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Tea Leaves

What Kipling can still teach us

As statues topple and history is revised, is it time to reread 'Kim'?

A young sahib out for a ride in what today is known as Mumbai, circa 1910. To the writer Rudyard Kipling, the British living in India were simply another caste in a country where each group defined itself by its hereditary occupation.   © Getty Images

Around the world, people are demanding the removal of symbols of imperialism, including statues of Winston Churchill in London, Stamford Raffles in Singapore and Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town. So why am I rereading Rudyard Kipling's "Kim," often criticized as an apology for the British Empire in India?

Researching a new book on the Asian horse trade sent me back to study Kipling's Pathan horse dealer, Mahbub Ali. Kipling's Ali is a sharp operator, not above passing off a nag as a purebred. He is a spy, and also a killer. "Trust a snake before your trust a Pathan," Kipling's hero Kim says teasingly to Ali. Yet Kipling makes Ali a spokesperson for worldly tolerance. "Religions are like horses, each has merit," the horse dealer says.   

How should we read "Kim" today? It is full of 19th century stereotypes of indigenous people, kindly looked after by the self-sacrificing British. On the other hand, it is a love letter to the tolerant, multiethnic, spiritual India that Kipling sees as superior in many ways to a soulless Britain. He has his favorites; he likes Sikhs, but not Hindu priests. But he reserves his venom for British characters, including an Anglican priest, who display racism or intolerance toward Indians.

Some have accused Kipling of glorifying British imperialism.   © Getty Images

What are we to make of Kipling's assumption that the Raj, as the Indian empire was known, was a "good thing?" Does not that condemn him as a white supremacist? Maybe we could become more tolerant if we make an effort to understand Kipling's perspective.

Kipling was a positivist who believed that the scientific progress of Europe gave the British a mission to enlighten India. But he was sufficiently "woke" to realize that not everything Britain considered to be progress represented value to Indians. Conversely, he believed that India could help the British achieve a different kind of enlightenment.

For Kipling, the British sahibs were simply another caste in an India where each group defined itself by its hereditary occupation: farmers, moneylenders, soldiers, horse traders. Two careers were open to the sahibs, the civil service and the army. Like the other castes, the sahibs practiced endogamy, the custom of marrying only within the limits of a local community, clan, or tribe, ate their own food, and prayed to their own god in their own language. A big difference between the sahibs and other Indian castes was that they had a separate homeland, the U.K., which they usually referred to as "Blighty." Yet in the days before air travel, sahibs who went to India generally stayed until they retired.

In polyglot India, having a ubiquitous, highly trained administrative caste could be seen as a good thing. The sahibs were recruited to provide justice, civil order and defense. They were paid from tax revenues, rather than land grants like earlier Indian rulers, which insulated them from local politics. The sahib class was more orderly than the rulers of the preceding regimes, whose regicides periodically caused violent interregnums. The transition from one viceroy (top British official) to another caused no more than heated gossip in the capital of the Raj.

Kipling, a Nobel Prize-winning author, is the author of "Kim," "The Jungle Book" and many other works.   © Getty Images

Yet Kipling completely missed the principal design flaw of the Raj -- its lack of accountability. In the absence of representative government, it is impossible to assume that a regime, especially a foreign one, is acting in the best interests of the people. This is most evident in the economic sphere, a subject about which Kipling has little to say.

Evidence suggests that the Raj caused the Indian economy to contract for almost 200 years (1757-1947), after centuries of being one of Asia's most dynamic economies. That is the main argument against colonialism -- colonies are run for the benefit of the home country. As soon as the colonies cease to be a benefit, the home country no longer wants to be burdened with them.

But what Kipling cannot teach us about economics he can teach us about tolerance. His Raj was never going to last for long, but his vision of India as a place where people of different religions and backgrounds all get along deserves to endure.

In India, where today even statues of Mahatma Gandhi, the Tamil patriot E.V. Ramasamy (commonly known as Periyar) the constitution writer B.R. Ambedkar and the Sikh Emperor Ranjit Singh are vandalized, Kipling's heroes rub shoulders, argue, joke and cry about their multitude of castes, religious practices and cults. The reality in today's India, with its festering Hindu/Muslim and caste violence, is sadly far from that. We may think of ourselves as more enlightened than Kipling's legacy, but we can be awfully dogmatic.

If Kipling were to submit his manuscript of "Kim" today he would almost certainly have to make major revisions to get it published. But this tale of tolerance and cultural awareness still has much to teach today's troubled world.

David Chaffetz's latest book, "Three Asian Divas," focuses on Iranian, Indian and Chinese singers.

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