Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling – a Review / Reflection

9780141442396HPlain Tales from the Hills
Rudyard Kipling
Introduction Edited with an introduction by Kaori Nagai
Penguin Classics, 2011, pg 292

I wanted to know, is Kipling readable? Is there something more to him than jungle stories or a colonial apologies? And what is he like as a craftsman? He was immensely popular once,  but that doesn’t necessarily make him an interesting writer. More than enough junk has climbed the best seller lists and has long been forgotten for good reason.  However, as certain fiction styles have ossified into best practices, it is good to look back and see the approaches writers of other days used. His first collection of short stories Plain Tales from the Hills seemed like a good choice for two reasons: it was published early in his career and would show him possibly less guarded; and two, the stories are less well know and wouldn’t merge with the various film versions of his works I’ve seen over the years. And, of course, I like short stories.

Taking these issues one by one. The issues with colonialism are certainly there and it is worth noting that the stories are rarely about Indians. The world of these stories are of the civil servants who exhibit all the concerns of late Victorians: class, social standing, reputation, and money. When Indians appear it is often in a transgressive story where the British have entered into a world they don’t belong, one that is indecipherable to the westerner. He returns twice to the character of a police officer who has learned the ways of the Indian under class, knows how to disguise himself and speak in their slang. He, though, is looked at as a freak who needs civilizing, in other words, needs to get married to change his ways. What we never see is exactly what he does amongst the people he is so capable of being with. Kipling appears to understand from a distance what life is like for these people, but is in no ways close enough to describe it like he does the British. Of course, there is always a subtlety to this: the best way to know a people is to be among them. Several times Kipling suggests this in his stories, but that knowledge comes at a cost of loosing oneself amongst the other. With Kipling, though, you are never sure if he is conscious of this dichotomy or it slips through.

For the British citizen and Kipling’s readers in Britten, the real danger was not the Indians, it was not being able to withstand the life in the colonies. The idea that the life in the colonies was harder and more difficult than that of Brittan is present throughout the book. It isn’t just the heat and food, it is the chance that one might loose one’s Britishness. Going native, or more to the point, letting one’s side down is the issue. It also points towards and ideal type of Englishman, who is strong enough to keep himself inline. Early on there is a story about a young man, probably a dandy, who kills himself because he can’t take life in India. The narrator and a friend do the only thing they can do and bury him and tell everyone he died of a fever. They send his parents a letter that praises his life. They will know nothing of the truth, one these two men of the Empire have had to do to keep Brittan content. Empire is a messy business and only certain men are called to it. Kipling is often noted for his ability understand the life of the average Brittan in India and render it in fiction, and that is his strongest element in these stories. The colonial enterprise is never questioned, but the hardships on the individual are often right at the surface.

Still, Kipling is writing about a mostly British world and his preoccupation with what seem like drawing room romances played against the Raj can get a little tiresome. Women in his stories are often interested in the petty, gossipy side of life. His portraits are not crude, but the lives of women are limited, not only by the times, but a little more insight into their actual lives. For example, there are a series of stories about two women who hate each other and both kenive to undo the machinations of each other. The narrator even notes how one, who was always self centered, helped a young man and beat the other woman at her own game. It is that sense of constant game that sours on the women, and gives the sense of a narrator winking at the audience, look how petty these women are. There are exceptions, of course, and in Three and – An Extra he describes a woman who on loosing her baby goes into grief and her husband begins to look at another woman. The wife through her maneuvers (feminine wiles might be the narrator’s choice) at a dance one night, wins her man back. The sensitivity to the situation is quite perceptive and shows him at his best. The story does, like many of them, end on a whimsical note: ‘Take my word for it, the silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a very clever woman to manage a fool.’

As a short story writer he proposes some interesting challenges to the modern read used to the well wrought story with an epiphany. Certainly, these are stories, but you might also call them tales, little vignettes. The stories originally appeared in an Indian newspaper and can’t be more than 3000 words. It gives them a brevity and economy that is refreshing. While all the stories are in first person in the sense that the narrator makes himself known to the reader, and occasionally is the primary character of the story, the narrator is describing events at second hand, which means the stories lean more towards summary than detailed action. It may seem limiting to be writing about events from an unprivileged narrative position, but it gives Kipling room to play with the narrator. You are never quite sure what the narrator believes. Are there the occasional criticisms of British life in India? Take a line like this: “She was a Miss Tallaght, and men spelt her name ‘Tart’ on the programmes when they couldn’t catch what the introducer said.” Is this supposed to be taken as evidence of her lowly standing, or an example of how bad the men are, or something else? Another trick he employs is to start on a short tangent and stop midway through and say, but that is a story for another time. Occasionally, he actually returns to tell the story. All these touches make for a richer stories and the shifting of the narrative and the narrator throughout the book makes Kipling’s writing surprisingly interesting.

A note on the edition. In addition to the fine introduction which notes how the book was put together with an eye towards explaining India to Brittan, the notes make quite clear where Kipling, later in life, began to remove elements that suggested his characters had more contact with natives and had taken on more of their ways. In The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows, he takes what are the confessions of a British subject and opium addict and changes it to a non British character; thus, he limits the notion that an Englishman could descend into such a disgraceful life. This is the most egregious example, there are little changes throughout that show the younger Kipling, Kipling the journalist in India, had a wider vision and a freer sense of decorum, before he became the defender of Empire.

In all, Plain Tales from the Hills, despite it’s problems, has a surprising liveliness to it that marks Kipling as an interesting writer. I might not recommend reading all the stories cover to cover, they can get a little claustrophobic and you may need to read a little Orwell to counter balance,  but they are certainly better than one would suppose.

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Urdu Fiction from India – Words Without Borders September 2010

Words Without Borders’ September 2010 issue features Urdu fiction from India.

This September we’re treated to the finest in new Urdu fiction from India. Curated by distinguished translator Muhammad Umar Memon, this stunning collection is the perfect primer on the fantastic and varied forms of contemporary Urdu writing. Naiyer Masud, master of the Urdu short story and Saraswati Samman award winner, follows the travails of a young runaway given refuge by a mysterious stranger. Celebrated fiction writer Qurratulain Hyder tracks the fortunes of a young woman who jettisons family and home on an intercontinental romp, with the past hot on her heels. Trailblazing feminist writer Ismat Chughtai gives an unsparing account of the goings-on in a maternity ward, while Anwar Khan’s protagonist discovers the comforting solitude of a shop window. Award-winning journalist Sajid Rashid sorts through a train explosion in a tale told by a severed head, and Siddiq Aalam listens in on two grumpy old men in a Kolkata park. Rounding out the issue, Sahitya Akademi Award winner Rajinder Singh Bedi gives a lesson in the art of erotic statuary, while Zakia Mashhadi recounts a troubled saga of marriage, love, and religion, and Salam Bin Razzack paints a picture of a Mumbai under siege.

Also this month, Askold Melnyczuk extols the virtues of speaking more than Amerikanisch, Avrom Sutzkever recites an ode to the dove, and Najem Wali describes a visit to the morgue.

Kanchivaram – A Review

Kanchivaram (A Communist Confession) is a beautiful and sad film, but not an oppressive film of endless sorrow. And despite the foreshadowing of doom that the frame story creates there is humor and a resolution, that dark, is in the end hopeful.

The SIFF guide describes the film quite well:

Every Indian bride dreams of wearing a delicate Kanchivaram sari on her wedding day, no matter her caste. On the day of his daughter’s “first feeding,” Vengadam (Prakash Raj) promises her one of the same expensive saris that he weaves daily for the highest caste in India. Despite resistance from the village community and fears that an unfulfilled promise will lead to a curse, Vengadam risks his livelihood to steal individual vivid silk threads from his workplace. Every night, he secretly and patiently weaves his daughter’s sari. As his daughter’s wedding day approaches, a communist activist initiates strikes against the mill owners, preventing Vengadam from completing the sari and from keeping his promise.

Ultimately, Vengadam, who is the leader of the strikers, ends the strike so he can finish the sari before his daughter’s wedding day. In doing so he breaks the bond between the two families and when the father of the groom attacks him for his cowardice in ending the strike, the mill owners discover he is stealing thread. He is sent to prison and only release for two days to see his daughter who has fallen down a well and is paralyzed. Seeing she has no future in a land that neither respects the poor, nor women, he poisons her. Although, he could not provide her the sari on her wedding day, he can provide it for her funeral. The last we see Vengadam he has sunk into madness and is pulling the silk sari that is to short to cover her whole body from her head to her feet over and over, unable to realize he came close to giving her a silk silk.

What makes the film intriguing besides its will written story is the politics of the film. Although they live in misery and poverty, Vengadam has a bicycle and they make enough to eat. They do not live in the starkest of poverty, yet they do earn much from their highly skilled labor. While the organizer is a communist and has pictures of Lenin the workers only are interested in forming a union or a cooperative. The workers suffer for months during the strike, some even die. Yet they are all committed to the strike. Vengadam suffers the least because he had a little money saved up. In a film with such political leanings, the locus of the film is in the personal and for Vengadam the personal is where one suffers. At the end of the film after Vengadam has gone mad, the film makers note that just a few years latter after independence, the state voted communists in and the workers formed cooperatives that exist today and pay the workers well.

Kanchivaram is part history and part political work. It borders on the misery of the poor, yet it is a film that is also of those who should not be poor, those have skills. So in this sense the film is tragic and hopeful at the same time. Sad for one family, but hopeful for the weavers as a whole. This mix distances the viewer some what from the brutality that comes from poverty and makes the film seem lighter than it should. Adding to this is the framing narrative of the bus ride which adds comedy. So after watching it you don’t have so much a sense of injustice exists, but it is too bad for that one family. That shift in focus makes the politics more subtle and ultimately the film more interesting.

Kanchivaram (A Communist Confession) is a beautiful and sad film, but not an oppressive film of endless sorrow. And despite the foreshadowing of doom that the frame story creates there is humor and a resolution, that dark, is in the end hopeful.

The SIFF guide describes the film quite well:

Every Indian bride dreams of wearing a delicate Kanchivaram sari on her wedding day, no matter her caste. On the day of his daughter’s “first feeding,” Vengadam (Prakash Raj) promises her one of the same expensive saris that he weaves daily for the highest caste in India. Despite resistance from the village community and fears that an unfulfilled promise will lead to a curse, Vengadam risks his livelihood to steal individual vivid silk threads from his workplace. Every night, he secretly and patiently weaves his daughter’s sari. As his daughter’s wedding day approaches, a communist activist initiates strikes against the mill owners, preventing Vengadam from completing the sari and from keeping his promise.

Ultimately, Vengadam, who is the leader of the strikers, ends the strike so he can finish the sari before his daughter’s wedding day. In doing so he breaks the bond between the two families and when the father of the groom attacks him for his cowerdice in ending the strike, the mill owners descover he is stealing thread. He is sent to prison and only release for two days to see his daughter who has fallen down a well and is paralized. Seeing she has no future in a land that neither respects the poor, nor women, he poisons her. Th

Stunning colors punctuate this strong Tamil-language narrative, where the setting acts as another character in the well-woven script. Though history contextualizes Kanchivaram it’s Vengadam’s strong desire that drives the film’s mystical tone and sensitive approach to the social realities of India’s caste structure.

Four Chapters – A Review

Four Chapters is one of those films where you have the feeling that you might have gotten just a bit more if you were from the country of origin. While meditative, well shot, and having a slow beauty, the spiritual search seems distant and troubled, as if something is missing. And perhaps that is the point—spiritual journeys are never easy.

Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s Four Chapters, Sachish is a young man who breaks with his father’s Hindu religious beliefs to follow his reformist uncle who is willing to feed poor Muslims, which scandalizes the family. When his brother’s young mistress becomes pregnant and is abandoned by him, Sachish offers to marry her to save her from the street. Again, it creates a scandal and the mistress kills herself before the wedding can occur. His uncle then begings a hospital, but soon sucumbs to a fever and dies, leaving Sachish grief stricken. He joins an ashram where he has given up all worldly attachment and follows a guru. Sachish’s friend comes to the ashram seeking to convince Sachish that the guru is a fraud, but, instead, he stays with Sachish to see if faith could be better than the skepticism of his uncle. While they are with the guru they meet Damini who is a widow and a ward of the guru. She sees Sachish and wants to break him free from his allegence to the guru and marry her. Although she tries, he is unwilling. Eventually, they leave the guru so Sachish can find an even deeper faith. Damini who has no other options marries Sachish’s friend who has grown attached to her. Damini and her husband return to the world of work while the last we see of Sachish he is staring at the sea watching singing Sufis walk by.

Four Chapters is even handed in the way it looks at faith. At first it seems as if the guru is going to be a corrupt man, more interested in the physical world than the spiritual. He does need money to run his ashram, but he doesn’t seem to spend it on himself. He is a patriarchal man who thinks women need to be taken care of and supervised. Instead, the criticism is aimed more at the rich families who invite in the gurus, pay them for personal advice, then continue their profligate lives. The gurus are just answering a call. This is why Sachish has to leave the ashram and find something even more spiritual, something that leaves the work of the guru behind. At the beginning of the movie it is Sachish’s father who is spiritual but also doesn’t want to have anything to do with poor Muslims. Sachish who first takes on the asceticism of social reform is natural upset by this and distances himself from his family. It this initial conflict that frames the search for spiritual meaning against the use of spiritualism as something to make you feel better about yourself.

Four Chapters is also interested in looking at how women are treated. Damini has no freedom. As a widow she is dependent of the guru who received her husbands estate, an estate which Damini’s father gave her. She becomes a prisoner in her own estate. To find freedom she must marry again. This is why she trys to attach herself to Sachish. Damini is in a similar position to the woman that Sachish was going to marry at the beginning of the film. She, too, didn’t have any options for life without a man.

Four Chapters is a good film that blends the search for spiritual faith with that of social criticism. It is interested in the subtleties of hypocrisy rather than out and out castigation. That stance makes it a subtle and, at times, slow. Nevertheless, it is worth seeing.