Friday, 8 November 2013

Without Benefit of Clergy by Rudyard Kipling

Things were different then. The Nobel Prize committee (1907) cites:

The second, the note of sympathy and human kindness, is most clearly marked in «The Story of Muhammad Din» and in «Without Benefit of Clergy» (in Life's Handicap), a gem of heartfelt emotion.

‘Benefit’ on any reading is equivocal. A young official of the Raj buys a 14 year old Muslim girl from her widowed mother and keeps her for two years until she has matured to his taste.

At his feet sat a woman of sixteen, and she was all but all the world in his eyes. By every rule and law she should have been otherwise, for he was an Englishman, and she a Mussulman's daughter bought two years before from her mother, who, being left without money, would have sold Ameera shrieking to the Prince of Darkness if the price had been sufficient.
It was a contract entered into with a light heart; but even before the girl had reached her bloom she came to fill the greater portion of John Holden's life.

The arrangement was probably entered into for hygenic reasons and turning it into a romance is a sleight of hand that Kipling almost manages with roseate patter disguising one of the sordid boons of Empire that enabled jumped up clerks to live in an aristocratic manner. All parties concerned know that this is a temporary arrangement and John Holdens’ officers would have known about it too. I find a sly allusion to this and the reader may find me over-interpreting but the strength of Kipling’s art lies in the alternate readings that swim about between the lines and make an equivocal world that is very like the real one. ‘Be ye not double-minded’ says the epistle but we are though we try not to become aware of it.

The drawbacks of a double life are manifold. The Government, with singular care, had ordered him out of the station for a fortnight on special duty in the place of a man who was watching by the bedside of a sick wife. The verbal notification of the transfer had been edged by a cheerful remark that Holden ought to think himself lucky in being a bachelor and a free man.

I find a sly irony in that remark. As if the coming and going of a white man in another part of the city outside the cantonment would not be noted but so long as his separate life is kept that way the authorities will ignore it. A man has his needs after all.

Holden has a counter establishment where he has installed his mistress and her mother and a gatekeeper who keeps them both under watch. Local Muslim rules o.k..

Any one could enter his bachelor's bungalow by day or night, and the life that he led there was an unlovely one. In the house in the city his feet only could pass beyond the outer courtyard to the women's rooms; and when the big wooden gate was bolted behind him he was king in his own territory, with Ameera for queen.

Both mother and daughter know that this is a temporary arrangement and that in the end a white mem-sahib will be a suitable bride for an officer of the Raj but an event is about to occur which may bind Holden closer. Ameera is going to have a baby. Holden has come to love her and the man-child when it arrives is beautiful. The idyll continues but approaching the red-walled city as the dry season turns to drought is a cholera epidemic.

Kipling ran his cosmos according to Freemason Rules, by the line, by the level, by the plumb, by the square, by the all-seeing Eye. Clearly there were corrections to be made. Durga Dass the landlord of the house, a love-nest somewhat East of Stockholm, knows what to do:

When the birds have gone what need to keep the nest? I will have it pulled down—the timber will sell for something always. It shall be pulled down, and the Municipality shall make a road across, as they desire, from the burning-ghat to the city wall, so that no man may say where this house stood.

In his own way. with the artist’s sublime duplicity, Kipling has said where that house stood.


Edmund Wilson who admired this story (The Wound and the Bow had a long relationship with a taxi dancer. Though it seems he was happy with her, there was no question of him marrying her. That would be the fate of a high caste Vassar girl who tried to smoke him out of his study by pushing burning papers under his door.
Aii chota sahib , kismet.

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