The Man Who Would Be King – Rudyard Kipling

First published 1888

I had meant to read Rudyard Kipling for quite some time, more for his experience of India and the stories he set there than for his artistic merit and place in English literary canon. And so it happened that one day I downloaded an e-book reader on my handheld device and found a few pre-loaded books in it, one of which was this book (novella or long short-story) of Kipling’s. So I decided to give it a go and I really enjoyed it!

Two Englishmen in India, charlatans, fraudsters, impersonators, swindlers, cheats, who wander about the length of breadth of the country tricking and deceiving people to earn their dough, decide one day that they will journey up the northern mountains to become joint kings of Kafiristan, a mountainous region then outside the borders of British India but which now falls in present-day Pakistan and where old pagan tribes still exist.

Once in Kafiristan they make a show of force with their guns which the pagans take  to be divine power and come to accept the two men as gods. After initial success their plans begin to go downhill when one of the man wants a wife from the tribe so he can produce heirs to the throne. Thus commences conflict which ends on a terribly sad note.

Kipling’s style of diction and the pace of action demands that it is read slowly, meticulously, and patiently. It look me longer to finish it then I’d initially thought.

It has some similarity with Indiana Jones Temple of Doom film. The blue-eyed Westerner who accidentally lands in some part of tribal India is also taken as god and worshiped. Why, perhaps white people so like to see themselves as gods to the people they subjected to colonialism and ruled as their right?

Kipling wrote in the late 19th century when British colonialism and its attendant racism was in full swing and you can detect those typical oriental remarks about the ‘unruly savages’ and the superiority of the English race and its efficient ways. But this is just to keep the context in mind.

As an aside, I like this Penguin book cover. It looks like an old advertisement of a box of matches, or probably beeris?, priced at 8 anna, whose utility is lent credence to by showing an English soldier using/smoking them. The Hindi text, which I could decipher, says “Gora saab”.

Now I am looking forward to reading Kim, one of his celebrated novels.


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