January 31st, 2010

Without Benefit Of Clergy

The full title is Life's Handicap, being stories of Mine Own People.  Kipling was an Anglo-Indian, reared by a native ayah, who, in his own account, thought and dreamed in a "vernacular diction" before he learned English. When he says "Mine Own People" he means the people of India- all of them- not just those with pallid skins.

"Without Benefit of Clergy" tells the story of the relationship between two of these people- an English civil servant and the teenage Muslim girl he buys from her mother on a whim. It is a very simple story. What began as a prank quickly turns serious. The relationship has to be kept secret- at least from the man's white colleagues- and is conducted in a fever of anxiety- on her part because she knows he will eventually leave her for the "bold white mem-log", on his because he fears she will die- in childbirth or in one of the seasonal epidemics.  Nevertheless there are moments of feverish joy.  They name their happiness to be sure of it, then traduce it for fear of the gods. A child is born, stars are counted, a nursery rhyme is sung. But the end has been foreshadowed- and as Holden, the white man, rides away from the empty house he mutters to himself, "Oh you brute! You utter brute!"

It's a story about identity. The man's skin marks him out as a Sahib- and condemns him to the world of the club and the garden party- but his heart is in the little house with Ameera where- in hours snatched from the dull routine of his public life- he gets to speak and act as a Mussulman. Which is stronger, blood or desire? The house will be pulled down and a road built over it as the municipality wishes- "from the burning ghaut to the city wall"- but Holden: what will he do with the rest of his life? The question is left unanswered.

"Without Benefit of Clergy" and "On Greenhow Hill" are the two masterpieces of the collection. Elsewhere we have anger and opinions- here we have people merely living their lives- as we all do-  in a haze of imperfect understanding- hurting and being hurt.

At The End Of The Passage

"At The End of the Passage" regularly turns up in anthologies of great ghost stories. Like many of the best in the genre- "The Turn of the Screw" for example- it leaves us with questions. Were there really spooks involved or was everything in the mind? And if the spooks are real why exactly is Hummil being haunted?  I have never been able to decide whether Kipling's decision to leave all the doors open and idly flapping is a strength or a weakness. 

Rating it purely for scariness- and how else should you judge a ghost story?- I give it no more than 4 or 5 out of 10.  "Things in a dead man's eye?" No, I don't believe in that either. The most unsettling moment comes when- having always observed Hummil from the outside- we are suddenly jolted into his shoes and see what he sees- as he sees it.

The true horror is existential. Four men gather to play cards once a week, in choking heat, in a bungalow with a torn ceiling cloth, not because they  particularly like one another, but because they'd otherwise go mad from boredom and stress.  If I don't rate this as one of Kipling's masterpieces it's because I feel it might have been even better- by which I mean more frightening- without the ghosts.

Halfway Through

We're half way through Life's Handicap now- and the stories are getting shorter and slighter.

"The Mutiny of The Mavericks" is about an attempt by an international terrorist group to infiltrate and subvert an Irish Regiment. We're not told what I.A.A means, but I'm guessing one of those 'A's stands for Anarchist. It's a rollicking yarn in Kipling's richest vein of pitch-black jocularity. The moral I draw is that our great-great-grandparents were less rattled by terrorists than we are.

"The Mark of the Beast" was once notorious for its brutality. By the standards of today's torture porn it's a mild little thing, but it ruffled feathers in the 1890s. A white man- Strickland of the police- uses heated gun barrels and loops of fishing line on an oriental- how utterly unheard of!  For all that its shock value has faded, it is still pretty damn amazing.

"The Return of Imray"  features Strickland again- a character with Holmes-like characteristics, to whom Kipling returned- at intervals- all through his writing career. Here he solves a not very challenging murder mystery. There is also a remarkably convincing ghost.