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Friday, September 10, 1999 Published at 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK

World: South Asia

Kipling comes under review

Some think Kipling understood India better than many

By South Asia analyst Chandrika Deshpande

In his new biography of Rudyard Kipling, author Andrew Lycett argues that the stereotyped view of the writer gives way to a much more complex character.

[ image: Rudyard Kipling: Classed as imperialist and racist]
Rudyard Kipling: Classed as imperialist and racist
Using previously unpublished material, Lycett tries to draw out the influences which permeate Kipling's writing - his early life in India, his closest relationships, and the loss of two of his children.

Lycett says he set out to challenge his own view of Kipling as superior and reactionary.

He says he finds Kipling an almost sympathetic character in some ways, but acknowledges that a lot of the criticism made about the writer and his prejudices is fair.

'Racist' views

"I think he was racist, in the terms of his time", says the author.

[ image: Kipling in his libary at his house in Vermont]
Kipling in his libary at his house in Vermont
"The fact that he lived in a sort of closed society, and although he tried to break out of it, there was not that sort of fluid contact that there is today."

Farruk Dhondhy, a writer who has studied Kipling, believes Kipling actually understood India and Indians better than any writer of his generation.

"I think Kipling is a great writer, for me he is up there with Shakespeare and Dickens, probably not as great as those two, but certainly as prolific, profound, far reaching and a creature of his time," he says.

According to Dhondhy, to label Kipling a racist is "extremely simplistic nonsense."

Liberal tendencies

In his book, Lycett also explores Kipling's political development, and suggests that at one time, the author actually displayed far more liberal tendencies than he is given credit for.

In India, says Lycett, whatever youthful idealism Kipling had, dissolved and Kipling the imperialist was born.

Kipling spent seven years working as a journalist based in the then Indian city of Lahore and later Allahabad.

During that time, he drew inspiration for some of his best-known work - The Jungle Book, Kim, and his collection of short stories, Plain Tales from the Hills.

Some experts such as Professor Tim Connell, a member of the Kipling Society, believes Kipling's vision of India comes from the fact that Kipling crossed the divide separating ruler from native subject in colonial India.

"The irony of course is that Kipling knew Indian society remarkably well, and indicates in fact that he has gone beyond the pale himself," he says.

Going beyond the pale

So did Kipling explore the underbelly of life in India?

According to Andrew Lycett, he did.

[ image: Kipling loved to explore the bazaars]
Kipling loved to explore the bazaars
"He writes in his letters about smoking opium, he liked to go into the bazaars and he wondered around there. He loved to be there at night to savour the sights and sounds."

Lycett says it also clear that Kipling did have amorous dalliances.

"From various entries in his diaries, it seems that he did have sexual encounters and again in his symphathetic references to Indian women in Plain Tales from the Hills that comes through."

Controversy will remain

Of course Kipling's writings extend well beyond the comparatively short time he spent as a son of the Raj.

In later life, back in England, his writing became darker, some say the work of a bitter man who lost a young daughter and sacrificed his son to the First World War.

Kipling is best remembered for his prolific writing as a journalist, author and poet which ensure he will remain one of the most quoted writers of his generation, as well as one of the most controversial.

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