Christmas in India

(notes by John Radcliffe and John McGivering)

Publication history

First publication in the Pioneer of Allahabad on 24 December 1886, and in the Pioneer Mail on 29 December. There was a column heading, “Latter-Day Carols”, covering this poem, entitled “The Dyspeptic in India” and signed ‘R.K”,  together with “The Dyspeptic in London” by his Editor Kay Robinson, signed ‘K.R.’

The ORG (p. 5145) entry is incorrect in ascribing “The Dysoeptic in India” to Robinson. See Pinney’s note (p. 623 in Poems of Rudyard Kipling, Cambridge 2013) ):

The poem in The Pioneer and Pioneer Mail is paired with “The Dyspeptic in London” by RK;s Editor E K Robinson. The second of the  “Latter Day Carols”.  In the table of contents of Departmental Ditties 3rd Edn. the title of the  poem iis given as “Christmas in India”. Robinsaon saus that the poem was commissioned by The Pioneer. (“Kipling in India”, McCures Magazine, July 1890)”

The 4th, 5th, and 6th lines of the last verse of Kipling’s poem were also included under the title “Christmas Joys”, with selections from the works of a number of poets. Christmas Joys was also the title of the book.

“Christmas in India” is collected in:

  • Departmental Ditties and Other Verses (1888)
  • Early Verse (1900)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 115
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)

See David Alan Richards  (p. 697) for musical settings of the piece. Also Brian Mattinson’s research summarised on this site.

Theme

This is a pessimistic  look at exiles celebrating the Christmas family festival, far from home, in an alien climate. The ‘dusk behind the tamarisks could not be more different from the treasured  images of Christmas at Home, with frosts and holly and log fires.

Kay Robinson had been Assistant Editor of the Pioneer in Allahabad, the larger sister paper of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore. The two papers were closley in touch and often shared copy.  In the summer of 1886 Robinson  was temporarily appointed Editor of the CMG and became good friends with Kipling, encouraging him to write verse for the paper.  With their proprietor’s approval, the two young men were seeking to ‘put sparkle into the CMG.’

They did not shrink from upsetting their readers from time to time and may possibly have done so in this case. There is an ironic  suggestion in the final verse, by the twenty-year old Kipling, who had by now been working in Lahore for four years, that the presence of the British in this strange land might  be fruitless, even hopeless. Such a feeling may have sometimes been felt by frustrated officials with a touch of liver, but rarely publicly acknowledged. The Anglo-Indians saw themselves as the loyal keepers of the British Raj.

Charles Allen (p. 234) mentions the two poems, calling Kipling’s version “characteristically sardonic” and Robinson’s “conventionally sentimental”.  but ke does not give us the text.

Background

The Anglo-Indian community certainly  did their best to mark the Christmas season with affection and good will, as Kipling recalled nostalgically in 1895, at the end of “William the Conqueror“.  Here he is describing the return of a team of administrators to the Punjab after work on famine relief in the South:

Morning brought the penetrating chill of the Northern December, the layers of wood-smoke, the dusty grey-blue of the tamarisks, the domes of ruined tombs, and all the smell of the white Northern plains, as the mail-train ran on to the mile-long Sutlej Bridge…They were picking them up at almost every station now—men and women coming in for the Christmas Week, with racquets, with bundles of polo-sticks, with dear and bruised cricket-bats, with fox-terriers and saddles …

About midnight half a dozen men who did not care for dancing came over from the Club to play “Waits,” and that was a surprise the Stewards had arranged—before any one knew what had happened, the band stopped, and hidden voices broke into “Good King Wenceslaus,” and William in the gallery hummed and beat time with her foot.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

tamarisks: shrubs of the order Tamaricaceae
.

Home: in this contest the United Kingdom.

white and scarlet berry: the fruits of mistletoe (Alburn) and holly (Ilex Aquifolium) respectively, traditionally used to decorate houses at Christmas. The holly was traditionally a sacred tree, as Kipling was aware. In “Friendly Brook” (A Diversity of Creatures) (p. 46) two men are trimming a hedge:

By noon a length of unclean jungle had turned iinto a cattle-proof barrier, tufted here and there with little plumes of the sacred holly which no woodman touches without orders.

[Verse 2]

ghat: a burning-ghat, a flight of steps running down to a river, where the bodies of the dead are cremated.

Rama: the legendary Indian king regarded as an incarnation of Vishnu.

psalters: books of psalms, usually incorporated in the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church.

“Good Christian men rejoice”: an old German carol “In Dulci Jubilo” translated by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), English priest, scholar and hymn-writer. This is the first of three verses:

Good Christian men rejoice
With heart and soul and voice!
Give ye heed to what we say
News! News!
Jesus Christ is born today!
Ox and ass before Him bow
And He is in the manger now
Christ is born today!
Christ is born today!

[Verse 3]

Heimweh: homesickness (German).

the black dividing Sea: the ocean is known as kala-pani – ‘the black water’, in some of the Indian stories

Youth was cheap: In Something of Myself (p. 41) Kipling writes of young men who: ‘died from typhoid mostly at the regulation age of twenty-two.
(Page 41.)

Owls: nocturnal birds of prey of the order Strigiformes.

 

conches: a number of different species of sea snails, or their shells, of the family Strombidae. The shells can be made into primitive trumpets, used in temples as here. Fishermen sometimes used them as fog-signals.

caste: the divisions of Hindus in India into social and religious groups, which form separate communities and do not eat together, work together, or intermarry. See Hobson-Jobson (p. 170). It is mentioned frequently in Kim.

“faint and forced the laughter”: apparently a quotation but we have not traced it .

 

[J McG./J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved