Gunga Din

(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in the New York Tribune on May 22nd 1890, and in the Scot’s Observer on June 7th 1890. ORG No. 460

Collected in:

  • Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses (1892)
  • Early Verse (1900)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 32 p. 190
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 25
  • Wordsworth Edition (2001)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 189

The poem

This short story in rhyme is one of the best-known and most parodied of Kipling’s poems. It concerns a regimental water-carrier (bhisti) in India, who is commonly shouted at and cuffed by sweating soldiers on the troop trains, since there is never enough water to be had. But later, one of them whom he saved under fire, although shot himself, tells of the man’s bravery, saying that Gunga Din was a better man than him. The catchphrase: ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din’ has passed into the language, though many people use it without knowing its origins. There are about one hundred references to the poem in the Kipling Journal.

We have recently received this note about “Gunga Din” from a correspondent in the United States, Richard E. Rieman:

I have read several commentaries on one of Kipling’s great poems, none of which do it justice.
I consider this poem to be an Act of Contrition. The narrator is a soldier of long service, severely wounded (a belly wound), and apparently sent home to convalesce, or be mustered out. He appears to be in a canteen with other soldiers telling about a water porter that he abused with his fellows, and never recognizing his unstinting and good natured service to them over a considerable period of time. Finally Gunga Din saves his life, and dies in the process.

After he is transported to the rear he realizes what he owes to Gunga Din, but he is unable to square the account with a dead man. With a few beers in him, and sitting in a canteen in Aldershot, I can see a tough veteran telling such a story, and pouring his heart out to men who could understand his pain.

I remember such stories being told by my father’s friends when he was stationed in the Azores, and stories we told each other after several beers at Portsmouth Naval Hospital.

The story was made into a film in 1939 (RKO ) directed by George Stevens and starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., loosely based on the poem and some of the stories in Soldiers Three

Philip Holberton notes the article by Sir George MacMunn in KJ066 for July 1943 on “The Original Gunga Deen”. He traces it to a song popular when Kipling was in India and gives what he can remember of the words. Kipling borrowed the name, with its pronunciation though different spelling, the meter (except that the song repeats some words), and even the first line as his line 7. [P.H.]

See also “Only a subaltern”, and “The Daughter of the Regiment”.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

penny fights an’ Aldershot-it:  Aldershot in Hampshire, in Southern England, has been the home of the British Army since the 1850s. While training in mock battles over the pleasant countryside the soldiers would be quartered in a proper camp or barracks with a canteen where beer was available. The Bytes web-site has suggested that the public were permitted to watch these manoeuvres for one penny each.

On active service, they would be obliged to drink water from whatever source it came. See “Cholera-Camp”.

bhisti: a water-carrier, a man with a goatskin bag of water, carried for the troops.

Gunga Din: ORG identifies Gunga Din as Juma, the heroic water-carrier of the Guides Frontier Force at the siege of Delhi, during the sepoy rebellion of 1857. The Guides were a celebrated Corps of the British Indian Army, which served in the North-West Frontier, and included both infantry and cavalry. However, Kipling transposed his bhisti to a British regiment. His name should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘green’ ” rather than ‘gin’ .

brick dust: used for scrubbing floors and in some kinds of magic.

hitherao: come here

Panee lao: bring water

[Verse 2]

Harry By: Oh, brother.

juldee: haste

marrow: hit

[Verse 3]

dot and carry one: he is lame. Kipling has used a term from a simple rule in adding figures together, to denote lameness, a familiar expression of the time.

nut: English slang for the head.

[Verse 4]

belt-plate:  a large usually brass plate that had to be cleaned, forming part of the buckle of the belt. It usually carried the number or the badge of the regiment.

crawlin’: crawling with life, which could include any number of pathogens, cholera, typhoid, paratyphoid etc.. [Dr Gillian Sheehan]

spleen: Dr Sheehan writes: the spleen is situated on the left side of the abdomen, just behind and below the lower ribs. If shot somewhere at the waist it is just possible that the injured soldier would survive, but if shot in the spleen he would bleed to death unless a splenectomy (removal of the spleen) could be performed. Haemorhage from any source would lead to dehydration, which would cause thirst.

[Verse 5]

dooli: a covered litter carried by several men.

‘”I ‘ope you liked your drink” sez Gunga Din.’: Another example of a native speaker showing his understanding of English, like Imam Din in “A Deal in Cotton” (p. 175) and Farag in “Little Foxes” (p. 248), both collected in Actions and Reactions.

Lazarushian: This refers to Lazarus, who was raised from the dead.  See Luke 16.24:

“And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame”. 

One implication is that, unlike the speaker, Gunga Din hasn’t actually been damned, but is in Hell out of compassion.. [D.H.]

livin’ Gawd:   Living God, a Biblical phrase.  [D.H.]


[J McG]

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