Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist
poliphilo

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.
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