This story was first published in the Civil and Military Gazette on March 4th 1887 and collected in Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and in subsequent editions of this collection.
The Bisara of Pooree is a tiny eyeless fish, carved from a nut, inside a little jewelled silver box. If stolen, it is a powerful love charm. If it is not stolen, it turns against its owner within three years and brings ruin and death. Captain ‘Grubby’ Pack, a ‘nasty little man’, is infatuated with the attractive Miss Hollis, who spurns him. He overhears a conversation in the Club about the Bisara and steals it. Miss Hollis promptly falls in love with Pack and accepts him, but when the owner steals the charm back, she rejects him again. The owner, seeing the power of the Bisara, takes swift steps to get rid of it.
Dr. Tompkins in The Art of Rudyard Kipling p.233, calls this “a knowing little tale, unsympathetically told”, and – in the way it turns on the dominating force of irrational passion – likens it to “Wressley of the Foreign Office” later in this volume.
Kipling and the supernatural
Like “The King’s Ankus” in The Second Jungle Book the Bisara of Pooree has malignant powers. For the Ankus (a steel and ivory elephant goad, inlaid with gold and studded with emeralds and rubies) this can be explained by its value, which inspires men to murder for it. But the Bisara’s powers seem to be supernatural.
This is one of a number of tales by Kipling which are to do with the supernatural or paranormal, something that many Indian people would have accepted as a part of normal experience, and which was a subject of much speculation among Anglo-Indians in Simla in his time. Some are about apparently supernatural events which turn out to be based on fraud or error, like “The Broken-link Handicap” and “In the House of Suddhoo” in this volume; there is also “My Own True Ghost-Story” in Wee Willie Winkie in which the author’s own imaginings turn out have a perfectly commonplace explanation, and “The Sending of Dana Da” in Soldiers Three, a light-hearted skit on a form of Theosophy which turns out to be fraudulent. (see Something of Myself, p. 58).
“The Bisara of Pooree” and “By Word of Mouth” – also in this collection, take the supernatural more seriously, and are not intended to be amusing. Three other eerie Indian tales, anything but light-hearted, are “The Phantom Rickshaw” in Wee Willie Winkie (1890) and two stories in Life’s Handicap (1891), “At the End of the Passage” and “The Mark of the Beast”.
Kipling also touched on the supernatural in a number of later stories, including the enchanting “They” in Traffics and Discoveries (1904), “The House Surgeon” in Actions and Reactions (1909), and two stories in Debits and Credits” (1926), “The Wish House” and “A Madonna of the Trenches”. See also two poems, “The Appeal” and “En-Dor”. The latter is a powerful plea against dabbling in spiritualism and the occult. This was a personal issue for Kipling, because his sister was strongly interested in spiritualism; this may well have been a factor in her recurrent mental illness.
From his early writings for the Civil and Military Gazette to Debits and Credits forty years later, Kipling was interested in the strange byways of the human mind, the sources of ‘imagination’, and the eerie coincidences which sometimes seem to belie scientific rationalism. In Something of Myself (p. 215), written in 1936, he tells of a dream in which he envisaged in graphic detail an event that happened six weeks later. But he had already insisted:
“…there is a type of mind that dives after what it calls ‘psychical experiences’. And I am in no way ‘psychic’. Dealing as I have done with large, superficial areas of incident and occasion, one is bound to make a few lucky hits or happy deductions. But there is no need to drag in the ‘clairvoyance’, or the rest of the modern jargon. I have seen too much evil and sorrow and wreck of good minds on the road to Endor to take one step along that perilous track.
©John McGivering 2004 All Rights Reserved