The Head of the District

Notes on the text

These notes, by John McGivering, are partly new, and partly based on the ORG. The page and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan (London) Standard Edition of Life’s Handicap, as published and frequently reprinted between 1891 and 1950.


[Page 117] Heading Two six-line stanzas by Kipling: There’s a convict more in the Central Jail
Philip Holberton writes: They describe the state of the District at the end of the story, when peace and good government have been restored. As published at the head of the story in Life’s Handicap (but not when collected) these verses are titled “The Running of Shindand.” Under that title they were set to music by Percy Grainger in 1901, and can still be found on CD and on line. (See Brian Mattinson’s list of settings of Kipling’s verse.) Shindand is a town in western Afghanistan, a long way from the scene of the story.

[Heading, line 3] A lifter is a cattle-thief. cf “The Ballad of East and West” line 6.

And he has lifted the Colonel’s mare that is the Colonel’s pride.

The metre, where ‘Dear boys’ is interjected before a repeat of the last line, is also used in the poem “The Lost Legion” published a few years later, in 1895. [P.H.]

[Page 117, line 1] Indus one of the great rivers of India, rising in Tibet and running some 900 miles to the Arabian Sea. It floods, often disastrously, between April and August, when the snow melts in the mountains.

[Page 118, line 2] Deputy Commissioner an officer in charge of a District, several of which form a Division with a Commissioner in charge.

Kot-Kumharsen a fictitious District that is also mentioned in “Without Benefit of Clergy”, next in this volume.

[Page 118, line 3] fever see Dr Sheehan’s Notes.

[Page 118, line 5] the paths of a moderate righteousness an echo of the 23rd Psalm: He shall …. bring me forth in the paths of righteousness.

[Page 119, line 22] dipped In this context ‘in debt’.

[Page 119, line 30] sending round the hat taking up a collection for the widow’s passage home.

[Page 120, line 5] “Man that is born of a woman is small potatoes and few in the hill” The first part of this phrase, which is in quotes, echoes The Order for the Burial of the Dead in The Book of Common Prayer and Job 14,1.

David Page writes: The following information has been gathered on the internet, and also with the considerable help of two Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) experts at the Universities of Tarleton (TX) and of Berkeley (CA). I had first thought that Twain might have been the originator of the phrase, but this is now very doubtful. The phrase, “small potatoes”, has been used in America since before 1831 and is similar in meaning to “small beer” in England, ie. ‘not of great account’.

The phrase ‘small potatoes, with few in the hill’ is recorded in Mitford Mathews’ Dictionary of Americanisms and was apparently proverbial as early as 1831. It is used in 1843 as a chapter heading in The Attaché: or Sam Slick in England by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a Nova Scotian judge (1796-1865). There is also a report on a “Democratic Meeting at Hayes’ Park” by Mark Twain in the San Francisco Daily Morning Call of 3 August 1864, which also uses this part of the phrase. It is known that Twain had read at least one of the six “Slick” books. (

Through the internet we have located an undated, unattributed cutting, surrounded by others in a scrapbook from the 1880s, which comes from the one of the three U.S. counties of Bradford (PA), Tioga (PA), or Chemung (NY), in the last of which is the town of Elmira. This cutting begins ‘Man that is born of woman is small potatoes and few in the hill’, exactly as used by Kipling.

At first, the cutting  reads like a modern spoof on the burial service with a reference to: ‘. . . in the bright sunlight to absorb ozone.’ However, on further investigation (, it seems that Twain was a great admirer of Dr Nikola Tesla, a physicist and an electrical engineer, who amongst his other successes, developed an ozone generating device. Twain and Tesla became friends in the early 1890s, but unfortunately this doesn’t confirm that Twain was the author of the piece. It is not recorded in the Twain bibliography, and it has been suggested to me that the cutting reads like a typical newspaper humour paragraph of the mid-nineteenth century. In Melville Landon’s Wit and Humor of the Age (1886), there is a very similar biblical parody (“Man, born of woman, is few of days and no teeth…”) by the humorist Robert J. Burdette (1844-1914), who was one of Twain’s cronies.

There are many places in which Kipling could have come across the phrase before writing this story, but it would be pure speculation to try and identify one of them from the information currently available.
[D.P. May 2006].

[Page 120, line 7] Khusru Kheyl possibly the Kava Husru of Indo-Persian legend, the origins of which are lost in the mists of antiquity, but see Hobson-Jobson (p. 430). [Information would be appreciated; Ed.]

[Page 120, line 19] Jagai David Page writes: ‘There is a city in Balochistan, Pakistan named Jagai Sra (which we have located courtesy of Google) sited at 8,500 ft above sea level.approximately 50 miles from the Afghanistan border’.

[Page 120, line 32] Mahomed The Prophet Mohammed (c. 570-632) the Founder of Islam.
Moses c. 13th Century B.C. prophet and lawgiver who led the Children of Israel out of the wilderness, believed to be the author of the first five books of the Old Testament.

[Page 121, line 9] sack any caravans in this context, rob parties of merchants travelling with camels, horses etc.

[Page 122, line 4] uncomprehendingly he could not tell the time.

[Page 123, line 5] the Very Greatest of All the Viceroys There is a note of sarcasm here; ORG believes this to be Lord Lansdowne (1845-1927). On the other hand it might well refer to Lord Ripon (1827-1909) whose liberal policies were not looked upon with approval by many of the British in India See Early Verse (Ed. Rutherford) pp.184 and 255, and the note at Page 125, line 2 below.

[Page 124, line 11] the Council-board of India the Viceroy and his Members of Council. Not kings, but very important men – see “Tods’ Amendment” (Plain Tales from the Hills).

[Page 124, line 17] Head of the Red Provinces not traced.

[Page 124, line 27] the Knight of the Drawn Sword Presumably the Commander-in-Chief of the Army who was also a Member.

[Page 125. line 2] hireling organs newspapers supposed to be bribed by the British; they were probably not, but see Andrew Lycett, p. 90 for observations on the Ilbert Bill and how the Civil and Military Gazette was dependent on government contracts. See also Something of Myself, Chapter 3.

[Page 125, lines 8-25] ‘Our beloved Viceroy…. etc.’ a parody of a typical article in an Indian paper.

[Page 125, line 15] peshbundi a stratagem.

[Page 126, line 8] his sisters and his cousins and his aunts a quotation from H.M.S. Pinafore a comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. See Early Verse p. 187 for a parody of Dick Deadeye’s song.

[Page 126, line 10] Dacca in Bengal, 150 miles South of Calcutta and about as far from the Frontier as one can get and remain in India.

[Page 126, line 13] shekels silver coins dating from Biblical times and here used instead of “money” or perhaps “loot” as members of his family take advantage of his position for their own profit.

[Page 126, line 17] Bengali The Bengalis were not traditionally a fighting race, unlike others mentioned on this page: [see Hobson-Jobson (p. 44), the verses “What Happened”, and the picture by Lockwood Kipling of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, (right) from Kim. In fact, though Hurree said he was ‘a fearful man’, he proved to be extremely courageous, unlike Grish Chunder Dé, M.A.]

[Page 127, line 28] the Blind Mullah of Jagai a Muslim learned in theology and sacred law – see below and overleaf.

[Page 127, line 31] screw-gun battery small field-guns that could be dismantled and carried on mules, so they were able to operate in terrain inaccessible to wheeled transport. See the verse “Screw-Guns”, and Kipling’s Soldiers (Newark) pp. 99 and 101.

[Page 127, line 33] Ghazis fanatical followers of Mohammed who have sworn to kill all unbelievers.

[Page 129, line 6] Jehannum Gehenna of the Muslims, the place of eternal punishment.

[Page 129, line 9] Bokhara then a vassal state of Russia on the River Oxus bordering Afghanistan. Crops include cotton.

[Page 129, line 14] mohurs the chief gold coins of India, from the Persian muhr ‘a seal’, but see Hobson-Jobson (p. 573)
Akbar Jalaludin Muhammad, (1542-1605) Moghul emperor who greatly extended his empire.

[Page 129, line 23] forbidden liquors Mohammedans are forbidden to drink alcohol.

[Page 129, line 26] hold a word of many meanings – perhaps here signifying ‘stronghold, fort’ or perhaps ‘landholding’.

[Page 130, line 13] battle, murder, and sudden death an echo of part of The Litany in The Book of Common Prayer, where the priest says: ‘…. From plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death.’ The congregation replies: Good Lord, deliver us.

[Page 131, line 8] a potter’s donkey This illustration is from Lockwood Kipling’s Beast and Man in India. In “Tiger ! Tiger !” (The Jungle Book, p. 96) Kipling says:

… Mowgli had not the faintest idea of the difference that caste makes between man and man. When the potter’s donkey slipped in the clay-pit, Mowgli hauled it out by the tail, and helped to stack the pots for their journey to the market at Khanhiwara. That was very shocking, too, for the potter is a low-caste man, and his donkey is worse.

[Page 131, line 25] the Maharanee of England Queen Victoria – a Maharanee (from the Hindi maha ‘great’, and rani ‘queen’) is the wife of a Maharaja.

[Page 131, line 28] pig Moslems look upon the pig as unclean.

[Page 132, line 26] dung-cake dried cow-dung Oopla used as fuel. This girl (right) (from Beast and Man in India) is carrying a load of it.

[Page 132, line 30] Khusru see Note to page 120, line 7 above.

[Page 133, line 13] Jumala not traced [information will be appreciated; Ed.]

[Page 134, line 14] Pir Prith not traced.

[Page 134, line 18] Badl Khas possibly a tribesman from Nepal. [information will be appreciated; Ed.]

[Page 134, line 23] bump-suppers The river at Oxford is too narrow for racing in the usual way so the boats start at intervals with the object of overtaking the boat ahead so that bow and stern overlap and gently touch. They change places for the next race, so a good crew can become Head of the River. A ‘bump’ is often the excuse for a celebration. Angus Wilson (p. 75) attributes some of the author’s bitterness here to regret at not being able to attend a university himself.

[Page 134, line 32] pleader in this context, a lawyer who represents his client in court and pleads his case.

[Page 136, line 18] Fort Ziar not traced.

[Page 137, line 25] jab upwards the classic stroke in fighting with a knife – hold it point upwards and strike for the lower abdomen.

[Page 137, line 28] Sahib Bahadur a respectful form of address.

[Page 137, line 4] catholic in this context, ‘all-embracing’, ‘of wide sympathies’.

[Page 138, line 15] Curbar the District Superintendent of Police introduced at page 135, line 19.

[Page 138, line 33] skewbald a horse with brown and white patches on the body and mixed colours on mane and tail.

[Page 139, line 19] uncovered in this context, removed his hat as a mark of respect to the dead.

[Page 139, line 24] Belooch Beshaklis not traced

[Page 139, line 28] Derouletts not traced

[Page 139, line 29] Tommy Dodd also the name of a simple gambling-game used at charity bazaars (sales to raise money for charity), hence the link with ‘Derouletts’ (‘de roulette’). See “Liberavi Animam Meam” in Early Verse, p. 400.

[Page 140, line 5] crabbed badly-written and hard to decipher. Gurmukhi ‘From the mouth of the Guru’ – an alphabet devised by Guru Nanak (the first Sikh guru) in the sixteenth century.

[Page 142, line 2] lifting in this context, stealing – usually cattle.

[Page 142, line 5] marches here meaning ‘borders’.

[Page 142, line 28] Mooltan a city in the Punjab, some 190 miles from Lahore.

[Page 144, line 9] Beshaklis a regiment of native cavalry.

[Page 145, line 9] devil-guns screw-guns; see Note to page 127, line 31 above.

[Page 145, line 6] send troops on the wire he knows about telegrams, and wonders if troops can be sent along a wire in the same way.

[Page 145, line 26] reasons in writing the classic order from Headquarters telling those who actually do the work to report what they have done and why they did it. Giles Caldin has pointed out that In the navy a generation ago, ‘Reasons in writing’ was a phrase which required an officer to report a failure in writing, a worse humiliation than a mere oral confession; it did not apply
to an ordinary Report of Proceedings. It seems likely that the same sort of principle of requiring written explanations after the event applied in the Indian Civil Service.

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2006 All rights reserved