On a wintry morning of 2012, I made my way to the front lawn of Diggi Palace. The sun was suave and the place was teeming with a motley crowd in colourful warmers. Like a habitual last-bencher, I chose the corner seat in the last row. There’s something convenient about sitting away from the scene of action. You can be deeply involved in the discourse, yet let your thoughts wander into different territories without getting caught.
Incidentally, it was the Republic Day. While New Delhi was busy showing off India’s military prowess to the world, four wise men on the podium were discussing Rudyard Kipling and his writings on colonial India. The four wise men included three biographers of Kipling — Charles Allen, David Gilmour and Andrew Lycett – and the moderator of the session, Swapan Dasgupta.
I had read the poem ‘If’ during my school days and that was my only rendezvous with the author. Interestingly, none of his works were included in the curriculum for those doing a major in English from Calcutta University. Yet, my limited exposure to his works didn’t deter me from forming an opinion about the author. I really felt that Kipling was a well-intentioned individual who chose not to sermonize but sensitize his readers by assuming a fatherly figure.
What deepened my understanding of the man was the poem ‘We and They’. It took just five minutes to make my very first day at the Jaipur Literature Festival memorable. I distinctly remember the giggles among the audience when Andrew Lycett read out the poem for us.
It was evident that the poet had let the cat out of the bag in the first few lines of the poem.
“FATHER, Mother, and Me
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And everyone else is They”
The entire humanity was split into ‘We’ and ‘They’. Since Kipling knew the pitfalls of being pedantic, he presented the world as seen from the eyes of a kid, the narrator. Although the poem tickles the funny bone and seems to make a social comment on values being taught and ideas indoctrinated at an early age, I discovered its greater relevance only after several reads.
Every time I come back to the poem, I think of Kipling as a man with a more evolved consciousness and empathy. Like Amartya Sen in ‘The Argumentative Indian’, Kipling seemed to ridicule all those who pay reverence to his own sect and disparage the sects of others. The profundity of his thoughts became even more pronounced when I compared them with Kalidasa’s applause for “beauty of varieties of human customs and behavior” and Akbar’s “unequivocal pronouncements on the priority of tolerance.”
A poem, that was written perhaps hundred years ago, was so oracular in its content that it opens the eyes of the 21st century Indian citizenry who are on either side of the debate over growing intolerance in the country. Substance has been replaced by slurs and the idea of holding debates has suffered a jolt. A new wave of intolerance and king-can-do-no-wrong attitude dominates the political discourse.
In this context, Kipling’s poem comes as a whiff of truth. I can’t think of better euphemisms to describe those who show disregard to anything and anyone who doesn’t ascribe to a particular view. One need not be cerebrally superior to understand what Kipling meant in the following lines:
“All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They”