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Kipling House

Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan write together as Kalpish Ratna. They are working on a biography of Garcia d’Orta
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A little green bungalow in Bombay, a colonial era writer who still haunts it, and the stories left to tell

It seems strange to think of it now, but my first view of Kipling House decided the rest of my life.

I had been hauled up by the hostel warden for ‘defacing’ a wall in my room. I had painted a mural.

I remember it now as a cross between a Peter Pauper dustjacket and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Then, it was my masterpiece, a stylised Lady Macbeth in deep orange and black. The geometry was basic, two diamonds of pulsatile colour: a large one, between splayed feet; the smaller, past heaving breasts, ending in hands poised to strike. Basic, as I said, and complicated only by the hormonal surge of 16. No denying it, there was a buzz about her. Back in 1974, I hadn’t heard of pheromones. When people drifted in and out of my room all morning, I put it down to Art. And then someone ratted to the warden.

“Clean it up!” he barked.

I glared at him. The man had used the D-word, and was distinctly subhuman. I would resist to the death.

By now the corridor was jammed. The enterprising Marwari on the second floor was selling tickets, 50 paise a pop.

The warden was a short man. Throughout the face-off, ticket holders gazed their fill past his shoulders at my opus. When he got wind of that, he locked the room, rusticated the key, and hauled me off to a ‘higher authority.’

Mr Ziauddin, a bookish man, blinked owlishly when the warden dangled the D-word again.

“It’s art,” I announced grandly. “I don’t understand what he means by ‘bad picture’. Is art bad?”

“More importantly,” Mr Ziauddin frowned, “is it bad art? I’ll have to see it to decide.”

Back trudged the procession up three rickety flights of steel-lipped stairs. Fresh tickets were being issued on the second floor landing.

My femme fatale and the Higher Authority eyeballed each other for a very long moment.

Then Mr Ziauddin turned to me. “So,” he asked, “when are you going to paint the other three walls?”

I would have answered him—if I hadn’t at that moment caught a glimpse of Kipling House from my window. It seemed to float among the treetops, fragile as a matchboard stage prop, green-painted timber, and scrolled wrought iron, a fragment of the hills magicked down to the coast. A feather-light illusion, ectopic among ponderosities—VT Station, The Times, the Municipal Corporation building—a small green bungalow holding its own against the cavorting nightmare of Bombay Gothic.

I didn’t know, not then, that it had anything to do with Kipling. I saw it for what it was—a splinter of a timbery hill station. For me, that spelt home. Panchgani was full of bungalows that looked like this one.

If I were to paint the rest of those walls, I would probably spend five years next door in the School of Art and Architecture, attending classes around if not actually in that very bungalow.

That decided me. I hadn’t come here, to Bombay, to go back home again. The world beckoned, and for sure it wasn’t housed in that little green bungalow.

I never did paint those other three walls. The next year found me in Grant Medical College. How could I know then I would become irrevocably linked with Kipling House?

Not much later, I learnt that Rudyard Kipling had been born in that green bungalow, and congratulated myself on my good taste in avoiding the place.

By the time I was an intern, Kipling was something of a medical curiosity. His stories of childhood strained with demonic grief. His adult fiction was Victorian bisexual: well-intentioned and hearty, when it wasn’t being sentimental and malicious. At best, Charles Kingsley in drag; at worst, Mrs Gaskell without teeth. Puberty, he seemed to have skipped altogether. He remained the precocious child who often spoke in the superior tones of his parents, and, in a pure note of castrato brilliance, achieved the sublime now and then. Before I could investigate the source of this arrested development, two things happened to me. I edited the college magazine and I met Stingo in Sophie’s Choice. I could no longer dodge the obvious: most people, alive or dead, were better writers than me. Chastened, but unrepentant, I could no longer sneer at Kipling. But I could ignore him.

And yet, that little green bungalow continued to hover, like a hallucinatory migraine that wouldn’t go away. It grew, over the years, a carapace of legend: the verandah made famous by Rikki Tikki Tavi, the attic where the Just So Stories were still housed in an old trunk, the pen and ink portrait of the Lama from Kim, and little Rudyard’s nursery collection of cloth animals that grew up to become The Jungle Book. (Mowgli, of course, was the mali’s chhokra.)

Lies, the lot of them, but they kept popping up, growing more slanderous and bizarre: the mad story of Rudyard’s conception that explained his self-conscious slumming, his free gift of the Swastika to the Nazis, the elephant he kept in the backyard of Cama Hospital.

Kipling’s Sahib was Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘English gentleman’ turned inside out. Gandhiji was quick to see the ridiculous. Kipling never did. ‘If my character made a gentleman of me, so much the better. Otherwise I should forego the ambition,’ decided the young law student. The author of Kim made no such decision. Rudyard Kipling had sold India on the strength of a seven-year sojourn. It was the slickest literary con since John Mandeville.

Twenty years later, while researching a book on Bombay’s epidemics, I felt an eerie sense of déjà vu as I studied the Madras famine of 1875. Hadn’t I read this story before, but in a very different voice?

Of course. William the Conqueror. Kipling published that in 1898. But as an impressionable 17-year-old entering India in 1882, he must have seen for real the devastation I could only examine a century-and-a-quarter later in foxed newsprint and faded photographs. What manner of human being could witness that reality and write a story to celebrate the New Woman? It was like using Portia as an argument to vindicate Auschwitz.

I could no longer put off my investigation. I had to see Kipling House.

The best time to explore my city is at dawn. Camera in hand, I walk, waiting for the light to begin its narrative. It’s the hour when one can actually hear the sounds of life before the white noise of survival begins.

That morning, it was a little past six when I approached Kipling House. (Stalked, might be a better word, as there was the matter of a locked gate and a scaleable wall, but we won’t go into that now.) The little green bungalow was cordoned off with barbed wire and floodlit with fluorescent lamps. The doors and windows were shut, but I could have sworn to the twitch of a curtain as I looked up. Separating me from its sad overgrown garden was a trench—something was being uprooted, something was being built.

Daylight brought facts. Rudyard’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, had been the first principal of the JJ School of Art and Architecture, and was single-handedly responsible for making Indian art Indian. His work could be seen all around us. He had designed the splendid fountain in Crawford Market and the panels over its entrance. He hadn’t actually built Victoria Terminus, since he was in Lahore by then, but he had deeply influenced its design. He had gone on to build all of Lahore and a magnificent Indian Room for Queen Victoria. He had, besides, drawn the illustrations in my childhood copy of The Jungle Book. (This last, by the way, was the only fact to stand up to scrutiny).

As for Rudyard’s mother, she was a legendary beauty. Viceroys had lauded her Wilde-ian wit, she had been painted (not by Lockwood), she had written plays and poems, acted in theatricals, taught native darzees the art of elegant embroidery, persuaded Indian princes to do their duty by the Raj. Whole books had been written about her, why hadn’t I read them? (I had read a sad poem called My Rival, ascribed to her son, but more probably written by his sister Trix.)

This was the baggage with which, at a sane hour, and as we Bombaywallahs put it, through ‘proper channels,’ that I returned to Kipling House.

This morning, I had access. I saw the verandah with a garlanded bust of my old enemy, and a plaque. (I almost expected If engraved in gold.) My companions, gentlemen from the Office, opened the doors and suggested I look around while they finished their work. It was only then I noticed the packet of agarbattis they had brought along.

The mildewed hall I entered was the drawing room where Alice’s brilliant wit had held all Bombay in thrall. I went up the wooden stairs. The clumsy floral inlay at the landing had been whitewashed over even more clumsily. Lockwood Kipling’s studio held light like water, tremulous, rippling past the grill that uglified the delicate trellis.

Why the grill?

“Because of the riots,” my guides told me.

Deans since Lockwood Kipling had all lived here, till recently.

There was an annexe, approached through a long roofed corridor. In Kipling’s time it would have housed the bobcheecawnah and the offices, the outlying cottages meant for the staff.

The wind had blown leaves into the corridor, embarrassing my companions.

“They don’t sweep regularly. Now that this has become such an important place, it should be kept clean.”

Mr Kipling had been titivated with a tilak, and if he could inhale, his blood would reek of Mogra Special. It hurt me to think how he would have worked this simple homage into an indulgent sneer.

“Do you know who he was?” I asked.

“Big writer. English. From British time. Nobody writes like that anymore.”

“True. Have you read any of his books?”

“What did he write?”

“Stories, poems.” I told them about Mowgli and his brothers.

They looked uncertain. “Cartoon Network?”

“Maybe you could tell us a poem,” the second guy suggested, prepared to give the great man a chance. “In Marathi,” he added, by way of caution.

Madly, I attempted an extempore translation of The White Man’s Burden. (I thought the punch line sounded rather neat: Ardh’shaitan, ardh’ baal.)

“Is that about us?” The judicious fellow again. You could see nothing less than absolute certainty would satisfy him.

“About our ancestors,” I clarified. “He wrote it before 1900.”

“To hell with it,” said Judicious and off came Rudyard’s garland. His friend silently doused the agarbattis.

“Still, it’s good we have the statue. Considering he lived here all his life.”

“He lived here till he was five,” I said.

Five years old? Are you sure that’s right?”

Actually, that was wrong.

I entered Kipling House through Baa Baa Black Sheep, the painful story about Rudyard’s early years in England after his parents sent Trix and him away, in 1865, to be boarded out in Southsea. He was treated cruelly, hated, and punished. Reading, his only consolation, became impossible as his eyesight worsened. He was near blind when rescued after five years of this torture. (Of course, in the story the children are named Punch and Judy, but there seems no doubt it was autobiographical. It is repeated, with much of the anguish edited out, in Kipling’s last work Something of Myself.)

Kipling published the story when he was 24 and editing The Pioneer in Allahabad.

What did his parents make of the tale? In the heart-rending story, they seem absolute monsters.

They had lived here till 1875, when Lockwood Kipling was given charge of the new Art School in Mayo College at Lahore.

As I left, I had a feeling there was something out of place in that empty bungalow. Something didn’t fit.

I knew too little as yet about Lockwood and Alice Kipling for me to gain any sense of what their life here must have been, after they sent away their children in 1865. No, there was something else, some shred of evidence I had overlooked. It would be a while before it returned to me.

Meanwhile, I had work to do. Lockwood Kipling’s panels outside Crawford Market were, well, decent. More importantly, I found they were in keeping with his immediate past. In 1863 he had won the first prize in a competition to design the façade and elevation of the Wedgwood Memorial Institute in Burslem (now Stoke-on-Trent)—which was when he came to the notice of Alice, one of four daughters of George Macdonald.

In the best traditions of Victorian fiction, the Macdonald household was erudite, improvident, fecund, and—desperately seeking husbands for the daughters. Single men in possession of a good fortune being rare, the girls had sensibly looked to more artistic company, and brother Harry brought home Ned Jones, and the rest of the Pre-Raphaelites. Georgiana married Ned Jones, who assumed a hyphenated name as he gained in fame.

Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with John Ruskin’s blessing, established the new current of British art. Lockwood Kipling, then apprenticed at Pinder’s pottery, observed and joined in the new enthusiasm for design, but never really got his toes wet. There was tremendous interest for ‘native Indian art’ following the Great Exhibition. Contrapuntally, the British were eager to set up Art Schools in India to teach the natives a proper appreciation of art. The two streams combined when it became evident to that nation of shopkeepers there was a hot market for Indian artefacts. So when there was an opening for a teaching post in Architectural Sculpture at the newly opened Sir Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy College of Art, Lockwood Kipling, winner of a prize, seemed the coming man. When the Kiplings arrived in Bombay in 1865, Rudyard was on the way.

And what of Alice? Her devastating wit seems to read rather sour at this remove in time. One of her early letters home to her sister, speaks of the pressing necessity of a house, and some of Rudyard’s biographers insist he was born ‘in a tent.’ This isn’t quite the Bedouin story Rudyard might have made of it. In the summer, it was the done thing to live in prefab houses on the Esplanade. My old gossip Mrs Postans, writing 25 years before Alice got there, describes these tents in a wealth of descriptive detail. They sound much more comfortable than the damp overcrowded Macdonald ménage.

The moment I learnt that, I remembered the evidence that had eluded me at Kipling House. It was Rudyard’s own account of his home before he left Bombay, aged five: ‘…nor did I know that near our little house on the Bombay Esplanade were the Towers of Silence…’

His geography was unreliable: ‘Our evening walks were by the sea in the shadow of palm-groves which, I think, were called the Mahim Woods.’ Nonetheless, the home he remembered was not this bungalow. The Lockwood Kiplings had folded their tent only to shift into a more solid residence in the same locality. The little green bungalow, incidentally, is ‘little’ only in comparison to VT Station, and to the child who was attacked by a winged monster that turned out to be a hen, the bungalow would have loomed very large indeed.

When he returned to Bombay at 16, Rudyard Kipling was in transit to Lahore where his parents now lived. By the look of things, Rudyard never was in the Kipling House at all.

In 1869, while Rudyard was living out the worst days of his childhood in Southsea—‘It was an establishment run with the full vigour of the Evangelical as revealed to the Woman. I had never heard of Hell, so I was introduced to it in all its terrors’—his father was busy working on the new Municipal Market, soon to be named after Bombay’s first Municipal Commissioner, Arthur Crawford. The design, incidentally, derived from the one made by the architect of the High Victorian Dream, William Bruges, for the Bombay Art School itself. William Emerson, who by then had established his practice in Bombay, transferred the idea to the market. Here is the first report of the project from The Bombay Builder, 5 April 1867:

The style of architecture is that which prevailed during the 12th century and was brought to perfection by French artists and was principally known for simplicity and massiveness.

The three central entrance arches are the only portions accentuated with any ornamentation. The shafts there will be of granite, with carved trap capitals, and the heads will be filled with sculptured representations of native scenes in connection with the produce and sale of vegetable and fruits, and executed at the School of Art by Mr Kipling. The architect is W. Emerson esq, the builder Mr Johnstone, the clerk of works Mr Cohen, and the estimate, not including ironwork is about £16,000.

The vaunted fountain, when I visited, was identified with some difficulty, in the centre of a vast display of alphonso mangoes. All detail was obscured by a lavish slathering of blue oil paint. The fruit, nonetheless, were a welcome distraction. I left hoping there was more to Lockwood Kipling than this.

Lockwood Kipling’s sketches, of which there are many, can scarcely be called art. They are tedious and punctilious. The embellishments he produced for The Jungle Book are lovely, though not quite the Indian version of Willam Morris he aimed for. His talent lay in his vision to give Indian craftsmen opportunity and a market. He was a kindly agent. He should not be blamed if posterity gave him the credit for making Indian art Indian. He made no such claim. He was, in fact, a man of remarkable modesty.

Alice, his wife, was not, and her life was devoted to managing her husband’s fortunes. She was a relentless social climber, and while Bombay was scarcely encouraging, she had her salon in Lahore. ‘I cannot care for this country—or even seem to do’ she wrote home. ‘Take all the women around here, they have not brains enough to make such a cutlet as I ate for breakfast this morning!’ 

Famine and the Kiplings seem closely associated. Lockwood designed banners for the shameful Delhi Durbar of 1876, where Lord Lytton feted 68,000 guests in a week of gluttony and drunkenness, in the course of which, it is estimated, 100,000 starved to death a few hundred miles away. Richard Temple (of the notorious Wage) was a close friend and Lockwood co-authored a book with him.

The Lockwood Kiplings may have found these dangerous waters, but Rudyard certainly dived right in. Lockwood’s Jaipur exhibition was visited by Queen Victoria’s third son, the Duke of Connaught, and Lockwood was engaged to design an ‘Indian’ billiard room for him at Bagshot Park in Surrey. The work was done at the workshops of the Mayo College of Art by Indian craftsmen over the next four years and shipped to England to be assembled there. ‘Native Princes’ were informed that it would be politic to foot the bill.

Queen Victoria, charmed with the result, ordered a Durbar Hall for her new home in Osborne. Lockwood wrote that this time he meant ‘to take the back seat’ and let his ‘boys’ design the place. Which sounds very noble until you realise that his deputed student was Bhai Ram Singh who later designed and built most of colonial Lahore. The Osborne Project was the acme of Lockwood Kipling’s career. He did not return to India after that.

Both Lockwood and Alice suffered the grief of their daughter’s mental illness and unhappy marriage. They were not rich, and it took all they had to keep Trix from being committed to a public asylum. I think Alice did more than she has been credited with to keep her daughter sane, encouraging her to write and making sure she had some kind of life of her own. They had no help, financial or emotional, from their famous son.

Lockwood died soon after Alice. There was no provision for Trix. Rudyard refused to surrender his share in Lockwood’s estate (worth a mere £1,000) for the upkeep of his sister.

I grieved for the Lockwood Kiplings who seemed to have aged in bewilderment, betrayed by the truths they had believed in. I made the mistake of reading Lockwood’s book The Beast and Man in India. (‘More has been said and written on Indian art than is justified by a right appreciation of its qualities and defects.’) It was not as rabid as some of Rudyard’s diatribes, but it was a xenophobic shudder just the same. The book had a calligraphed glyph as frontispiece. Lockwood Kipling and his famous son hadn’t read it. It had been dismissed as another example of ‘Islamic art.’

That glyph, and the need, somehow, to make reparations for the hate and ignorance of the imperialistic narrative, made me want to place Lockwood and Alice Kipling back in that green bungalow and see what they would do, what they might have done, before their son got so famous. To my surprise, Lockwood kept to the wings and Alice took over the book. But I know he’s just waiting. There are more stories to tell.

There was a dean in residence in Kipling House the next time I ventured there. I was shooed out, and not very politely.

As I strolled through the campus, enjoying the installations and the art on its walls, I was tailed by a watchman who tried to grab my camera. I asked him why I couldn’t photograph a mural.

“Security,” he told me. “Aaj kal kuchh bhi ho sakta hai.”

Two other guys came hurrying up. What did I want? Where had I come from? What was my interest in Kipling House? What identity proof was I carrying? I left, disgusted.

A few months later, I read this headline in a British paper: ‘India to turn Rudyard Kipling house into museum but ignores author.’

‘The house where Rudyard Kipling was born in India is to be turned into a museum, but the author will be written out of history, failing to get a mention anywhere in the building because of “political sensitivities.”’

I was livid when I finished reading the article. It mentioned that plans were afoot to convert the green bungalow into a museum, and, it would not be called Kipling House. It would be called the Dean’s Residence—that was what, after all, it had always been. Most of the Kipling facts in the article were wrong, but that was irrelevant to the central issue, which I suspected, was painfully true.

I was surprised at my distress. I could not bear this insult to a man I disliked so intensely—dislike always demands a superhuman measure of justice. But the truth went deeper. It was Lockwood Kipling who was being denied his place—and in his own house. The idea of erasing Rudyard Kipling because he was an imperialist was in itself too fascist to be borne. It was, alas, just the kind of thing, if directed at a jumped-up native, Mr Dina Nath of Padgett, MP, for instance, he might have supported. It was something akin to his parents’ friend Lord Lytton’s 1878 Vernacular Press Act, which ordered the confiscation of all ‘seditious material’.

By now, too, my relationship with Lockwood and Alice Kipling had deepened. I couldn’t simply let this pass.

It took me a while to get the facts right. The JSW Foundation, which proposed to turn Kipling House into a museum, had an entirely different version. Their plan was to restore the bungalow as a museum to display the art produced by the College since its inception. They proposed to call it The Dean’s Bungalow because that was what it had always been called. Plans had been stalled because the building rules didn’t permit a change of category from Residential to Commercial. At that level, nobody would talk Kipling. The currency of exchange would be quite different. They had been misquoted in the article.

The architect I spoke with was angry: she had spent two years on the project. The College’s apathy had begun to get to her. There was no option but to shelve the project.

I did get to see the plans of Kipling House, but not the original drawings. Their view is that it was built sometime in the early 1870s—by which time Rudyard was deeply miserable at Southsea. It’s possible, they say, that there may have been an older house at the same site, and Kipling may have been born there. That seems a bit of a stretch for an obscure obstetrical event. My money’s on that tent on the Esplanade.

Without renovation, the little green bungalow, call it what you will, is doomed. It doesn’t matter one whit if Rudyard Kipling ever was within its walls. His parents were, and they too had their story to tell.

Recently, I returned to Kipling House. It seemed hardly there, within its camouflage of trees. It was untenanted. The bust sectioned at shoulder level looked like the grisly trophy of a recent war. It was locked out, but the house conspired with the trees. A shadow moved in the atelier, and a woman’s heavy step made the staircase creak.

In a moment perhaps they will appear—the bearded man who loved this country and the charming woman who hated it like hell.

Oh yes, there are stories left to tell.

Kalpish Ratna is the pseudonym of Bombay surgeons Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan. Their novel, The Quarantine Papers (HarperCollins India; January 2010), set in Kipling House, has been shortlisted for this year’s Crossword-Vodafone Award for Fiction