This poem was published in the Civil and Military Gazette on 23 November 1886, with the signature ‘R.K.’ and a heading from the previous day’s paper reporting a rise in the value of the rupee:
The rate of exchange in Bombay on Saturday, November 20th, was 1s. 6d. and the market was firm.
The poem is included in Kipling’s Scrapbook 3 of his own press cuttings in the Kipling Papers at the University of Sussex Special Collections. It is not otherwise collected by Kipling, but to be found in Rutherford (p. 344) and Pinney (p. 1829).
The value of the rupee, and thus the value of people’s salaries against the pound sterling, had been declining. However, today there is news that the rupee has actually risen, and the poet dreams of all the things he can do with his new wealth, breaking out a bottle of champagne with his wife, checking the accounts to see what they can now afford, dreaming of sending his son to Oxford and his daughter to an expensive school, fit to marry a Commissioner, all on the strength of a rise of one penny. However, perhaps, as for Alnaschar the beggar, it will all come to nothing.
The falling value of the rupee against the pound sterling was a matter of continual concern to Anglo-Indians in the middle and late 1800s. The pound was on the gold standard, the rupee depended on the value of silver, and there was no fixed ratio between them. See our notes on “Exchange” a poem from the previous year, when the rupee was a little weaker. For complex reasons the value of silver had been steadily falling, affecting the cost of any goods imported into India, expenses ‘at Home’ (ie in the UK) and travel to and from Britain. For the rupee to appreciate, even by one penny, was a signal event and a cause for rejoicing.
Notes on the Text
[Title] Alnaschar: in the Arabian Nights Alnaschar is a beggar who has invested in a basket of glassware, and dreams of the wealth it will bring. He finally dreams of marrying the Vizier’s daughter and then spurning her with his foot, at which point he kicks over the basket and
breaks everything. In E.W. Lane’s translation (of which Kipling owned a set), this is the first part of “The Barber’s Story of his Fifth Brother”. There the name is “El Feshshar”, with “El Neshshar” being given in a note as a possible alternative.
cf. Kipling’s later poem “Alnaschar and the Oxen” (1924), where he admires his Sussex cattle feeding in the dew and dreams of breeding a strain that will feed a hungry world.
[Heading] 1s 6d: One shilling and sixpence. Before decimalisation in 1971, there were 12 pence to a shilling and twenty shillings to the pound, thus 240 pence to the pound. One shilling and six pence was thus eighteen pence to the rupee, a rate of 13.3 rupees to the pound. People could remember a time when there were ten to the pound.
The Widow’s vintage: Veuve Cliquot champagne (veuve is French for ‘widow’).
There is a tide: ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men,/ Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.’ Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Act IV. scene 3.
from Prome to Cutch: all across the Indian Empire, from Burma in the east across to the North-West coast of India.
my son …: Perhaps he can now afford to send his son to Oxford University, and his daughter Amelia to boarding-school in England and then to Paris to be “finished” until she is fit to marry a Commissioner.
In the last verse he begins to dream of going “Home” on leave, but finally realises that he has built all these dreams on a rise of just one penny.
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