Rudyard Kipling’s short stories of life in the British Raj began in 1888 as journalistic snippets written to supplement his more serious factual output when he was employed as the assistant editor, at the meagre age of 20, of the Lahori-based Civil and Military Gazette.
A child of the British colonial system, Kipling had been born in India, brought up by a Hindustani-speaking ayah, and then sent, rather brutally, back to England for his school years but returned to the India he loved almost as soon as he was legally allowed to. These wry, evocative and extremely witty stories of the British at play in the hills of Simla, escaping the fire of the Indian high summer, have had their share of controversy.
Kipling’s love for the society he was born into and worked with shines out of the tales with the heat of the Indian sun. But his enthusiasm has often been taken to be an endorsement of the English colonial system – George Orwell called him the ‘prophet of British Imperialism’, and he did indeed revel in the eccentricities and peculiarities of the expatriate community. But his tone is undeniably ironic.
Mrs. Hauksbee, one of the most enduring of Kipling’s characters encountered in these tales, is every inch the haughty tigress of a colonial memsahib before whom we are meant to cower and to whose brilliant manipulations we are meant to succumb. However, we are also supposed to laugh at her. She’s very funny. In these tales India is a character of her own, one to be warily watched by those clinging staunchly to a sense of their own very distant culture.