The Eyes of Asia


Notes edited by Sharad Keskar. The bibliographical notes below are by Anurag Jain of London University.

1. A Retired Gentleman
2. The Fumes of the Heart
3. The Private Account
4. A Trooper of Horse

[May 20 2008]


This booklet, published in the U.S.A. in 1918, contains four letters purporting to be written to relations or friends at home in India by soldiers of the Indian Army (part of the normal British Forces in that country down to 1947) at the time of World War I, 1914-18. They were on active service in Europe and Africa, 1915-18.


The articles forming The Eyes of Asia appeared in the American Saturday Evening Post in six parts over the month of May and the beginning of June 1917 and were published in book form by Doubleday in the United States in 1918. (1) Though three of the stories appeared in the Morning Post in London, there was no English book publication till they were collected in Kipling’s posthumous Sussex Edition. (2) The first of the letters to appear in the Morning Post was No. 2, followed by No. 4 in the Morning Post. No. 3 did not appear in a London paper. No. 1 was in the Morning Post on May 17th and 21st, 1917.

The stories

The book consists of four stories that read as letters home from soldiers from India and the North-West Frontier, which take place in 1915 and 1916. “A Retired Gentleman” and “The Fumes of the Heart” are both fictionalized letters written from the perspective of wounded Indian soldiers, a Rajput and a Sikh, to their families. The second is cast as a dictated letter from a Sikh soldier to his brother and has dramatic asides and digressions from the injured soldier punctuating the text. As for the remaining two stories, “The Private Account” is presented as a scene showing an Afghan family reading and responding to a letter from their son on the Western Front, and the final story, “A Trooper of Horse”, takes the form of a letter from an unwounded Muslim soldier in France to his mother.


According to Lord Birkenhead’s notes made from Mrs Kipling’s (now destroyed) diary, on June 19, 1916, Major Sidney Goldman of the Intelligence Department brought Brigadier General Cockerill to meet Kipling to discuss 'how best to give intelligence to neutrals at home'. (3) Shortly thereafter, on June 26, it is noted that Kipling 'starts work on some Indian letters from men who have been at the front'. The notes from the diary explain that the framework of the book came from censored Indian soldier’s letters that he had received from Sir Dunlop Smith. Kipling’s correspondence confirms this. On June 9, 1916, for example, he wrote to Smith that he was glad that some work was finally being done on Indian soldiers but that he would not be able to write an introduction to any such pamphlet, himself, because he was too busy. The letter finds Kipling then thanking Smith for the Censor’s reports on letters from members of the British Indian army active in the war, calling them a 'complete revelation' and asking for more of them. (4) As Kipling further explained he wanted to make 'some sort of article out of them', assuring Smith that he would not give his sources away. Though it is not clear if Smith was allowed to circulate these reports, it does seem evident that the materials were sensitive enough that Kipling would have had ample reason to anticipate his correspondent’s possible fear about his revealing his sources.

Censorship during the Great War

As for the more specific nature of these sources, Indian soldiers’ letters - like all letters from soldiers on active service - were initially censored on grounds of preventing the dissemination of 'seditious literature, whether from the enemy or - in the case of Indians - the 'Indian Revolutionary Party'. (5) After being dictated to a scribe, as was most often the case (and as per the process Kipling dramatizes in “The Fumes of the Heart”), soldiers’ letters were then, according to David Omissi, censored at two levels. The first was at the regimental level and the second was at the more centralized military level. As noted, this was initially to prevent seditious literature from coming into regiments, but was later extended to prevent bad news from leaking out as well. (6) An internal report by the Head Censor of Indian Mails, Captain E.B. Howell, reveals part of the government’s thinking behind these policies:

If the men had been allowed to write freely, they might conceivably have given information of military value to the enemy and they certainly would have terrified their relatives, and so caused considerable political danger, by exaggerated or even accurate, accounts of the suffering which they were required to endure. (7)
In other words, without restrictions on writing, troops not only might inadvertently give information to the enemy, but they also might portray the events of the war with a tone of realism that could have caused a slump in morale. Somewhat paradoxically, there was minimal interference with the outgoing letters, according to Omissi, because deletions were “more likely to excite the fearful imagination of their recipients than letters which had not been tampered with”. (8) Moreover it was assumed, Omissi notes, that the stories that came from injured soldiers would enflame the 'oriental' imagination more than what could be said in any letter.

Yet even despite this often 'minimal' interference with outgoing letters from the battlefront, as mentioned, censorship was eventually extended from 'inward' mail to letters 'written by Indian sick and wounded in the hospitals in England, where the men had leisure to write and unlimited notepaper' as well. (9) In addition to controlling access to more accurate information about life on the warfront, according to another internal report, Indian Mail Censorship helped draw certain issues of morale to the attention of government authorities including the question of pay, remittances, rations, clothing, and restrictions from certain activities enforced in the hospital. Censoring the letters offered a cross-section of 'the current sentiments and opinions both of the troops in the field and of their circle of correspondents in India and elsewhere' and thus gave the government a means of gauging opinion and morale and learning about what was happening in the trenches. (10) The report ends with the note that the extracts from the Indian correspondence are of historical and psychological value and if ever permitted to be published, would make 'a very entertaining book'. (11) The entertaining aspects of the letters contrast with the complaints and the anger that some soldiers expressed when commenting on the war. In approaching these materials, Kipling looked at the 'entertaining' aspects of the letters and was able to expand them into four narratives.

Kipling and the Indian soldiers

Kipling had first hand experience with Indian soldiers and wrote about them in The New Army in Training. According to Charles Carrington’s notes from Carrie Kipling's diary, he was also familiar with the Indian wounded, having visited some of them in Brighton (see entry for January 23, 1915). (12) When, over a year and a half later, Kipling had finished his first drafts of the composites of the letters, he sent them to Smith on July 10 [13?], 1916. In total, this initial output (the original manuscript version of which has been lost) resulted in three sketches (1) of a Sikh landowner, (2) a young 'sweep of a Pathan without morals', and (3) 'a Raffish native officer'.

Intriguingly, Kipling explained to Smith that he found the censored extracts from the soldiers’ letters that emphasised the prosperity of England and France, together with their focus on education, to be most remarkable: 'What they mean by “education” is, I think, capacity to use and profit by the material of the civilization they have seen—such as churches, ploughs, washing tubs and so on. (13)

From these letters Kipling imagined hundreds of thousands of men 'who have gone abroad and discovered the nakedness of their own land—as well as the gravity of war then waged in earnest by Sahib-log. For Kipling two events were especially important. The first of these was the clearing of the officer’s horse manure by Flemish ('Phlahamahnds') farmers and the second was an artillery officer’s lust for a green tent. He referred to them as 'literal facts in his letter to Smith, and they both eventually appear in the story “Fumes of the Heart”. (14) He also makes reference in “A Retired Gentleman” (in passages redacted from the text of the original letters) to stories that he heard from Smith himself. While Kipling admitted that he took 'large liberties with the material' in creating these sketches, he simultaneously insisted that much of what he borrowed was only tenuously related to his fictional versions, given the way they amplified 'what I thought I saw between the letters.'

Kipling explains how the censored letters influenced his stories, thus further establishing his connection to government propaganda; but he also demonstrates how he adapted his source material to his own projections of what he thought he might have seen in the letters.

Kpling and the censors

Wary of exposing Smith to any trouble, Kipling assured him that there was nothing in his fictionalised accounts that the India Office should have reason to object to and promised to return the censored letters to him as soon as possible. On October 6, 1916, Kipling thanked Smith for another batch of the letters and explained that he was trying to 'get together a whole collection of letters giving points of view, from all parts of the Empire, of quite humble folk.' Though this project never materialised, by November 1918, Kipling was in a position to forward a copy of The Eyes of Asia to Smith. Despite the author’s distaste for small books, he published the book because of popular demand in America: 'the thing seems to have really done useful work, over there.' Fittingly, Kipling closed this correspondence with Smith by giving thanks to him, claiming that '[i]t’s to the censored letters that I owe it.'

Appealing to Smith’s knowledge of India in the July 10 [13?] letter, Kipling asked Smith to confirm that the materials were believable, requesting that 'if you find any error in caste or mental outlook in the characters give me a hint'. (15) In creating these four stories, thus, Kipling had to negotiate several tasks at once, being sure to maintain the secrecy of his sources, minimising potential offence to the India Office, and still creating characters that were believable and accurate in terms of their 'mental outlook.'


(1) The stories were published in a slightly different order: “The Fumes of the Heart”, May 19, 1917; “The Private Account”, May 26, 1917; “A Retired Gentleman”, June 2, 1917; “A Trooper of Horse”, June 9, 1917.

(2) The Morning Post published them in a six part series. “The Fumes of the Heart”, May 10 and May 14, 1917; “A Retired Gentleman” May 17 and May 21, 1917; “A Trooper of Horse”, May 24 and May 29.

(3) Sussex Kipling Archive, Ad.40, p.70

(4) Thomas Pinney, Editor. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling Volume 4:1911-19 (Basingstoke, 1999), pp.374-5.

(5) E.B. Howell, Captain, Head Censor, Indian Mails, Report on Twelve Months’ Working of the Indian Mail Censorship, quoted in David Omissi (Editor), Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldier’s Letters, 1914-18 (London: Macmillan 1999), p.369-72

(6) Omissi, “Introduction”, p.5-6

(7) Ibid, p.370

(8) Ibid, p.7-8

(9) Ibid, p.370

(10) Omissi, p.371

(11) Ibid, p.372

(12) “Extracts from the Private Diaries of Carrie Kipling”, Sussex Kipling Archive, 1/11

(13) Sussex Kipling Archive, Ad 1

(14) The Eyes of Asia, p.34, p.43-5

(15) Sussex Kipling Archive, Ad. 1


©Anurag Jain and Sharad Keskar 2008 All rights reserved