Life’s Handicap by Rudyard Kipling (1891)

After Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), Kipling’s next volume of short stories was Life’s Handicap (1891). There doesn’t seem to be a decent edition in print or in the London Library System; a few of the stories are gathered into some of the cheap ‘Best of…’ selections, but to read the whole book you have to go online.

The volume carries on where the Plain Tales left off by collecting together 27 short (sometimes very short) stories, many published in the newspaper young Rudyard worked for, the Civil and Military Gazette, from as far back as 1885 when the prodigy was only 20.

  1. The Lang Men O’ Larut
  2. Reingelder And The German Flag
  3. The Wandering Jew
  4. Through The Fire
  5. The Finances Of The Gods
  6. The Amir’s Homily
  7. Jews In Shushan
  8. The Limitations Of Pambe Serang
  9. Little Tobrah
  10. Bubbling Well Road
  11. ‘The City Of Dreadful Night’
  12. Georgie Porgie
  13. Naboth
  14. The Dream Of Duncan Parrenness
  15. The Incarnation Of Krishna Mulvaney
  16. The Courting Of Dinah Shadd
  17. On Greenhow Hill
  18. The Man Who Was
  19. The Head Of The District
  20. Without Benefit Of Clergy

21. ‘At The End of The Passage’ (1890) Four men in the service of the British Empire in India – a doctor, a civil servant, a surveyor, and an engineer, Hummil. Each week they meet up at Hummil’s station to play cards and eat the horrible food which is all that’s available. It is the summer and blisteringly hot on the plains of northern India, like living in an oven, with nothing to do, no ice, horrible food, barely any drinks. Although there’s a plot of sorts, really this is an evocation of the terrible isolation and mental strain suffered by men given huge responsibilities in an alien and inhospitable land.

They were lonely folk who understood the dread meaning of loneliness. They were all under thirty years of age — which is too soon for any man to possess that knowledge.

Their conversation is about colleagues who’ve died of disease, for example as a result of the continual cholera epidemics, have become lonely alcoholics, or have simply killed themselves – a fairly common occurrence. The doctor, Spurstow, realises their host, Hummil, is at the end of his tether. He is tetchy with his guests and when the other two leave, Spurstow volunteers to stay and Hummil breaks down completely and confesses that he hasn’t slept for days and days, and begs for sleeping pills. Spurstow realises that Hummil has put a spur in his bed to stop himself drifting into the shallow sleep of nightmares. Spurstow disables Hummil’s guns and gives him sleeping draughts.

When the three rendezvous at Hummil’s a week later none of them are surprised to find him dead in his bed. But he didn’t kill himself. In a strange technical twist, Spurstow uses a Kodak camera to take a photograph of the dead man’s eyes and then, minutes after he’s gone into a darkened room to develop the images, the others hear the sound of smashing and breaking. ‘It was impossible,’ he repeats to the others, ‘impossible’. Spurstow obviously saw images of unspeakable horror imprinted on the dead man’s retinas.

The thrust of all these early India stories is the immense sacrifice made by the white men who ran the Empire, in the teeth of resentful ungrateful natives and despite concerted opposition from ignorant Liberals and politicians back home. Their strength is the powerful evocations of India in all its moods: 

There was no further speech for a long time. The hot wind whistled without, and the dry trees sobbed. Presently the daily train, winking brass, burnished steel, and spouting steam, pulled up panting in the intense glare.

And the sense of men at the very limits of endurance is powerfully present and, on a human level, is persuasive. But their weakness is their crudity and the bitter sarcasm and contempt for anyone who opposes his Imperial views which run through them like cheap fabric. And, almost needless to say, the obvious fact that it depicts this vast country overwhelmingly from the point of view of the colonial masters, whose interactions with the native inhabitants all too often are limited to kicking and cursing.

22. The Mutiny of The Mavericks (1891) A satirical and comic story about nameless conspirators in America (highly reminiscent of the American scenes in the early Sherlock Holmes novels) who fund an Irish conspirator to join ‘the Mavericks’, nickname of a (fictional) Irish regiment in the British Army in India. This conspirator, Mulcahey, tries to spread sedition and is quickly recognised for what he is by the men, led by Dan Grady and Horse Egan, who come up with the simple idea of playing along, and telling Mulcahey everything he wants to hear, in exchange for an endless supply of beer.

One fine day Mulcahey sees the barracks in uproar, the men chanting and shouting, officers running in fear, the men consorting with native Indians – at last! The mutiny has broken out! But Kipling is taking the mickey. The men have been told they’re going to the Frontier to see some fighting and are excited about it. Moreover, Dan and Horse now make it crystal clear to Mulcahey that he’s not wriggling out of it, he’s coming along too. And when the battle starts they’re digging a bayonet into Mulcahey’s calf, so the only way is forwards. In fact Mulcahey goes wild with panic-fear, storms a compound, leads others to capture enemy artillery and then runs on, bereft of gun, hat or belt after the fleeing Afghans, one of whom turns and runs him right through the chest with a large knife. Dead.

All this time Mulcahey had been drawing funds from his ‘mother’ in New York, a front for the anti-British conspirators. The story ends on a comic note as the ‘mother’ receives a letter of condolence saying Mulcahey died bravely in battle and would have been recommended for a Victoria Cross, had he survived – which happens to arrive at the same time as a crudely forged letter from Dan and Horse promising to keep up the subversive work, if only they can be sent some more funds, on behalf of Mulcahey, who’s a bit under the weather, like.

Kipling is astonishing assured and confident of his subject i.e. the structure, organisation and morale of Irish regiments within the British Army. The American secret society comes over as melodramatic, but events in Ireland during this period involved conspiracies and atrocities. Although he is optimistic about the attitude of the average Irish soldier, it’s the detail and thoroughness of the portrayal, combined with schoolboy high humour, which impresses. Who else was trying anything like this kind of depiction of the reality of the British Empire?

23. The Mark of the Beast (1890) In India, some chaps get drunk on New Year’s Eve and one of them, Fleete, blind drunk, rushes into a temple they’re passing and stubs out his cigar on the forehead of a statue of Hanuman the Monkey God. A leprous priest of the god appears from nowhere and grapples with the drunk, biting him on the breast. Almost immediately Fleete falls ill with a fever. The following day he asks for raw chops as the mark on his chest grows. The narrator and his friend, the policeman Strickland, become concerned. They keep Fleete at Strickland’s house and within days he is howling like a wolf and grovelling in the dirt. At this stage I was speculating that they’d either find a cure for the way Fleete appears to be becoming a werewolf, or that Fleete turns completely wolf and has to be hunted down and shot with a silver bullet!

Neither. Instead, Strickland and the narrator hear the leper priest (in a horrible detail, the leper is incapable of speaking – he has only a ‘slab’ for a face – and can only make a horrible mewing noise) prowling round outside the house. So they nip out and grab him, bring him inside and then – in a sequence that is actually far worse than the werewolf/possession description – they torture the leper priest by tying him to a bedstead and applying red-hot gun barrels heated in a fire.

Eventually, unable to bear the torture any longer, the priest is released, staggers over the feverish Fleete and simply touches him on the chest and the curse is lifted – simple as that. Strickland and the narrator release the priest, who goes off without a sound, not even mewing. Within a few hours Fleete has had a bath and is restored to jolly good humour, imagining he’s been on a long drunk. Only Strickland and the narrator know – not only what was happening to Fleete but, what they both know is worse, that they have behaved immorally enough to be dismissed from the Service.

This is a harsh initiation into the sadism and cruelty which lurks beneath the surface and sometimes is just on the surface, of so much of Kipling’s early writing.

24. The Return of Imray (1891) Another story collected in Plain Tales From the Hills, told by the same narrator and also featuring Strickland from the Police, as above. A man called Imray goes missing and, after a while, Strickland rents his bungalow. The narrator comes to stay. It rains and Kipling describes India in the casually knowledgeable way he did in scores of stories and poems, making the place his imaginative fiefdom for generations of readers.

The heat of the summer had broken up and turned to the warm damp of the rains. There was no motion in the heated air, but the rain fell like ramrods on the earth, and flung up a blue mist when it splashed back. The bamboos, and the custard-apples, the poinsettias, and the mango-trees in the garden stood still while the warm water lashed through them, and the frogs began to sing among the aloe hedges.

But Strickland’s dog, Tietjens, refuses to enter the bedroom, preferring to be outside in the rain. Our chaps ponder this odd behaviour. Then they notice some snakes’ tails dangling through the gap between the fabric ceiling and the rafters in the bedroom. Strickland pulls that part of the ceiling away to reach the snakes and discovers – the mummified of Imray carefully hidden among the rafters! It emerges that Imray’s servant, who Strickland has inherited – Bahadur Khan – murdered and hid his master because Imray patted his son on the head and soon after his son sickened and died.

There is a harshness in the story itself – but even in details it is repellent. Here, as in so many other places, Kipling goes out of his way to be offensive to women.

If a mere wife had wished to sleep out of doors in that pelting rain it would not have mattered; but Tietjens was a dog, and therefore the better animal.

Maybe he thought this was funny, maybe he was trying to fit in with the boys, maybe he thought this was ‘manly’ talk. But this kind of throwaway insult damages his stories not because it’s offensive (though it is offensive) as that it’s just crude, and it tends to bring out the crudeness of the rest of the narrative with it.

25. Namgay Doola
26. Bertran And Bimi
27. Moti Guj–Mutineer


I had so expected Kipling to be a blustering Imperialist that I am continually surprised that his main vein is the uncanny and the grotesque. The Wandering Jew (1889) is about a white man who goes mad and travels continuously round the world in order to add days to his life. Through the Fire (1888) is about an Indian pair of lovers who immolate themselves on a pyre. The Finances of the Gods about the elephant god Ganesh tricking a wicked moneylender. Bubbling Well Road (1888) about a white man who goes hunting for pig in the man-high grass only to stumble over a deep well in which seem to be trapped human or semi-human creatures. The Limitations of Pambe Serang about a feud between two sailors, a drunk African and a Malay who dedicates his life to taking revenge for his insulted honour.

Although the stories have throwaway racist comments these don’t spoil my enjoyment for three reasons.

  1. They’re obviously part of the broader ready-made categorisations or stereotyping of peoples which were common and maybe necessary in the world’s largest, polyglot Empire, the kind of sweeping generalisations Sherlock Holmes gets away with in the stories published at exactly this time.
  2. Kipling flings his stereotypes and insults widely; no-one escapes; and the stereotyping is as likely to be favourable as critical i.e. no one single race or group is singled out for consistent denigration.
  3. Far from being a white supremacist, Kipling’s universal cynicism scathes the white characters just as much as the others. In Pambe Serang the loser is the foolish clergyman who imagines he has converted Pambe to Christianity. He is depicted as pitifully ignorant of the Oriental mind. Same in Through the Fire where the white policeman, again, is the outsider figure, unable to fathom the shocking suicides of the lovers. Jews in Shushan concludes with a soldier whistling a ‘racist’ ditty at the station as the last survivors of the Jewish community of Shushan board the train back to Calcutta. But, although the story includes indisputably racist remarks (the Jews’ ‘dread breed’) the overall thrust of the story is a kind of tough-minded sympathy for the tragic events which overtake the tiny Jewish community, and is more about the tragic insignificance of all of us in the vast swirl of India. The whistling soldier plays the same role as the ploughman blithely unaware of the calamity occurring under his nose in Auden’s great poem, Musee des Beaux Arts; both work to emphasise the modern Tragedy of Indifference.

There is no doubt Kipling’s attitude to his characters is consistently harsh and heartless, but it’s not (at least not in these early stories) in the name of Imperial Triumphalism – it’s more a young man’s braggadochio, each story a medal displaying Rudyard’s toughness and his ability to see into the dark heart of things.

I’m getting to really like the quick, hot weirdness of these tales.

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

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