Resident Outsiders

Imagining homeland through Kipling and his contemporaries in colonial Bengal

A bridge on the Hooghly River in Calcutta, in the late-nineteenth century. frith’s series / alinari / getty images
01 December, 2019

WHEN RUDYARD KIPLING FIRST ALIGHTED in Calcutta as a young journalist for The Pioneer, he keenly felt some kinship between the city and London. As the English author took in the view from a new colonial bequest to the city, a pontoon bridge designed by Bradford Leslie, he exclaimed, “Why, this is London! This is the docks. This is Imperial.” He was terribly homesick for the metropole, where the English could revel with “millions of their own kind, and a wilderness full of pretty, fresh-coloured Englishwomen.” Calcutta, Kipling thought, bore “false hopes of some return” to London.

In eight vignettes composed over three sweltering months in Calcutta, in 1888, and collected two years later in The City of Dreadful Night, Kipling’s readers will never find a man whose homesickness is assuaged by a foreign city willing to adopt him. Kipling never wanted to be adopted by Calcutta, or give into its promises of kinship or collaboration. He was a Victorian who was a man of his times—racial and national boundaries were sacrosanct, and any kinship was, in fact, a gross miscegenation. Imperial ego rears its gruesome head as soon as he senses the queer feeling of kinship between Calcutta and London. “It seems not only wrong but a criminal thing,” Kipling writes in the opening vignette, “to allow natives to have any voice in the control of such a city … existing only because England lives, and dependent for its life on England.”

Kipling did not perceive himself as a correspondent of Calcutta’s residents. He saw Indians as a commodity, as a steadfast propagandist for the Crown was wont to. Being a quintessential Victorian living in India meant serving the colonial purpose: to shoulder what he later referred to as “the white man’s burden.” Calcutta was his city not in the genial way an outsider comes to embrace his new home. It was his colonial bequest, a city to write about as if he owned and governed it, as one of its many authorised custodians.

Yet, to Kipling’s ire, and that of many other Englishmen, Calcutta remained a city that subverted the Victorians’ virulent obsession with strict boundaries. Bengalis crossed the race line as wealthy merchants, educators, persuasive orators with a penchant for governance. They were slowly impressing themselves as a community that had begun to challenge the Caucasian contingent’s intellectual hierarchy, in a city that had been partitioned into strict black and white towns. They had as much a claim on Calcutta as the English. But in the discourse of such claims on Calcutta, at the centre of which Kipling found himself, one recurring question that emerges is who had ownership over Calcutta: the natives who had resided in the area before Job Charnock established a British settlement and an East India Company factory in the village of Sutanuti, or the post-Charnock colonial rulers. Now that the white man’s burden had been lightened by bringing a European ethos—or, in their cruder view, “civilisation”—to Calcutta, what was to be done about its residents asking for a piece of the pie?