meaning any gathering for sports, or the place where such sports are held. In Lahore, practically speaking, the word always meant horse racing; some foot racing might be part of it, too, as in the case of the gymkhana Kipling describes here.

Kipling had reported many a gymkhana before this one. Here, he manages to combine, in faux-naif style, a sharp observation of detail with the sense that such things, seen so many times before, make little sense in the hot weather. [T.P.]

(From an Unsporting Correspondent)

This happened on Thursday at half-past five; and the thermometer in the verandah could not have been much more than 100°. Out on the Lahore race-course, where the hot wind romps in from Mian Mir, it was under 150. But not much. Such a Gymkhana is not made every day of the hot weather.

There were present one Band; thirty-five gunners and soldiers from various parts of the universe; forty natives with no ostensible means of amusement; seventeen people who had the privilege of sitting on the Grand Stand, which was red hot; and forty-one people who had not that privilege, and so sat in carriages which were only warmed through. There were also ponies on the ground, and the ponies hung out their tongues and begged for drink from soda-water bottles with leather round the tops. Main Mir ponies do this habitually on account of the weather. Some body has altered the Grand Stand a great deal. There is more brickwork about it now, and it looks very fine. If you accidentally spill a peg on it, it hisses. This is because it grandstands out in the sun. Near the Grand Stand is a circular, straw hut, with a gallows inside it, and a chopping-block and a meat-scales. It is called the weighing room, but it is just as hot as the Grand Stand. If you wait more than a minute in the scale-things you begin to go up to the roof, on account of waste caused by insensible perspiration. Several people told me this; and they also said that it was necessary to dip the stirrups in iced water before mounting. They said that this was the origin of stirrup cups. All the Stewards were very affable. They told me everything I wanted to know, and they said that the ice was in the Honorary Secretary’s office round the corner.

The Gymkhana was a very fine Gymkhana. The course was soft and powdery, and most of the ponies turned black when they came in. None of the ponies were allowed to run more than half a mile at a time. I think there should have been no compulsion on this head. The ponies did not say anything about it, but they thought a great deal. One pony tried to run all round the course. He ran very fast, but it was the wrong way round, and then his rider was rude to him, and he got rid of him and they separated, and he went away for a walk, and we watched him coming back again in top-boots; but we could not hear what he said. This does not sound correct somehow, but it is no use trying to explain the matter till that pony comes back? I think he went to the Club.

The first race was called a three-furlong race for 13—2 ponies, and some one gave you thirty-two rupees if you won it. The heat alone was worth all the money. It ended this way: —
Mr Temple’s Belladonna, 10—6, Mr Stopford 1
Mr F’s Eugena, 10—10 6 [2?]
Sergt. Brown’s Judy, 10—6 3
Mr Roe’s Norah, 10—6 4
Eugena was four feet five and a half inches high, and I can’t understand why she carried one hundred and fifty pounds when the others only carried one hundred and forty-six. They all sweated just the same, and I don’t think it was fair. The first pony won by two lengths.

The second race was for Galloways — that is to say, any horse between five and six feet high. They ran for half a mile, but there was a horse who ran for several miles. He did most of it in the air, while going down to the place they start from. The rest he put in by running sideways across the course, and trying to lace his hind legs together. He was ridden by a Driver of Artillery, one of those men who are paid to sit still when a gun wheel runs over them. I don’t think any one else could have ridden that horse. I could not catch his name exactly, but from what I heard the driver say I think it was ‘Dammimm’. There may have been something more; but that was the bulk of the name. That raced ended this way: —
Mr Temple’s Shahzada, 10—2 Mr Stopford 1
Bombr. James’ Marquis, 10—0 2
Mr Knapp’s Dammirn (I think) 3
They said this race was won anyhow. It seems all right to me. Shahzada ran perfectly correctly, and took a nip out of a soda-water bottle just like a real lady. It must have been the quadrille-horse that ran anyhow. He goes best on two legs. The next race was a polo-scurry, catch weights over ten stone, to be run in three-quarter-mile heats; but one pony was not going to waste his time and substance scurrying in June so he went home. I think he was the only sensible pony in the lot, but his rider was quite angry about it, and walked back from the far end of the course. So the polo-scurry was a family affair between the Punjab Police. They ran twice and the senior policeman won, which is right and proper thus: —
Mr Bishop’s Bob, Owner 1
Mr Roe’s Tom, Owner 2
About that time there was a hundred-yards race between two soldiers in fancy uniform, skin-tights and black belt things, and another soldier in white uniform. I think he got in by mistake. The winner of this race was Bandsman Coveney of the 5th Fusiliers. I am not going to say who the loser was, or what the time was, because the 5th at Ferozepore might see, and Coveney is racing one of their men next month. A gentleman with two red V-shaped things on his cap told me in confidence that ‘Mian Meer was the tip’. I said I knew it from the first, but on mature consideration I find that the information is of no use to me, so I tell it to you. I haven’t the ghost of a notion what it means, but it’s evidently worth having. Remember ‘Mian Mir is the tip, an’ our man’ll give ’im socks’.>

Then there was another race. All the races, by the way, except the ones where the men did all the running, were for thirty-two rupees. The foot races were ten rupees. This next race was a hurdle scurry. They can’t do anything without scurrying or heating or something. There was a post down the course, a quarter of a mile away and some coolies put up two flights of hurdles. The horses started from the winning-post, and went over those hurdles, turned round the post, and came back again. This was not half so difficult as it sounds, because if a horse snorted at the hurdle, it came down, and the horse walked through. This was a most exciting race. All three horses began a figure of the Lancers in front of the first hurdles until some one breathed too hard, and a hurdle fell. Then they all made an example of that line of hurdles and the next, and after they had twisted round the post, a dear little, brown little animal four feet two inches high, scuttled home first, when no one was looking, and won by a head on the post from a mare called Nana who is not nice. She makes a fuss about small things, exactly as I am doing now, and she has nothing to show for it, except her heels. The official report of the race said: —
Mr F.’s Bonne Bouche, 8—11, Native 1
Mr Temple's Nane, 11—0 2
Mr Roe’s Norah, 9—12 3
But Mr Temples’s remarks about Nana were much more interesting. Hereabouts, they had a hurdle race open to soldiers. Natives know what happens to them if they cause injury to a horse, but they know they can damage the gorah log (white men) as much as they please. Consequently, the coolies hammered in five lines of hurdles with a beetle, and they hammered them good — especially the last hurdle where a man might be expected to trip. But there was no accident, and a man called Wells, clad in beautiful blue drawers, won from Coveney. There was a little trouble here. You see, one man said the winning post was here and another there, and Wells was ahead when they were here, but Coveney beat him when they were there. Judgment against Coveney. I think this serves Coveney quite right for spoiling his ‘flat’ form by training for short-stride hurdle-races when he knows that he has [to] meet Bayliss in July, and it’s all one can do to get one’s money on at. . . . But this is a private matter.

The last race was for Non-Commissioned Officers’ ponies, and that was the race of the evening. The men took an interest in it and shouted. It was a half mile race, and the men began issuing riding orders to no one in particular the moment the flag fell. ‘Dan’ was the jockey most in demand. They implored him by all sorts of regimental gods to ‘whip her’ and Dan whup all he know with a flail sort of thing used for stunning battery horses when they refuse to be shod. But she wouldn’t or couldn’t come. I don’t know who she was, but I felt sorry for her. Dan knew how to whip. The result of this race was: —
Corpl. Ashworth’s Dulcibella 1
Sergt. Major Simmon’s Happy 2
(I think that was Dan’s horse)
Sergt. Brown’s Judy 3
Sergt. Galway’s Rupert 4
The winner was a queer, little, yellow beast with a white mane and tail, and, in the pride of his heart, the owner insisted on giving her nourishment from a feeding-bottle. I don’t think Dulcibella was accustomed to that sort of attention; for never was an honest little country-bred so horrified.

Then the scene closed with another rider claiming foul, disallowed; a rush of gharris to the Hall, and Didcibella trying to spit out the medicine she was sure she had taken in the soda water bottle.