First published in Quartette (the Christmas Annual of the Civil and Military Gazette for 1885, which included four stories by the nineteen-year-old Kipling with other items of prose and verse by his parents and sister) with “C.E.” (‘Civil Engineer’) after the name. This is the third story in No. 5 of the Indian Railway Library, The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales. It was collected in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories in 1895, and in numerous later editions of that collection.
Wee Willie Winkie is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.
When the story first appeared in the Indian Railway Library it had a final paragraph which has been omitted from nearly all other versions. It reads :
To cut a long story short, Dunnoo is now my personal servant on a gold mohur a month – a sum which I still think far too little for the services he has rendered. Nothing on earth will induce me to go near that devilish spot again or to reveal its whereabouts more clearly than I have done. Of Gunga Dass I have never found a trace, nor do I wish to do. (sic) My sole motive in giving this to be published is the hope that someone may possibly identify, from the details and the inventory which I have given above, the corpse of the man in the olive-green shooting-suit.
(The mohur was the chief gold coin of British India, value Rs.15. [Hobson-Jobson])
Haughton [Haughton, Hugh ed. Wee Willie Winkie with Intro and Notes Penguin Classics 1988, Reprinted Penguin Books 1989] quotes the first version in Quartette which differs somewhat from the above but conveys practically the same message.
Morrowbie Jukes, out on a moonlight ride, falls with his horse down an unexpectedly steep slope of sand, into a crater. He finds himself in a sort of village of the living dead, where people who appear to have died of – for instance cholera – but revived when their bodies were about to be burned, are imprisoned. Led by Gunga Dass, a murderous Brahmin, they sleep in burrows in the sand, and live on crows. There is no way out past the steep slopes of sand, or the quicksands of the river. Jukes joins them, despairingly, until he is rescued by his servant, who has tracked him across the sands.
Some critical comments
This is another story in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe (see Carrington pp.68-69) an expedition into the half-world of Indian life like “Beyond the Pale” , “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows” and “To be Filed for Reference” , in Plain Tales from the Hills. It has attracted a lot of attention over the years, but it is not clear from the commentators consulted so far if it is founded on fact, and if it is, why those recovering from apparently fatal illnesses should have been treated in such an inhumane manner.
Cornell (page 105) goes to the heart of the matter in words which would have struck a chord with the Europeans of the time who were spread so thinly over India; “The village of the dead (the original title) is not the realistic picture of a curious ethnic survival… Kipling… has created a genuine Anglo-Indian nightmare, a vision of what it would be like to be one of the least of the ruled instead of one of the rulers.
A note by Sharad Keskar
Sharad Keskar has kindly provided the following note on the tale. (See also his notes on Kim.)
If we look for truths in this story we will simply have to conclude that
Kipling has got his facts wrong and rather mixed up. But that would miss the
point of its impact. This tale of an hallucinatory hell is surely an early
example of magical realism. Kipling is describing the symptoms that result
from sun-stroke or heat-stroke, and the truth lies in the nightmarish
delirium that sufferers from this malaise in India could so easily have
experienced, particularly one on a mission to the outposts of the country.
[The very high fever which affects the brain was only allayed by constant
nursing with ice-bags and cold drinks. The scenario of the faithful servant
coming to his master’s rescue is, therefore, a fitting one. “Mad dogs and
Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun” and a sahib on an expedition who has
failed to return will immediately make his servant conclude that he has
been struck down by the sun. The dream-like quality of the scene could mean
that the journey did not in fact take place, and that the sufferer woke up
after recuperation to see his man-servant bending over him.]
What the brahmin does and is prepared to do is unreal but not improbable. As
a rule, a Hindu and particularly a brahmin, to whom present earthly life is
one of many in the offing, dying is a less terrifying option than the
breaking of rituals which would damn his salvation forever. But then again,
the brahmin is a member of a secretive priestly society at the very top of
the social ladder, a demiurge by virtue of privileged birth. He calls the
shots and in an emergency can make up the rules, when necessary, to save his
skin. And so one does hear of strange ordeals the Hindu has to undergo at
the urge of his brahmin mentor-the sipping of cow’s urine is one example.
When he wrote the story Kipling was still very young, and one for whom those
early scenes of Indian life which he saw as a child in Bombay, would have
been singed in his memory. It is impossible for the non-Hindu to view,
without understanding or explanations, the sights and sounds of Hindu temple
life. As a boy I remember, on a hot sleepless night, being terrified by the
constant sounds of bells and beating drums, and my own mental visions of
strange rituals. Under an attack of sun-stroke, such a mind-frame could
become nightmarish. In Bombay a sensitive child can also be haunted by
those Parsee Towers of Silence, infested by crows-ravenous ravens – as well as
Kipling has written a tale of a sun-stroke victim and let his imagination go
riot, and not for the last time. A mature version is to be found in “At the
End of the Passage” in Life’s Handicap. But here an insomniac young Kipling, wandering the mean streets of cities of dreadful nights and contemplating the ugliness of
Indian poverty, made worse by superstitions, is ripe for producing such a
Poe-like tale as “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes.”
Sharad Keskar, June 2004.
Some other critical comments
Paffard (page 33) believes this story resembles Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valedemar that could easily be mistaken for the truth (Mark Paffard, Kipling’s Indian Fiction(Macmillan, 1989)
Birkenhead (page 100) refers to this as among “…three of Kipling’s finest stories; “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”, “The Man who Would be King” and “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”. Had Kipling died at this point and written nothing else, these three stories might well have snatched his name from oblivion…”
Gilmour (page 31) calls this “…a powerful and harrowing tale illustrating the vulnerability of the Englishman when he strayed beyond the protection of Anglo-India…”
Wilson (page 102) calls the story “a work of genius”, and pays Kipling the compliment of borrowing and adapting the title for his biography of the writer, even though he argues (page 72) that “the inartistic and improbable escape of Jukes … prevents it from being among the first dozen of all Kipling’s stories.
Tompkins considers this (page 199) to be an improvement on “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw”, noting that “..the horrible little burrows of the nightmare village of the living dead receive an added touch of ghastliness from being described to us in the practical professional detail of an unimaginative Civil Engineer