First published in the Civil and Military Gazette on 8 September, 1886, reprinted in the United Services College Chronicle on 18 December the same year, and collected in Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and in successive later editions of this collection.
Muhammad Din is a small boy, the son of the khitmatgar (butler), 'a tiny plump figure in a ridiculously inadequate shirt.' He asks if he can play with the narrator's polo ball, and from then on is his friend, greeting him solemnly, trotting about the compound, playing make-believe games, and happily constructing elaborate palaces of flowers and pebbles and sea shells. But it is a short-lived happiness, for Muhammad Din catches fever, and a few days later is carried to the burying ground by his father, wrapped in a white cloth.
Some critical comments
Thomas Pinney in Kipling's India (p. 141) wonders whether this tragic little story might have been inspired by the theft of a cricket-ball by a bearer, who was caught and sent to prison for three months for the offence. Kipling the journalist had raised the question in a CMG article of why he might have done it. The tale vividly expresses Kipling's view of the care a person in authority should have for his servants and their families, similar to that shown by the estate-owners in "An Habitation Enforced" in Actions and Reactions. He may perhaps be considered lucky, however, that he was not accused of putting the evil eye on the child and murdered, like the unfortunate Imray in “The Return of Imray” in Life’s Handicap.
This is a remarkable story to be written by a man of twenty and as
Carrington noted (p. 93) revealed his love and understanding of little children, that was to show to such advantage in Puck of Pook's Hill, Rewards and Fairies, and Just So Stories and to reach its apogee in "They” in Traffics and Discoveries. Philip Mason describes the story as "slight but without flaw". Tompkins notes (The Art of Rudyard Kipling p. 86) that "at the thought of the quaint, little, short-lived child, his epigrams, jauntiness, challenge, even his dryness, melt out of his style, and leave a sequence of perfect lucidity..." She comments in a later chapter (p. 246) that "...the sentences that tell of the end of the child Muhammad Din are like pebbles dropped into a little pool; the rings spread and are stopped by the margin, and the small disturbance is over." Another critic, Mark Paffard (Kipling's Indian Fiction - Macmillan, 1989), comments that "the casual but delicately systematic observation of the small boy seems to echo the tone of Gilbert White's Natural History of Selbourne."
The polo ball would have been a familiar object in an Anglo-Indian household, though there is no evidence that Kipling himself ever played polo, as he was not a very good horseman and his eyesight was defective; this had prevented him from playing games at school. (This did not, however, inhibit him later from writing probably the finest description of a polo-match ever written, in "The Maltese Cat" in The Day’s Work)