"Ship Me Somewhere East of Suez":
Rudyard Kipling's strange exile from himself


Emilienne Baneth

The University of Paris -- Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris, France

Copyright © 2001 by Emilienne Baneth, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. More often than not, Rudyard Kipling is associated with the kind of jingoism and Englishness that make it seem obvious that any of his concern with exile must be centered on England as homeland, as the land one is exiled from. Although in the last decades there have been numerous attempts at a reassessment of the writings of this complex author, little has been made of the involvement of his literary production with his personal background, although no biographer or commentator can evade the central significance of the young Rudyard's first prolonged contact with England, in his first, seminal experience of exile. [1] It is this initial contact which I would like to map over in this study, attempting to decipher the repercussions that this basically traumatic relationship with his fatherland might have had on Rudyard Kipling's art and political positioning. The ambiguousness of this childhood experience, when the future writer was in effect exiled in reverse, from the Indian colony towards the unknown territory of England and the "house of desolation," can do much to explain the disturbing contradictions that have been noted in the older Kipling's political statements or sometimes shocking stereotypes. A re-evaluation of the impact the initial exile away from what the child Rudyard knew as "home," but was denied to him in that essential, identity-constructing sense after his sixth year, may shed light on the apparent contradictions in his later attitudes. One could argue that Kipling constantly sought to reconcile two conflicting aspects of his identity in his art, and that his uneven writing reflects the impossibility of coming to terms with the fundamental rift that accompanied his break with childhood.

  2. Rudyard's first lasting contact with England should be identified with a double sense of exile and abandonment, quite the mirror image of the sense of exile and betrayal evinced by a number of young short story heroes when they adapt to the reverse voyage, from England to India. The importance of this initial voyage, from India "Westward" to England, cannot be overestimated : it is the initial trauma that causes the colonial experience to be tinged with an existential yearning for the writer later on, and that identifies the colonial space with a space of a quasi-Edenic happiness. For the young Rudyard, as for many Anglo-Indian children banished from the land of their birth at the age of five or six, India became the point of intersection between the time of happiness of a childhood prematurely lost for ever, and the place across the ocean, the exotic "Orient," also lost for ever by association. This coincidence between the past happiness of childhood and the lost, fantasy, picture-book India, explains how the memory of a magical time can have spilled into the description of a magical place, particularly in Kipling's writings for or about children. The Kiplingian text seems at times to embody this attempt to bridge the distance between the idealized geographical space of childhood and the space of colonial enterprise.

  3. In his autobiography, Something of Myself, Kipling describes his first years in India in brief but intense terms. It is striking to notice, at this retrospective stage, how much India is associated with poetic impressions, rather than attempts at description, as if the division between the space of artistic inspiration and the space of strict discipline and coercion were consciously imprinted in the writer's world, and translated into palpable stylistic contrasts. Thus India is all sensual happiness and emotional security: "My first impression is of daybreak, light and colour and golden and purple fruits at the level of my shoulder" (33). This "impressionistic" approach is of course a subtle evocation of India as the space of memory par excellence, one of the first structuring gestures of the child in exile: by associating this mental space with poetic expressions, the exile constructs an unalterable refuge in memory -- the refuge that, arguably, the writer seeks to reproduce in writing. The first chapter of Something of Myself is remarkable for its systematic use of understatement, but its intensity comes through all the better: the epigraph, to begin with, reveals much of the author's resentment at his lost childhood, but also some of his basic faith in memory as an eternal refuge: "Give me the first six years of a child's life and you can have the rest" (33). It is significant that Rudyard Kipling himself did not enjoy a full six years in India, as his parents shipped him back to England with his young sister Trix before he was six. In other words, he deliberately points out that a few months were missing for his childhood, his self, his sense of identity, to be complete. In effect, the trip to England broke Rudyard, and this half-accusing epigraph arbitrarily chooses the limit of "six years" of a child's life in order to make that point clearly. This key event, the banishment from India for reasons of education, marked a double loss for young Rudyard: the loss of India, and the loss of his parents, who, for all practical purposes, abandoned their children without a word of explanation, in what became "the House of Desolation." At the time (1871), Rudyard was hardly six years old and Trix three.

  4. According to the Anglo-Indian tradition, the Indian climate and "moral influence" were detrimental to young British children, who were often sent back to England after their first years of (often idyllic) childhood in India. Before he reached that fateful age, Rudyard Kipling had grown up in comfort and happiness in Bombay, surrounded by his parents and a group of affectionate servants. In a highly autobiographical short story recalling similar events, the young hero Punch tells his sister: "'I know I used to give orders and Mama kissed me'" (Kipling Short Stories 156), neatly conflating the memory of power in the bud, with all its political implications, and of emotional security. It is through such childish associations that the work of Rudyard Kipling sometimes appears politically naive, or even repulsive; the confusion of power with the comfort of affection, for instance, is echoed in a number of short stories and even founded the half-century long myth of the faithful, loving native soldier or servant.

  5. Although it is impossible to deny Kipling's conservative convictions, it is also imperative to recognize the structural influence of his childhood memory of India in all his subsequent dealings with it. The house of Mrs. Holloway, in Southsea, is described by the narrator of Something of Myself as "smelling of aridity and emptiness" (37), which is a clear opposition with the fertility and fullness of the impressions of India (the "light and colour and golden and purple fruits" quoted above). Abandoned by his parents in an alien land, the child structures his world and understanding according to these contrasts: on the side of memory and happiness, Paradise and fairy tales. On the side of England and discipline, are Hell and sin, and an introduction to guilt. Both in Something of Myself and in "Baa Baa Black Sheep," the narrator obliquely defines India and childhood as the space and time of innocence, of pre-lapsarian bliss. It is England and her representative in the child's eyes, Mrs. Holloway, who introduce the children to the very concept of sin: "I had never heard of Hell; so I was introduced to it in all its terrors" (Myself 35). Or, in "Baa Baa," the first "sin" committed by the boy is, revealingly, the confusion of Indian tales with Biblical episodes: "It was a sin, a grievous sin, and Punch was talked to for a quarter of an hour" (148).

  6. The "discovery" of sinfulness is a clear indicator of the coincidence, in the Kiplingian text, of a time and space of happiness, represented not so much by India itself as the memory of India. The fantasy India that unfolds in Kim, a novel whose hero is a boy apparently suspended in time, in an eternal boyhood at the service of the "Great Game," is precisely this ideal India, not so much, in my view, the ideal space of colonial power as the ideal space of childhood. Thus India is eternally lost, except in memory, not because of some colonial nostalgia for absolute power, but because it is the place where the author's other self, the child of "the first six years," has remained. The strangeness, the otherness of India is in fact deeply rooted in this identity crisis, the quest for the self that existed in that childhood, and is somehow forever lost.

  7. The symbolic geography of this voyage from pre-lapsarian, Edenic childhood into the sinfulness and suffering of adulthood is echoed in an equally revealing work, the poem "Mandalay," written in 1890. Although this poem makes no reference to childhood as such, the theme of exile in reverse is at its core, and it reproduces the childhood experience: the voyage from East to West is explicitly depicted as a shattering and destructive experience for the adult speaker, who yearns for an impossible reversal.
    Ship me somewheres east of Suez
    Where the best is like the worst
    Where there aren't no Ten Commandments
    And a man can raise a thirst.
    For the temple bells are ringing
    And it's there that I would be,
    By the old Moulmein pagoda
    Lookin' lazy at the sea . . . (Portable Kipling 619)
    The East is defined as an Edenic space, in which the history of the lapse, is, as it were, abolished, and therefore the texture of time itself is altered in a way. Clichés are plentiful in this poem, from the tinkly temple bells to the elephants a'piling teak, but they are obviously brought together in order to produce the same impressionistic effect that Kipling seeks in his autobiography when describing the India of his childhood, or in Kim: a compilation of sounds, visions and smells ("them spicy garlic smells, and the sunshine, and the palm trees, and them tinkly temple bells . . ."). This is Kipling's translation into poetic terms of the all-enveloping emotional and sensual security of a childhood Orient, which he opposes with the harshness of an ugly, loveless, adult England: "Though I walk with fifty housemaids outta Chelsea to the Strand,/ An' they talk a lot of lovin, but wot do they understand !/ Filthy face and grubby 'ands, Lor' wot do they understand !" (620).

  8. Some will argue here that Kipling is simply adding an odious sort of misogyny to his already familiar reactionary colonialism, the implication of these lines being that the "housemaids" are at best sexual outlets, but by no means adequate partners in language and emotions. Although that aspect of his writing cannot be overlooked, I believe its ambivalence and attraction are much easier to understand when one considers this space of memory as the main focus of the poem, rather than simple colonial nostalgia. Indeed, the speaker emphasizes "all that's left behind" him, "long ago and far away," thus once again establishing a parallel between space and time, which is the hallmark of the Kiplingian experience of exile -- and perhaps of all childhood experiences of exile. For the indissoluble link between the place left behind, and time past, ensures that the loss is irretrievable; the child is lost forever to the man, and thus there is no returning to that India of memory.

  9. But this mythified East, where the speaker -- a British soldier -- has left his sense of self-fulfilment ("where a man can raise a thirst"), is in fact kept alive and immutable in memory as it is evoked by the ballad-like rhythm of the poem. Through its poetic incantation, the refrain recreates a time loop in which the road to Mandalay is constantly unravelling in the eternal present of the text: "On the road to Mandalay,/ Where the flyin' fishes play,/ And the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the bay!"(619-621). This brings us to the central function of poetic language, which is evoked in the poem itself when the speaker denigrates the English housemaids' "understanding." This expression of scorn implies that the sphere of communication and poetic fulfillment also belongs to that time and space which is "East of Suez." This is also a characteristic of Kipling's depiction of India, particularly in Kim, where the hero communicates fluently in Urdu, and is the "Little Friend of All the World" in the Indian world, but speaks English with difficulty and is limited to his identity as "Kimball O'Hara" for all British institutions. The pre-lapsarian time of India also appears to be an ideal time of language and of perfect understanding: the fantasy of an immediate, physically intimate language.

  10. This fantasy was still very much alive when Kipling wrote his autobiography, and noted that his return to India after his hard years in England was almost magically accompanied by what amounts to a linguistic epiphany: "So, at sixteen years and nine months, but looking four or five years older, and adorned with real whiskers which the scandalized Mother abolished within one hour of beholding, I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meanings I knew not. Other Indian-born boys have told me how the same thing happened to them" (Myself 56). This is truly a case of Proustian conjuration, where memory becomes a fifth dimension and the ultimate refuge of identity; thanks to language, then, the lost child is somehow resurrected in the adult. Indeed, the Indian idiom is the reserved space of childhood, both in Kipling's memoirs and in a number of his stories, and the child's alienation from the world of British authority starts there, in the relationship with the vernacular. Thus Kipling evokes his story-telling Indian nurse:
    In the afternoon heats before we took our sleep, she or Meeta would tell us stories and Indian nursery songs all unforgotten, and we were sent into the dining-room after we had been dressed, with the caution "Speak English now to Papa and Mamma." So one spoke "English," haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in. (Myself 34)
    The split between the parents' English and the vernacular which the children are comfortable with already heralds the opposition that will come to a head with the children's physical exile. As it is, the children are in linguistic exile in their parents' living-room, every time they must "translate" their thoughts into English. The same process is stigmatised in "Tod's Amendment," where the tragic but familiar consequence of the child-hero's familiarity with India is announced in his parent's lack of understanding (in every sense of the word !): "He used, over his bread and milk, to deliver solemn and serious aphorisms, translated from the vernacular into the English, that made his Mamma jump and vow that Tods must go Home next hot weather" (Plain Tales 180). In other words, the parents themselves plot the exile of their own child, in an attempt to wrench him away from the esthetic and linguistic universe that constitutes his spiritual home.

  11. There is a clear parallel between the cruel fate reserved by his parents for the Anglo-Indian child, and the position of more typical tragic heroes in short stories such as "Thrown away": one can already perceive the narrator's criticism of England through its official representatives, or figures of political authority. These figures of authority, who are almost systematically ridiculed in the Kiplingian universe, are the obvious transpositions of parental authority: his British parents having been, after all, at the very root of Kipling's traumatic exile, and responsible for his feelings of dereliction after they left him without an explanation. In "Thrown Away," the young hero feels abandoned, not in England but in India where he comes out as a clerk in a company. Their situations are apparently opposite, but in fact they are symmetrical; both the child in "Baa Baa Black Sheep" and the "Boy" in "Thrown Away" have been abandoned, by the adult world, or by the authorities, and neither can account for it. The only name by which the narrator identifies the character in "Thrown Away" is in itself an indication of his childlike status; "the Boy," alone in India, has lost his bearings and "could not understand why he was not treated with the consideration he received under his father's roof" (Plain Tales 44). Thus the imperial system is depicted, at best, as a void, an absurdity that is ultimately responsible for the dereliction and ultimate sacrifice of the character in exile. It is the exact mirror-image of the parents' failure to explain their banishment to the young children described in the autobiobraphical short story "Baa Baa Black Sheep"; while their only refuge is despair, it is quite logical that suicide should conclude the ordeal of the older "Boy" in India.
    When a matured man discovers that he has been deserted by Providence, deprived of his God, and cast without help, comfort, or sympathy, upon a world which is new and strange to him, his despair, which may find expression in evil living, the writing of his experiences, or the more satisfactory diversion of suicide, is generally supposed to be impressive. A child, under exactly similar circumstances as far as his knowledge goes, cannot very well curse God and die. It howls till its nose is red, its eyes are sore, and its head aches. Punch and Judy, through no fault of their own, had lost all their world. (Selected Stories 146)
    The structural link between the despair and dereliction of the adult colonial hero, and the initial exile of the child cannot be more clearly spelled out. Yet too often the focus tends to be on the tortured relationship of the Kiplingian hero with India itself as a land of confusion and despair, while in fact the original feeling of dereliction seems to be linked to that other, fundamental exile which sees the child expelled from the Indian paradise.

  12. In poetic terms, this Paradise does come back to the text with the evocation of vernacular speech, and the linguistic "epiphany" that the narrator of Something of Myself describes in near-Proustian terms. This is clearly both the writer's and the child's salvation: the world of language, imagination and dreams. Rudyard Kipling stated his faith in this parallel reality in the story "The Brushwood Boy," which combines astonishing clichés of conventional heroism with surprising supernatural, or even surrealistic twists, thus perfectly illustrating the well-known "paradox" of Rudyard Kipling as a writer -- his unabashed conservatism on the one hand, coupled with cheeky individualism and escapism on the other. In this story, a child learns to construct a parallel universe in his dreams, in which he meets a playmate, who accompanies him on detailed explorations of his dream-land geography. As a grown-up soldier and extremely conventional hero, "Georgie" eventually meets this dream-world companion in the flesh. But this rather weak dénouement is not the main focus of the story, which more than anything else illustrates how the world of wakefulness and conventional duty is made endurable through the "power" of fiction: "A child of six was telling himself stories as he lay in bed. It was a new power, and he kept it a secret" (Day's Work 256). The world of stories here constructed by the child, and which he instinctively keeps secret as if to avoid its destruction by adults, is therefore the world of individual freedom and boundless exploration, echoed in the frame narrative itself. In a sense, growing up is depicted as a slow and irreversible exile away from childhood, which can be stopped only in the world of fiction, or in the case of "The Brushwood Boy," in the realm of dreams. Thus it is quite significant that even though "Georgie" becomes the perfect Public School hero, a fearless, boar-sticking, polo-playing officer, his dreams are still haunted by the same arch-enemy, a policeman, symbol of order, authority, and non-fiction:
    He was filled with terror, -- the hopeless terror of dreams, -- for the policeman said, in the awful, distinct voice of the dream-people, "I am Policeman Day coming back from the City of Sleep. You come with me." (Day's Work 266).

  13. Fiction, therefore, is the space of freedom and exploration, which Kipling most obviously endeavors to reproduce in Kim or his Just So Stories. Authority rhymes with a terror that cannot be eluded, but had better be followed in heroic resignation, as it is by "The Brushwood Boy" when awake. The Kipling "paradox" can thus be seen not so much as a struggle between contradictory ideologies, but as an attempt at compensating, in the private world of the heroes' minds, the irremediable loss of the world of childhood. The harshness of "Policeman Day" and his manner of speech cannot but evoke the strict and cruel discipline of Mrs. Holloway, in whose house young Rudyard and Trix were left without a word of consolation. In fact, Kipling was often punished by this stern guardian for 'telling tales, ' although she herself had no qualms when deliberately misleading the children, as noted in a recent biography: "Rudyard and Trix were mystified why their parents should have left them in this dark, forbidding place. [. . .] But when the children asked for an explanation, Mrs. Holloway replied it was because they were 'so tiresome' and she had only taken them in out of pity" (Lycett 49). The world of secret stories and dreams represented in such stories as "The Brushwood Boy," but which is also at the core of the "Great Game" played by Kim, is therefore a citadel erected to protect the identity of the child against the destructive actions of adults. I believe it is a similar protectiveness towards childhood, a universe lost to him when his exile from India began, that Kipling evinces in the intimate narrative of the Just So Stories: the destinator of the stories is constantly addressed as "Best Beloved," an invitation for the reader to feel included, harbored, as it were, in the eternal, magical realm of fiction and exoticism constructed by the tales.

  14. Reading was the ultimate refuge sought by Rudyard in the "House of Desolation" -- he even had to read in secret, as this pleasure was forbidden like so many others. Eventually, his eyesight deteriorated to the point of blindness, and that is what alerted his parents, at long last, to have him "rescued" after six hard years. In his stories, the writer both expresses the pain of an irreversible exile that drove him away equally from his original "home," India, and from the days of his childhood. But he uses his fiction simultaneously to reconstruct that idealised time-space, which sometimes coincides with the colonial space. This conflation can explain the ambivalence of Kiplingian esthetics, which seem to waver between originality and conventionality, between individual rebellion and an ultimate jingoistic support of authority. These conflicts can now be read as the layered projection of Rudyard Kipling's own reconstructed personality over the ashes of his childhood.


  1. If the contrasts and contradictions inherent to Kipling's ideology and poetics have often been remarked on, they have been caught in analytical dichotomies which tend to mirror the Kipling "paradox," but do not explore its literary significance. Some critics have focused on the magical, poetic aspect of Kipling's writings for children, thereby tending to dismiss his jingoism and colonial conservatism. This is the case of Bonamy Dobrée, whose main study of Kipling reflects this dichotomy in its very title: Rudyard Kipling: Realist and Fabulist. In an important survey on Kipling and the critics (ed. Eliot Gilbert), the same Dobrée countered common attacks on the author in a revealingly binary mode: "He symbolizes not hate, but a deep compassion; not malignant grandiosity and brute force, but humility and tenderness . . ." (53). Such assertions tend to simplify the case by drawing all of Kipling's writings into the realm of sensibility and feeling, while denying the existence of his political statements. At the opposite end of the specter, certain critics have interpreted Kipling's entire work and biography in the light of his professed colonialist convictions. Shamsul Islam views Kipling's childhood in India not so much in terms of the Edenic memories that the growing author used to feed his imagination, but as awakening Kipling's fundamental consciousness of "belonging to a dominant race" (13). In this perspective, his first unhappy years in England are simply viewed as the formative experience of being on the wrong end of authority, as it were. Similarly, Allen J. Greenberger evokes Kipling's childhood mainly in the light of his belief in British "leadership"; when the childhood experience of exile is taken into account, as it is by John MacClure, it is mostly to explain in psychological terms that the trauma of abandonment and isolation was instrumental in transforming Kipling into an imperialist authoritarian: "In Kipling's fiction, the experiences of harsh discipline, abandonment, and humiliation that are an accepted part of the future imperialist's education instill both strong impulses to dominate and a terror of isolation and exposure that makes effective exercise of authority impossible" (4). Kipling's relationship to India is here viewed mostly in the light of the imperial dilemma.

    Work by Bart Moore Gilbert and Sandra Kemp has contributed to rescue Kipling from the political debate which tended to mask his literary achievements ; these critics closely analyse the ambivalence of Kipling's narratives, the contrasts and conflicting realities depicted in his Indian fiction, but they do not incorporate biographical factors in these otherwise extensive literary analyses. Thus Sandra Kemp states that there is, in her narrative analysis, "no way of resolving the conflict of voices by reference to authorial intention" (6).

    The most recent biography of Rudyard Kipling, by Andrew Lycett, establishes the long-lasting importance of his early youth as a seminal trauma in the author's life, but it does not detail the literary ramifications of this event. It is the impact of Kipling's own childhood experience on the motif of the recurring double quest led by his heroes, a quest for identity and an ideal space, which I would like to explore. Back

Works Cited

Dobrée, Bonamy. Rudyard Kipling: Realist and Fabulist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Gilbert, Elliot, ed. Kipling and the Critics. London: Peter Owen, 1966.

Greenberger, Allen. The British Image of India: A Study in the Literature of Imperialism 1880-1960. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Islam, Shamsul. Kipling's "Law": A Study of his Philosophy of Life. London: MacMillan, 1975.

Kemp, Sandra. Kipling's Hidden Narratives. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Kipling, Rudyard. "Baa Baa, Black Sheep." 1888. In Selected Stories. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.

---. "The Brushwood Boy." In The Day's Work. 1898. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

---. Just So Stories. 1902. London: Macmillan, 1989.

---. Kim. 1901 London: Pan Books, 1978.

---. "Mandalay." 1890. In The Portable Kipling. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

---. Something of Myself. 1936. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.

---. "Thrown Away." In Plain Tales from the Hills. 1890. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.

---. "Tod's Amendment." In Plain Tales from the Hills. 1890. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.

Lycett, Andrew. Rudyard Kipling. London: Phoenix, 2000.

MacClure, John. Kipling and Conrad, the Colonial Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Moore-Gilbert, Bart. Kipling and "Orientalism." London: Croom Helm, 1986.

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