[November 17 2005]
First published in In Black and White (Volume 3 of the Indian Railway Library) in 1888, and collected in Soldiers Three and Other Stories in 1892.
This many-layered tale is set in Lahore, where Lalun, a talented and beautiful courtesan, entertains in her chamber on the city wall. Her ‘little white room’ is a centre of gossip, and she knows as much as anyone about what is going on in the City. Lalun is visited by many men, distinguished and otherwise, including the narrator and a young Muhammadan, Wali Dad, with whom he has many talks. Wali Dad has had an English education, and feels uneasily poised between the Indian and European worlds.
There is a lengthy introduction by the narrator about the unremitting efforts that the Indian Government makes to keep order in this mysterious land of many creeds and rivalries, and the plots and pressures it has to cope with to keep order, detaining Indian leaders who might threaten British rule.
One such leader, Khem Singh, a formidable old Sikh, has been imprisoned in Fort Amara, where he is treated with respect by the young officer in command, to whom personally he has promised not to escape. Then, on the eve of a Muslim festival, which seems bound to lead to communal riots, his Captain, a brutal racist, returns from leave and takes over. (Kipling’s contempt for the Captain’s ignorance and lack of respect for Indians is evident) There is a night of riot in the city, which is suppressed very skilfully by the police and troops, with little bloodshed. Amidst the turmoil Lalun helps a bedraggled old man up into her window, and flatters the narrator into escorting him across the city through the riot. He duly does so, only realising later that it had been Khem Singh. As it turns out, though, with time and age the old man’s power to raise rebellion is gone, and he returns to captivity.
Although the British knew enough to preserve the ‘Pax Brittanic’, they understood little about the subtle undercurrents of Indian life. This is a consistent theme running through the tales in In Black and White.
Jan Morris (Stones of Empire) has a street-plan on p.204 which shows Lahore as a classic example of the cantonment and fortified railway-station at some distance from the old city as the British practice of the day dictated.
See “The City of Dreadful Night” (Life’s Handicap) for Kipling’s graphic description of Lahore, and Chapter 6 of From Sea to Sea (Vol. II), for his tours of the back streets and brothels of Calcutta.
Some critical comments
A contemporary review of this volume (unsigned, but stated to be by Andrew Lang) in the Saturday Review of 10 August 1889 quoted at page 45 of Kipling, the Critical Heritage (ed. R L Green , calls this: the last, and certainly one of the very best, of the stories.
In his Forward to the R.S.Surtees Society Reprint of In Black and White (1987) Philip Mason says:
...“On the City Wall,” the most ambitious and the longest, is an example of one of Kipling’s favourite devices, ‘the marginally involved spectator’ who recounts the events of the tale as they came to him at the time, when he did not always fully understand what was going on. This Narrator, the “I” person, is by no means always the historical Kipling, though no doubt he is someone Kipling would have liked to be thought to be...Michael Edwardes, in his Everyday Life in Early India [Batsford / Putnam’s Sons. 1969] pp.99-100, makes a point about the status of Lalun:
… the courtesan - who supplied not only sexual satisfaction but artistic and intellectual accomplishment as well - was quite another matter. [from the common prostitute] Her education was wide. Apart from the techniques of her profession, she was – according to the authorities on erotics –adept at “the sixty-four arts”. This formidable list included such obvious arts as dancing, making music and singing, as well as the desirable qualifications of cooking, dressmaking, and embroidery…. Prostitutes of all ranks were often agents of the secret police…. brothels were excellent places for spies to collect information. (See page 328, lines 20 ff. and 329, lines 13ff. below)Philip Mallett (p.39) describes this as: the most successful of the stories in “In Black and White”. This is unusual in dealing with the Indian middle class, and with it a different kind of challenge to British supremacy than that faced in 1857.
See also the excellent Appendices and Notes in Rudyard Kipling, A Critical Edition of the Major Works, ed. Daniel Karlin, who calls this story: the greatest parable of empire in English writing. (p.544). Also an interesting analysis by Shamsul Islam in his Kipling’s Law (p. 65). There is a Foreward to Dr Islam's book by Dr. J.M.S. Tompkins in which she comments that this study: fills a gap in Kipling studies with honourable and intelligent work. J M S Tompkins also reminds us that the Narrator is not always Kipling (p. xiv).
[J H McG]
©John McGivering 2005 All rights reserved