[July 15th 2006]
First published in the Civil and Military Gazette of 18 January, 1888 and signed 'The Traveller'. Collected in Life’s Handicap, 1891.
Out shooting, the narrator enters a big area of high grass in search of wild boar. It is intersected by a maze of tiny narrow pathways, and he soon loses his bearings. Calling for his dog, he encounters a strange deep echo, and hears what sounds like chuckling laughter. It comes from a stream, bubbling into a well deep in the grass; at the bottom black things are slowly turning over, including a human hand and arm.
He pushes his way further on and finds a one-eyed scarred old priest. He forces the priest, who is terrified of his white face, to show him the way out of the grass. He asks the local villagers about the place, and they tell him sinister stories of witchcraft and of women and children who have gone into the grass and never returned. One day, he hopes, someone will burn out the grass and reveal the mystery.
An un-named writer in KJ 133/22 (reprinted in ORG, Vol 2, p. 996) signing himself 'Ex-Settlement-Officer' identifies the sites of various stories by Kipling but finds this one puzzling, placing the well in the bed of the Indus, and wondering why Kipling departed from what the writer calls: 'the standard of exact truth which he sets himself in all his descriptions of the Punjab countryside. Are the mistakes deliberate ? If they are, what is their purpose ? Such a well would be no deeper than four feet (1·2 metres) to the water, there would be no spring in the side in this part of the country.
An even more dangerous and unpleasant place called Gau-Mukh, 'The Cow’s Mouth'. is described in Chapter 12, of The Naulahka and another at Chitor in “Letters of Marque XI “ (From Sea to Sea, volume I, page 99.) See also Harry Ricketts, p. 104.
Some critical comments
This story has not been noticed by many of the thirty commentators we have consulted. We are in two minds ourselves, about it but have treated it seriously, bearing in mind the injunction of Dr Tompkins (p. 256):
The 'I' is a dramatic character. He is often in what we know was Kipling’s situation; he presents, at times, certain recognisable aspects of his character; at other times, perhaps, the figure which he wished to cut, and occasionally a slightly parodied or belittled version of him. He is not therefore to be carelessly identified with Kipling. He is the link between the characters and the reader; he is not an autobiographer, and, with very few exceptions, the tale is not about him.We believe Kipling allowed himself some licence in what is obviously a work of fiction which Lionel Johnson, in Kipling, the Critical Heritage (Ed. R.L.Green) regards as one of the 'powerful stories of the horrible, without any mixture of mystery and impossibility'.
Rather surprisingly a young and active member of the Kipling Society is quoted in the Kipling Journal (KJ 141/31) as believing this to be on the short list for 'Kipling’s Funniest Story':
…. I suggest that you look for Kipling’s delightfully cynical turns of phrase and that you contemplate the ludicrous behaviour of the young man at the beginning, as well as his comically earnest reactions to the perhaps alarming, but improbable, situations in which he finds himself. There are also Mr. Wardle and the villagers to add to the fun….See also KJ 142/2 where a survivor of the 1914-18 War briefly comments on the story:
It is most unlikely that anybody with Kipling’s experience of India would enter such an area alone and on foot in the knowledge that there was a sounder of pig in the vicinity.
[J H McG]
©John McGivering 2006 All rights reserved