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 an Indian man’s experience fighting in World War I for the French.
Published on June 9, 1917
To the sister of the pensioned Risaldar Major Abdul Qadr Khan, at her own house behind the shrine of Gulu Shah, near by the village of Korake in the Pasrur Tehsil of the Sialkot District in the Province of the Punjab. Sent out of the country of France on the 23d of August 1916, by Duffadar Abdul Rahman of the 132d- Pakpattan — Cavalry — late Lambart’s Horse. Mother, the news is that once only in five months I have not received a letter from you. My thoughts are always with you.
Mother, put your ear down and listen to me. Do not fret; I will soon be with you again. Imagine that I have merely gone to Lyallpur [a big depot in India]; think that I have been delayed there by an officer’s order, or that I am not yet ready to come back. Mother, think of me always as though I were sitting nearby, just as I imagine you always beside me. Be of good cheer, Mother; there is nothing that I have done which is hidden from you. I tell you truly, Mother, I will salute you again. Do not grieve. I tell you confidently I shall bow before you again in salutation. It will be thus, Mother. I shall come in the dead of the night and knock at your door. Then I will call loudly that you may wake and open the door to me. With great delight you will open the door and fold me to your breast, my Mother. Then I will sit down beside you and tell you what has happened to me — good and evil. Then having rested the night in comfort I will go out after the day has come and I will salute all my brethren at the mosque and in the village. Then I will return and eat my bread in pleasure and happiness. You, Mother, will say to me: “Shall I give you some ghi?” [native butter]. I will say at first proudly, like one who has traveled: “No; I want none.” You will press me, and I will softly push my plate over to you and you will fill it with ghi, and I shall dip my cake in it with delight. Believe me, Mother, this homecoming will take place just as I have described it. I see you before me always. It seems to me only yesterday that I bent to your feet when I made salutation and you put your hand upon my head.
Mother, put your trust in God to guard my head. If my grave lies in France it can never be in the Punjab, though we try for a thousand years. If it be in the Punjab then I shall certainly return to it, to that very place. Meantime, Mother, consider what I have to eat. This is the true list: I eat daily sugar and ghi and flour, salt, meat, red peppers, some almonds, and dates, sweets of various kinds, as well as raisins and cardamoms. In the morning I eat tea and white biscuits. An hour after, halwa and puri [native dishes]. At noon, tea and bread; at seven o’clock of the evening, vegetable curry. At bedtime I drink milk. There is abundance of milk in this country. I am more comfortable here, I swear it to you, Mother, than any high officer in India. As for our clothing, there is no account kept of it. You would cry out, Mother, to see the thick cloth expended. So I beg you, Mother, to take comfort concerning your son. Do not tear my heart by telling me your years. Though we both lived to be as old as elephants, I am your son, who will come asking for you as I said, at your door.
As to the risk of death, who is free from it anywhere? Certainly not in the Punjab. I hear that all those religious mendicants at Zilabad have proclaimed a holy fair this summer in order that pious people may feed them; and now, having collected in thousands beside the river in hot weather, they have spread cholera all over the district. There is trouble raging throughout all the world, Mother, and yet these sons of mean fathers must proclaim a beggars’ festival in order to add to it. There should be an order of the Government to take all those lazy rascals out of India into France and put them in our front line, that their bodies may be sieves for the machine guns. Why cannot they blacken their faces and lie in a corner, with a crust of bread? It is certainly right to feed the family priests, Mother, but when the idle assemble in thousands begging and making sickness, and polluting the drinking water, punishment should be administered.
Very much sickness, such as cholera and dysentery, is caused by drinking foul water. Therefore, it is best to have it boiled, Mother, no matter what is said. When clothes are washed in foul water sickness also spreads. You will say, Mother, that I am no longer a trooper, but a washerwoman or an apothecary; but I swear to you, my Mother, what I have said is true. Now, I have two charges to deliver to you as to the household under you. I beg you, my Mother, to give order that my son drink water which is boiled, at least from the beginning of the hot weather till after the rains. That is one charge. The second is that, when I was going down to the sea with the Regiment, the Lady Doctor Sahiba in the Civil Lines asked of our Colonel’s lady whether any of us desired that their households should take the charm against the smallpox [be vaccinated]. I was then busy with my work and I made no reply. Now let that Doctor Sahiba know that I desire by her favor that my son take the charm as soon as may be. I charge you, Mother, upon his head, that it is done soon. I beg you respectfully to take this charge upon you.
Oh, my Mother, if I could now see you for but half of one watch in the night or at evening preparing food! I remember the old days in my dreamings; but when I awake there is the sleeper and there is the bedding, and it is more far off than Delhi. But God will accomplish the meetings and surely arrange the return.
Mother, before going out to the attack the other day, I had a dream. I dreamed that a great snake appeared in our trenches in France and at the same time our Pir Murshid [our family priest], whose face I saw quite clearly, appeared with a stick and destroyed it. Well, then, Mother, our lot went into the attack and returned from it safely. Those who were fated to be the victims of death were taken and those who were fated to be wounded were wounded; and all our party returned safely. At the same time, the Government secured a victory and the Regiment obtained renown. It was our horse that went out over the trenches, Mother; and the Germans, being alarmed, fled. We were forbidden to pursue because of hidden guns. This was trouble to us. We owed them much blood on our brethren’s account. Tell the Murshid my dream and ask him for a full interpretation. I have also seen our Murshid twice before in my dreams. Ask him why he comes to me thus. I am not conscious of any wrongdoing; and if it is a sign of favor to me, then the shape should speak.
I am quite aware how God rewards the unwilling. He is all powerful. Look at the case of that man of our own family who was ordered to the front with a higher rank. He refused promotion in order to stay behind, and in a month’s time he died of the plague in his own village. If he had gone to the front his family would have received the war pension. An atheist never achieves honor, Mother. He is always unsettled and has no consolations. Do we Mussulmen think that the Prophet will spend all his time in asking God to forgive our transgressions? Tell the Pir Murshid what I have written.
Mother, put down your ear and listen to me in this matter, my Mother. There is one thing I wish to impress earnestly on you. You must know that among recruits for the Regiment there are too few of our kind of Mussulmen. They are sending recruits from the Punjab who were formerly laborers and common workmen. The consequence of this is, in the Regiment, that we Mussulmen are completely outnumbered by these low people, and the promotions go accordingly. Each of our troops, my Mother, has been divided into two — that is to say, there are four troops to a squadron. We Mussulmen should have at least two troops out of the four; but, owing to the lack of recruits, we have not sufficient men of our sort to form more than one. Now, Mother, as it was in our father’s time, he who supplies the men gets the promotion. Therefore, if our friends at home, and especially our Pir Murshid, would exert themselves to supply fifteen or twenty recruits, I could approach my Colonel Sahib in regard to promotion. If my Colonel received my request favorably then you at home would only have the trouble to provide the men. But I do not think, Mother, there would be any trouble if our Pir Murshid exerted himself in the matter, and if my father’s brother also exerted himself. A family is a family even [if it be] scattered to the ends of the earth, Mother. My father’s brother’s name is still remembered in the Regiment on account of his long service and his great deeds of old. Tell him, my Mother, that the men talk of him daily as though he had only resigned yesterday. If he rides out among the villages with his medals he will certainly fetch in many of our class. If it were fifty it would mean much more influence for me with my Colonel. He is very greedy for our class of Mahomedans.
Mother, our Pir Murshid, too, is a very holy man. If he preached to them after harvest he would fetch in many and I should be promoted; and the pensions go with the promotion. In a short time, by God’s assistance, I might command a troop if sufficient recruits were attained by the exertions of my friends and well-wishers. The honor of one is the honor of all. Lay all this before the Murshid and my uncle.
None of the Cavalry have yet done anything to compare with the Regiment. This may be because of fate, or that their nature is not equal to ours. There is great honor to be got out of a lance before long. The war has become loosened and Cavalry patrols are being sent forward. We have driven Mama Lumra [a nickname for the enemy] several miles across country. He has planted his feet again, but it is not the same Mama Lumra. His arrogance is gone. Our guns turn the earth upside down upon him. He has made himself houses underneath which are in all respects fortresses, with beds, chairs and lights. Our guns break these in. There is little to see, because Mama Lumra is buried underneath. These days are altogether different from the days when all our Army was here and Mama Lumra’s guns overwhelmed us by day and by night. Now Mama Lumra eats his own stick. Fighting goes on in the sky, on earth and under earth. Such fighting is rarely vouchsafed anyone to behold. Yet, if one reflects upon God, it is no more than rain on a roof. Mother, once I was reported “missing, killed, or believed taken prisoner.” I went with a patrol to a place beyond which we went forward to a place which had recently been taken by the English infantry. Suddenly the enemy’s fire fell upon us and behind us like water. Seeing we could not go back, we lay down in holes made by shells. The enemy exerted himself to the utmost; but our guns, having found him, bombarded him and he ceased. In the evening we retired out of our shell holes. We had to walk; it was fasting time and we suffered from thirst. So our hearts were relieved when we returned to the Regiment. We had all been reported to Divisional Headquarters as lost. This false report was then canceled. The shell holes in the ground are the size of our goat-pen and as deep as my height with the arm raised. They are more in number than can be counted, and of all colors. It is like smallpox upon the ground.
We have no smallpox or diseases here. Our doctors are strict, and refuse is burned by the sweepers. It is said there is no physician like fire. He leaves nothing to the flies. It is said that flies produce sicknesses, especially when they are allowed to sit on the nostrils and the corners of the eyes of the children, or to fall into their milk-pots. The young children of this country of France are beautiful, and do not suffer from sickness. Their women do not die in childbed. This is on account of physicians and midwives who abound in knowledge. It is a Government order, Mother, that none can establish as a midwife till she has shown ability. These people are idolaters. When there is a death which is not caused by war they instantly ascribe it to some fault in eating or drinking, or the conduct of life on the part of the dead. If one died without manifest cause the physicians at once mutilate the body to ascertain what evil was hidden inside it. If anything is discovered there is a criminal trial. Thus the womenfolk do not traffic in poisons, and wives have no suspicion one against the other. Truly, Mother, people are only defective on account of ignorance. Learning and knowledge are the important things.
Your letters come to me with every mail, exactly as if we were at headquarters. This is accomplished solely by knowledge. There are hundreds of women behind our lines who make clean and repair the dirty clothes of the troops. Afterward they are baked in very hot ovens, which utterly destroy the vermin and also, it is said, diseases. We have, too, been issued iron helmets to protect the head against falling shots. It was asked of us all if any had an objection. The Sikhs reported that they had not found any permission in their law to wear such things. They, therefore, go uncovered. It was reported by our priests for us Mahomedans that our law neither forbids nor enjoins. It is a thing indifferent. They are heavier than the pagri turban, but they turn shots. Doubtless it is Allah’s will that the lives of His Faithful should be prolonged by these hats. The sons of mothers who go to foreign parts are specially kept under His eye.
We know very well how the world is made. To earn a living and bear trouble is the duty of man. If I send you a report that I have won promotion in the Regiment, do not forget to distribute alms to the extent of fifteen rupees and to feed the poor.
Mother, put down your ear and listen to me. There is no danger whatever in boxpictures [snapshots — photographs]. Anyone submitted to them is in all respects as he was before. Nothing is taken out of his spirit. I myself, Mother, have submitted myself to many box-pictures, both mounted and standing beside my horse. If at any time again the Zenana Doctor Sahiba desires to make a box-picture of him do not snatch the child away but send the picture to me. I cannot see him in my dreams because at his age he changes with each month. When I went away he was still on all fours. Now you tell me he stands up holding by the skirts. I wish to see a box-picture of this very greatly indeed. I can read box-pictures now as perfectly as the French. When I was new to this country I could not understand their meaning in the least. This is on account of knowledge which comes by foreign travel and experience. Mother, this world abounds in marvels beyond belief. We in India are but stones compared to these people. They do not litigate among themselves; they speak truth at first answer; their weddings are not [performed] till both sides are at least eighteen, and no man has authority here to beat his wife.
I have resided in billets with an old man and his wife, who possess seven hens, an ass, and a small field of onions. They collect dung from our horse-lines upon their backs; a very little at a time, but continuously. They are without means of maintenance, yet they do not lay a finger upon any food except through invitation.
They call me Sia [monsieur?] which is Mian [Mahomedan title of respect], and also man barah [man brave ?], which signifies hero. I have spoken to them many times of you, my Mother, and they desire I send you their salutations. She calls me to account strictly for my doings each day. At evening tide I am fetched in with the hens. My clothes are then inspected and repaired when there is need. She turns me back and forth between her hands. If I exhibit impatience she hits me upon the side of the head, and I say to my heart it is your hands.
Now this is the French language, Mother:
(1) Zuur numonfahn. The morning salutation.
(2) Wasi lakafeh. Coffee is prepared.
(3) Abil towah mononfahn. Rise and go to parade.
(4) Doryneh beeahn mon fiz nublieh pahleh Bandihu. This is their dismissal at night, invoking the blessing of their God. They use a Tasbih [rosary] in form like ours, but of more beads. They recite prayers both sitting and walking. Having seen my Tasbih, these old people become curious concerning the Faith. Certainly they are idolaters. I have seen the images by the roadside which they worship. Yet they are certainly not Kafirs, who hide the truth, and the mercy of Allah is illimitable. They, too, send you their salutations thus: “Onvoyeh no zalutazioun sempresseh ar madam vot mair.” It is their form of blessing.
She has borne three sons. Two are already dead in this war and of the third no information since the springtime. There remains in the house the son of the eldest son. He is three years old. His name is Pir, which in their language also means a holy man. He runs barefoot in summer and wears only one garment. He eats all foods, and specially dates. In this country it is not allowed to give children cardamoms. He has learned to speak our tongue and bears a wooden sword, which was made for him, and a turban of our sort. When he is weary he repairs to the center of my bed, which is forbidden to him by his grandmother, of whom he has no fear. He fears nothing. My Mother, he is almost the same sort as my own. He sends his salutations to him. He calls him “My brother who is in India.” He also prays for him aloud before an idol which he is taken to worship. On account of his fatness he cannot yet kneel long, but falls over sideways. The idol is of Bibbee Miriam [the Virgin Mary], whom they, in this country, believe to watch over children. He has also a small idol of his own above his bed which represents a certain saint called Pir. He rides upon the ass and says he will become a trooper. I take delight in his presence and his conversation.
The children in this country are learned from their very birth. They go to the schools even when the shells fall nearby. They know all the countries in the world, and to read and write in their language, and to cast accounts. Even the girls of eight years can cast accounts, and those that are marriageable have complete knowledge of cookery, accounts and governments, and washing of clothes, agriculture and the manufacture of garments, and all other offices; otherwise they are reckoned infirmminded. Each girl is given a dowry to which she adds with her own hands. No man molests any woman here on any occasion. They come and go at their pleasure upon their business. There is one thing I should like to see, Mother. I should like to see all the men of India with all their wives brought to France in order to see the country and profit by their experiences. Here are no quarrels or contentions, and there is no dishonesty. All day long men do their work and the women do theirs. Compared with these people, the people of India do not work at all. All day long they are occupied with evil thoughts, and the women all day long they do nothing but quarrel. The blame for this state of affairs, Mother, lies upon the men of India, for if the men were to educate the women they would give up quarreling.
When a man goes out into the world his understanding is enlarged and he becomes proficient in different kinds of work. All that is needed is to show courage. At the present time one’s bravery or one’s cowardice is apparent. The opportunities for advancement come quickly. Such opportunities will not occur again.
As for any marriage [for me?] when I return, those things can wait till I return. It is no gain to take into the house a child or a sickly one who through no fault of her own dies in bringing forth. If there is any talk between our house and any other family upon this subject they should understand that I desire knowledge more than dowry. There are schools where girls are educated by English ladies. I am not of the sort to make a wedding outside my clan or country, but if I fight to keep Mama Lumra out of the Punjab I will choose my wives out of the Punjab. I desire nothing that is contrary to the Faith, Mother, but what was ample yesterday does not cover even the palm of the hand today. This is owing to the spread of enlightenment among all men coming and going and observing matters which they had never before known to exist.
In this country when one of them dies, the tomb is marked and named and kept like a garden, that the others may go to mourn over her. Nor do they believe a burial ground to be inhabited by evil spirits or ghouls. When I was upon a certain duty last month I lay three nights in a graveyard. None troubled me, even though the dead had been removed from their graves by the violence of shells bursting. One was a woman of this country, newly dead, whom we reburied for the sake of the Pity of Allah, and made the prayer. Tell the Pir Murshid this, and that I performed Tayamummum [the shorter purification with sand or dust, instead of ashes] afterward. There was no time for the full purification.
Oh, my Mother, my Mother, I am your son, your son; and, as I have said at the beginning, I will return to your arms from out of this country when God shall permit.
Featured image: Illustration by Harvey Dunn from the June 9, 1917, issue of the Post
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