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Rudyard Kipling's short stories of life in the British Raj began in 1888 as journalistic snippets written to supplement his more serious factual output when he was employed as the assistant editor, at the meagre age of 20, of the Lahori-based Civil and Military Gazette.
A child of the British colonial system, Kipling had been born in India, brought up by a Hindustani-speaking ayah, and then sent, rather brutally, back to England for his school years but returned to the India he loved almost as soon as he was legally allowed to. These wry, evocative and extremely witty stories of the British at play in the hills of Simla, escaping the fire of the Indian high summer, have had their share of controversy.
Kipling's love for the society he was born into and worked with shines out of the tales with the heat of the Indian sun. But his enthusiasm has often been taken to be an endorsement of the English colonial system - George Orwell called him the 'prophet of British Imperialism', and he did indeed revel in the eccentricities and peculiarities of the expatriate community. But his tone is undeniably ironic.
Mrs. Hauksbee, one of the most enduring of Kipling's characters encountered in these tales, is every inch the haughty tigress of a colonial memsahib before whom we are meant to cower and to whose brilliant manipulations we are meant to succumb. However, we are also supposed to laugh at her. She's very funny. In these tales India is a character of her own, one to be warily watched by those clinging staunchly to a sense of their own very distant culture.
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Comedies & Tragedies of Manners in the British Raj
Rudyard Kipling wrote his first collection of stories, Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), with a clear style, ironic tone, tight pacing, and an eye for drama. When you think that many of the tales were first published in the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, British India, where Kipling worked as a journalist from when he was about 17 and the rest when he was 22, the breath and depth of his youthful insights into the British Raj, indigenous cultures, and human nature are remarkable. Indeed, the voice of his narrator usually feels like that of a middle-aged man who is wise in the ways of empire and the world, well-versed in 19th-century British and Indian cultures, and a keen observer of human nature.
Most of the stories are comedies or tragedies of manners featuring British soldiers, officers, policemen, bankers, bureaucrats, wives, daughters, mothers, and the like doing things in India like courting, marrying, having affairs, gossiping, advancing their careers, and so on. At their best, the stories are compact and potent vignettes. Some are skimpy and end abruptly before we've had time to care about the people involved. Most are polished and interesting. Together they give a large view of British rule in India, showing it to depend on military and organizational control without trying to drastically change India or Indian culture (e.g., religions and the caste system). Kipling writes about intercultural (mis)communication, human nature, and fate. And about love, which tends to end in marriage or mutilation, divorce or reconciliation.
Kipling's narrator often knows the people in his stories or has heard what happened to them. In most cases he has a distanced point of view, usually not being a major player (it's never HIS romance or career that thrives or dies), but he does at times serve as a witness to or supporter of the action of the story. His tone is ironic. He often plays with us by saying, 'But that's another story…' or by explaining that the bad language an officer used while suffering from a case of mistaken identity can’t be quoted in its unexpurgated form.
Being written by a young man who'd been born in British India and loved it, the tales reveal a mix of pro-empire and pro-indigenous sentiments. Overall Kipling favors honest human feeling against pretense based on religion or class or culture. He can see the positive and negative sides of the British Empire and Christianity and of Indian cultures and religions. Although he approves of British white men 'going native' to learn local languages and cultures, he doesn't condone marrying across boundaries of race and class. Thus there are some unappealing moments in the collection. One ostensibly funny but really unpleasant story features a young British man in need of saving from his foolish love for an obviously mixed blood lower class woman (and her extended family).
But many of the stories are great, like those about a sheltered suicide, a lucky alcoholic, a ghost horse, an archery contest, a wizardly con, an opium addict, and a Muslim servant's creative little son. The first story, 'Lispeth,' is my favorite, featuring a beautiful, direct, and passionate local hill girl baptized and raised by the local British chaplain and his wife and finally made to realize that 'You are all liars, you English.' (Kipling is no pious Christian: 'Whether Christianity improved Lispeth, or whether the gods of her own people would have done as much for her under any circumstances, I do not know; but she grew very lovely.') It is a sad and memorable story, and Kipling must have been impressed by Lispeth, for she appears at one point in Kim.
There are some gender-biased lines like, 'Regiments are just like women. They will do anything for trinketry.' But such ideas are balanced by many moments of female power, like when Mrs. Hauksbee takes over or when 'Diana' flamboyantly loses an archery contest. And by many telling lines from the female point of view: 'The silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a very clever woman to manage a fool.' And 'What fools men are!'
Much life wisdom informs the tales: 'There is hope for a man who gets publicly and riotously drunk more often that he ought to do; but there is no hope for the man who drinks secretly and alone in his own house--the man who is never seen to drink.'
Kipling has a critical but fond view of India: 'Now India is a place beyond all others where one must not take things too seriously--the midday sun always excepted. Too much work and too much energy kill a man just as effectively as too much assorted vice or too much drink.'
He ironically criticizes white ethnocentrism: 'He held the extraordinary theory that a Policeman in India should try to know as much about the natives as the natives themselves. . . . and, following out his absurd theory, dabbled in unsavory places no respectable man would think of exploring--all among the native riff-raff.'
He writes many catchy first sentences: 'This began in a practical joke; but it has gone far enough now, and is getting serious.'
Tim Piggott-Smith reads the tales with wit, feeling, and skill, convincingly voicing a wide range of characters (old and young women and men of upper and lower classes, children, Brits and Indians, and so on) and enhancing the stories in all the right ways.
I recommend this audiobook to fans of Kipling and to anyone interested in how the British Raj worked and what it did to Brits and Indians, but buyers should be aware that its 32 stories are missing eight found in another edition of the print or e book: 'The Three Musketeers,' 'The Taking of Lungtungpen,' 'The Daughter of the Regiment,' 'A Friend's Friend,' 'The Madness of Private Ortheris,' 'Wressley of the Foreign Office,' 'By Word of Mouth,' and 'To be Filed for Reference.'
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Almost a Masterpiece
I say 'almost' because I allow myself only one such rating per life time and am saving up. A good written story is a good listen but a really good story is best heard read. This is one hell of a good script read by one hell of good performer. The 'Drum Horse' alone is worth the tarif. 'Todds Amendment' is so convicing I actually googled the subject in case it was based on an actual event. And listening last night one or two of stories actually spooked me.
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- Gail N.
Dated and inacessible to this modern reader
No one can doubt Kipling's ability to write. But I found this compilation of short stories completely inaccessible. I simply could not relate to the stories or the characters. In addition, the condescending, sarcastic, and arrogant tone of the narrators made listening unpleasant. There is also a thread of racism which Kipling rightly exposes and appears to abhor but again it made the listen very dreary and hopeless. I gave up after four of these so-called "Plain Tales" which I found far from plain. Only the first was comprehensible and engaging. The reader gave a true voice for the prose but by the fifth story this voice was identified with these depressing tales and finally grated as well. If you know more about the Raj or are already a Kipling fan you might have the background to appreciate this book. The writing is good, it is the stories themselves which I could not appreciate.
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