Although he was widely regarded as one of the most famous British authors of all time, Rudyard Kipling’s birthplace was across the world from the British Isle in what was then known as British India. Kipling drew upon his upbringing in Bombay as inspiration for many of his most famous works including The Jungle Book (1894) and Kim (1901). The first English-speaker to win the Nobel Prize in Literature harkened back to his childhood in his novel The Eyes of Asia, about a Sikh Man’s experience fighting in World War I for the British.
Published on May 19, 1917
SCENE: Pavilion and Dome Hospital, Brighton — 1915. What talk is this, Doctor Sahib? This Sahib says he will be my letter writer? Just as though he were a bazar letter writer? … What are the Sahib’s charges? Two annas? Too much; I give one. . . . No! No! Sahib! You shouldn’t have come down so quickly. You’ve forgotten; we Sikhs always bargain … Well, one anna be it. I will give a bond to pay it out of my wound-pension when I get home. Sit by the side of my bed …
This is the trouble, Sahib: My brother, who holds his land and works mine outside Amritsar City, is a fool. He is older than I. He has done his service and got one wound out of it in what they used to call war — that child’s play in the Tirah. He thinks himself a soldier! But that is not his offense. He sends me post cards, Sahib — scores of post cards — whining about the drouth, or the taxes, or the crops, or our servants’ pilferings, or some such trouble. He doesn’t know what trouble means. I want to tell him he is a fool … What? True! True, one can get money and land, but never a new brother. But for all that, he is a fool … Is he a good farmer? Sa-heeb! If an Amritsar Sikh isn’t a good farmer a hen doesn’t know an egg … Is he honest? As my own pet yoke of bullocks. He is only a fool. My belly is on fire now with knowledge I never had before, and I wish to impart it to him — to the village elders — to all people. Yes, that is true too. If I keep calling him a fool he will not gain any knowledge … Let me think it over on all sides. Aha! Now that I have a bazar writer of my own, I will write a book — a very book to my fool of a brother … And now we will begin. Take down my words from my lips to my foolish old farmer brother:
“You will have received the notification of my wounds which I took in Franceville. Now that I am better of my wounds, I have leisure to write with a long hand. Here we have paper and ink at command. Thus it is easy to let off the fumes of our hearts. Send me all the news of all the crops and what is being done in our village. This poor parrot is always thinking of Kashmir.
“As to my own concerns, the trench in which I sat was broken by a bomb-golee as large as our smallest grain chest.” [He’ll go off and measure it at once!] “It dropped out of the air. It burst, the ground was opened and replaced upon seven of us. I and two others took wounds. Sweetmeats are not distributed in wartime. God permitted my soul to live, by means of the doctors’ strong medicines. I have inhabited six hospitals before I came here to England. This hospital is like a temple. It is set in a garden beside the sea. We lie on iron cots beneath a dome of gold and colors and glittering glasswork, with pillars.” [You know that’s true, Sahib. We can see it — but d’you think he’ll believe? Never! Never!] “Our food is cooked for us according to our creeds — Sikh, or Brahmin, or Mussulman, and all the rest. When a man dies he is also buried according to his creed. Though he has been a groom or a sweeper, he is buried like some great landowner. Do not let such matters trouble you henceforth. Living or dying, all is done in accordance with the ordinance of our faiths. Some low-caste men, such as sweepers, counting upon the ignorance of the doctors, make a claim to be of reputable caste in order that they may get consideration. If a sweeper in this hospital says he is forbidden by his caste to do certain things he is believed. He is not beaten.” [Now, why is that, Sahib? They ought to be beaten for pretending to caste, and making a mock of the doctors. I should slipper them publicly — but — I’m not the Government. We will go on.]
“The English do not despise any sort of work. They are of many castes, but they are all one kind in this. On account of my wounds I have not yet gone abroad to see English fields or towns.” [It is true I have been out twice in a motor carriage, Sahib, but that goes too quickly for a man to see shops, let alone faces. We will not tell him that. He does not like motor cars.] “The French in Franceville work continually without rest. The French and the Phlahamahnds-Flamands — who are a caste of French, are kings among cultivators. As to cultivation” — [Now, I pray, Sahib, write quickly for I am as full of this matter as a buffalo of water] — “their fields are larger than ours, without any divisions, and they do not waste anything except the width of the footpath. The land descends securely from father to son upon payment of tax to the Government, just as in civilized countries. I have observed that they have their land always at their hearts and in their mouths, just as in civilized countries. They do not grow more than one crop a year, but this is recompensed to them because their fields do not need irrigation. The rain in Franceville is always sure and abundant and in excess. They grow all that we grow, such as peas, onions, garlic, spinach, beans, cabbages and wheat. They do not grow small grains or millet, and their only spice is mustard. They do not drink water, but the juice of apples, which they squeeze into barrels for that purpose. A full bottle is sold for two pice. They do not drink milk, but there is abundance of it. It is all cows’ milk, of which they make butter in a churn, which is turned by a dog.” [Now, how shall we make my brother believe that? Write it large.] “In Franceville the dogs are both courteous and industrious. They play with the cat, they tend the sheep, they churn the butter, they draw a cart and guard it too. When a regiment meets a flock the dogs of their own wisdom order the sheep to step to one side of the road. I have often seen this.” [Not one word of this will he or anyone in the villages believe, Sahib. What can you expect? They have never even seen Lahore City! We will tell him what he can understand.] “Plows and carts are drawn by horses. Oxen are not used for these purposes in these villages. The fieldwork is wholly done by old men and women and children, who can all read and write. The young men are all at the war. The war comes also to the people in the villages, but they do not regard the war because they are cultivators. I have a friend among the French — an old man in the village where the Regiment was established, who daily fills in the holes made in his fields by the enemy’s shells with dirt from a long-handled spade. I begged him once to desist when we were together on this work, but he said that idleness would cause him double work for the day following. His grandchild, a very small maiden, grazed a cow behind a wood where the shells fell, and was killed in that manner. Our Regiment was told the news and they took an account of it, for she was often among them, begging buttons from their uniforms. She was small and full of laughter, and she had, learned a little of our tongue.” [Yes. That was a very great shame, Sahib. She was the child of us all. We exacted a payment, but she was slain — slain like a calf for no fault. A black shame! . . . We will write about other matters.]
“As to cultivation, there are no words for its excellence or for the industry of the cultivators. They esteem manure most highly. They have no need to burn cow dung for fuel. There is abundance of charcoal. Thus, not irrigating or burning dung for fuel, their wealth increases of itself. They build their houses from ancient times round about mountainous dung heaps, upon which they throw all things in season. It is a possession from father to son, and increase comes forth. Owing to the number of army horses in certain places there arises very much horse dung. When it is excessive the officers cause a little straw to be lit near the heaps. The French and the Phlahamahnds, seeing the smoke, assemble with carts, crying: ‘What waste is this?’ The officers reply: ‘None will carry away this dung. Therefore, we burn it.’ All the cultivators then entreat for leave to carry it away in their carts, be it only as much as two dogs can draw. By this device horse lines are cleaned.
“Listen to one little thing: The women and the girls cultivate as well as the men in all respects.” [That is a true tale, Sahib. We know — but my brother knows nothing except the road to market.] “They plow with two and four horses as great as hills. The women of Franceville also keep the accounts and the bills. They make one price for everything. No second price is to be obtained by any talking. They cannot be cheated over the value of one grain. Yet of their own will they are generous beyond belief. When we came back from our work in the trenches they arise at any hour and make us warm drinks of hot coffee and milk and bread and butter. May God reward these ladies a thousand times for their kindness! But do not throw everything upon God. I desire you will get me in Amritsar City a carpet, at the shop of Davee Sahai and Chumba Mall — one yard in width and one yard and a half in length, of good color and quality to the value of forty rupees. The shop must send it with all charges paid, to the address which I have had written in English character on the edge of this paper. She is the lady of the house in which I was billeted in a village for three months. Though she was advanced in years and belonged to a high family, yet in the whole of those three months I never saw this old lady sit idle. Her three sons had gone to the war. One had been killed; one was in hospital; and a third, at that time, was in the trenches. She did not weep or wail at the death or the sickness, but accepted the dispensation. During the time I was in her house she ministered to me to such an extent that I cannot adequately describe her kindness. Of her own free will she washed my clothes, arranged my bed, and polished my boots daily for three months. She washed down my bedroom daily with hot water, having herself heated it. Each morning she prepared me a tray with bread, butter, milk and coffee. When we had to leave that village that old lady wept on my shoulder. It is strange that I had never seen her weep for her dead son, but she wept for me. Moreover, at parting she would have had me take a fi-farang note for expenses on the road.” [What a woman! What a woman! I had never believed such women existed in this black age.]
“If there be any doubt of the quality or the color of the carpet ask for an audience of the Doctor Linley Sahib, if he is still in Amritsar. He knows carpets. Tell him all I have written concerning this old lady — may God keep her and her remaining household! — and he will advise. I do not know the Doctor Sahib, but he will overlook it in wartime. If the carpet is even fifty rupees, I can securely pay out of the monies which our lands owe me. She is an old lady. It must be soft to her feet, and not inclined to slide upon the wooden floor. She is well-born and educated.” [And now we will begin to enlighten him and the elders!]
“We must cause our children to be educated in the future. That is the opinion of all the Regiment, for by education even women accomplish marvels, like the women of Franceville. Get the boys and girls taught to read and write well. Here teaching is by Government order. The men go to the war daily. It is the women who do all the work at home, having been well taught in their childhood. We have yoked only one buffalo to the plow up till now. It is now time to yoke up the mulch buffaloes. Tell the village elders this and exercise influence.” [Write that down very strongly, Sahib. We who have seen Franceville all know it is true.]
“But as to cultivation: The methods in Franceville are good. All tools are of iron. They do not break. A man keeps the tools he needs for his work and his repairs in his house under his own hand. He has not to go back to the village a mile away if anything breaks. We never thought, as these people do, that all repairs to tools and plows can be done on the very spot. All that is needed when a strap breaks is that each plowman should have an awl and a leather cutter to stitch the leather. How is it with us in our country? If leather breaks we farmers say that leather is unclean, and we go back from the fields into the village to the village cobbler that he may mend it. Unclean? Do not we handle that same thing with the leather on it after it has been repaired? Do we not even drink water all day with the very hand that has sweated into the leather? Meantime we have surely lost an hour or two in coming and going from the fields.” [He will understand that. He chatters like a monkey when the men waste time. But the village cobbler will be very angry with men!] “The people of Franceville are astonished to learn that all our land is full of dogs which do no work — not even to keep the cattle out of the tilled fields. Among the French, both men and women and little children occupy themselves with work at all times on the land. The children wear no jewelry, but they are more beautiful than I can say. It is a country where the women are not veiled. Their marriage is at their own choice, and takes place between their twentieth and twenty-fifth year. They seldom quarrel or shout out. They do not pilfer from each other. They do not tell lies at all. When calamity overtakes them there is no ceremonial of grief, such as tearing the hair or the like. They swallow it down and endure silently. Doubtless, this is the fruit of learning in youth.”
[Now we will have a word for our Guru at home. He is a very holy man. Write this carefully, Sahib.] It is said that the French worship idols. I have spoken of this with my old lady and her Guru [priest]. It is not true in any way. There are certainly images in their shrines and deotas [local gods] to whom they present petitions as we do in our home affairs, but the prayer of the heart goes to the God Himself. I have been assured this by the old priests. All the young priests are fighting in the war. The Frenchmen uncover the head but do not take off the shoes at prayer. They do not speak of their religion to strangers, and they do not go about to make converts. The old priest in the village where I was billeted so long said that all roads, at such times as these, return to God.” [Our Guru at home says that himself; so he cannot be surprised if there are others who think it.] “The old priest gave me a little medal which he wished me to wear round my neck. Such medals are reckoned holy among the French. He was a very holy man and it averts the evil eye. The women also carry holy beads to help keep count of their prayers.
“Certain men of our Regiment divided among themselves as many as they could pick up of the string of beads that used to be carried by the small maiden whom the shell slew. It was found forty yards distant from the hands. It was that small maiden who begged us for our buttons and had no fear. The Regiment made an account of it, reckoning one life of the enemy for each bead. They deposited the beads as a pledge with the regimental clerk. When a man of the guarantors was killed, the number of his beads which remained unredeemed was added to the obligation of the guarantors, or they elected an inheritor of the debt in his place.” [He will understand that. It was very correct and businesslike, Sahib. Our Pathan Company arranged it.] “It was seven weeks before all the beads were redeemed, because the weather was bad and our guns were strong and the enemy did not stir abroad after dark. When all the account was cleared, the beads were taken out of pawn and returned to her grandfather, with a certificate; and he wept.
“This war is not a war. It is a world-destroying battle. All that has gone before this war in this world till now has been only boys throwing colored powder at each other. No man could conceive it. What do you or the Mohmunds or anyone who has not been here know of war? When the ignorant in future speak of war I shall laugh, even though they be my elder brethren. Consider what things are done here, and for what reasons.
A little before I took my wounds, I was on duty near an officer who worked in wire and wood and earth to make traps for the enemy. He had acquired a tent of green cloth upon sticks, with a window of soft glass that could not be broken. All coveted the tent. It was three paces long and two wide. Among the covetous was an officer of artillery in charge of a gun that shook mountains. It gave out a shell of ten maunds or more [eight hundred pounds]. But those who have never seen even a rivulet cannot imagine the Indus. He offered many rupees to purchase the tent. He would come at all hours increasing his offer. He overwhelmed the owner with talk about it.” [I heard them often, Sahib.] “At last, and I heard this also, that tent owner said to that artillery officer: ‘I am wearied with your importunity. Destroy today a certain house that I shall show you, and I will give you the tent for a gift. Otherwise, have no more talk.’ He showed him the roof of a certain white house which stood back three kos [six miles] in the enemy country, a little underneath a hill with woods on each side. Consider this, measuring three kos in your mind along the Amritsar Road. The gunner officer said: ‘By God, I accept this bargain!’ He issued orders and estimated the distance. I saw him going back and forth as swiftly as a lover. Then fire was delivered and at the fourth discharge the watchers through their glasses saw the house spring high and spread abroad and lie upon its face. It was as a tooth taken out by a barber. Seeing this the gunner officer sprang into the tent and looked through the window and smiled because the tent was now his. But the enemy did not understand the reasons. There was a great gunfire all that night, as well as many enemy regiments moving about. The prisoners taken afterward told us their commanders were disturbed at the fall of the house, ascribing it to some great design on our part; that their men had no rest for a week. Yet it was all done for a little green tent’s sake.
“I tell you this that you may understand the meaning of things. This is a world where the very hills are turned upside down, with the cities upon them. He who comes alive out of this business will forever after be as a giant. If anyone wishes to see it let him come here or remain disappointed all his life.”
[We will finish with affection and sweet words. After all, a brother is a brother.] “As for myself, why do you write to me so many complaints? Are you fighting in this war or I? You know the saying: A soldier’s life is for his family; his death is for his country; his discomforts are for himself alone. I joined to fight when I was young. I have eaten the Government’s salt till I am old. I am discharging my obligation. When all is at an end the memory of our parting will be but a dream.
“I pray the Guru to bring together those who are separated. God alone is true. Everything else is but a shadow.”
[That is poetry. Oh — and add this, Sahib:]
“Let there be no delay about the carpet. She would not accept anything else.”
Featured image illustrated by Harvey Dunn, SEPS
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