Notes by Sharad Keskar
and John McGivering
In 1885 Lady Dufferin (wife of the Viceroy) had launched an appeal fund with which her own name was associated, for supplying female medical advice and instruction to the women of India. ‘They suffered both from medical ignorance and from the difficulty of providing access for male doctors, because of the seclusion imposed on them by rules of purdah. This poem appeared on the same page of the CMG as a report of the laying of the foundation-stone of Lady Aitchison’s Hospital for Women in Lahore, under the general auspices of Lady Dufferin’s Fund.Dr Gillian Sheehan points out that on 18 February 1887 the laying of the foundation stone for Lady Aichison's Hospital for women in Lahore was reported in the CMG accompanied by these verses. The hospital initially had 100 beds and was for treating obstetrical and gynaecological cases.
How sad that Kipling should be accused of misogyny when here’s a poem full of concerns “For the Women” –“Are all our gifts for men alone, or may your women share?” Thus the twenty-one year old Kipling, possibly by early association with Indian servants, is drawn to the native community, their ways and dialect, which later will enable him to observe with a good measure of intuitive understanding; and later still use in “The Song of the Women”, The Naulahka and “William the Conqueror” (The Day's Work. 1898)
Hinduism is both ancient and protean. Hindu communities have varying customs, symbols and rituals. For instance not all Hindus resort to the purdah. The fact that Kipling mentions it in the poem, places it in Northern India, where he would have been at the time.
As for the harsh and, as it happens, inaccurate “jibe”, that is not Kipling’s intention. He is using the universally accepted description of Hindus, as a people who reverence the cow, and resorts to poetic licence. Instead of using the word 'Hindus', which wouldn’t scan or rhyme with the foregoing “teach us now”, he uses “Servants of the Cow—” Verse Five of the poem creates a vivid picture of the “women only” room for childbirth. There the busy dahees or mid-wives are doing their best, while chanting and dancing women appease the gods. For Hindus, childbirth is fraught with dangers that are both obstetric as well as open to nazur--the “evil eye”—the 'envy' spell that can harm mother and child. Hence “The Hundred Danger Time”, a native dialect hyperbole used commonly to describe a situation fraught with dangers.
Asked what the risks and hazards are during childbirth, the mid-wife is very likely to reply 'ek sor', that is ‘one hundred-fold’. ‘Hundred’ lends emphasis. It stands for ‘countless’ or ‘umpteen’ in Western usage. To counteract the 'evil eye', "Birth-fires” are lit, in the already torrid room, for keeping the evil spirits at bay and for the casting out of ‘nazur’—the evil eye—by throwing salt, dried chillies, and oil into the fire. The rituals may vary, but the “Birth-fires” are invariably lit.
Sometimes, and Kipling would have known of this, when news of a birth reaches any hermaphrodite community, a troupe of them arrive and sing to the accompaniment of clapping, dancing and drums outside the house or hut. They are there to claim the child, if he or she is born hermaphrodite. The child’s family usually agree to let the child go, rather than bear the shame of abnormality. [S.K.]
'Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception: in sorrow thou shalt thou bring forth children: and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.'[Verse 5]
A churel is the peculiarly malignant ghost of a woman who has died in child-birth. She haunts lonely roads, her feet are trurned backwards on the ankles, and she leads men to torment.See also "My Own True Ghost Story" (Wee Willie Winkie p. 156, line 6.)