Adventures in Bookland: The Naulahka by Rudyard Kipling
As a long-time apologist of Rudyard Kipling’s work and a fan of even longer standing (I was about six when I first read The Jungle Book, although the tales that really inspired me were those of the duel between the mongoose, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and the cobras Nag and Nagaina, and The White Seal‘s search for a birthing beach safe from the depredations of sealers), I was about two thirds of the way through The Naulahka and beginning to fear that I would not even be able to enjoy the story, let alone defend it, when the story flipped. What before I had read as the tale of Western disapproval of the East, as confirmation of all those lazy takes on Kipling as the apologist for Empire, I realised was something else entirely: The Naulahka is, in fact, a love letter to America and Americans. Kipling began writing the story in collaboration with Wolcott Balestier, the brother of his wife, Carrie Balestier, and its hero is as unabashedly American as Kipling could make him: the very personification of the men busy taming – and making money – from the expanding American frontier. The Naulahka puts such a man in India, not to illumine India, but to highlight America and Americans. Kipling makes no effort to present India or Indians from within – as he does in his other Indian stories – for the the protagonist is an outsider in India, and remains one for the entirety of the story. The Naulahka is Kipling’s version of de Tocqueville’s essay on America, an America exemplified by placing it in contrast to a stereotypical vision of India. Not Kipling’s best, but for this fan and apologist, enjoyable and defensible.