The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney

(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in Macmillan’s Magazine for December 1889 , as “Great Krishna Mulvaney”, in Harper’s Short Stories in September 1890, and collected in The Courting of Dinah Shadd and other stories in 1890 (USA) , Mine Own People in 1891 (USA), and Life’s Handicap in 1891.

The story

The ‘Soldiers Three’ are badly short of beer money, and Mulvaney is charged with going out and finding funds. On a railway construction site he finds Dearsley, a foreman who has been defrauding his native workmen on a grand scale. Each month they have to buy raffle tickets, for which the prize is a magnificent queen’s palanquin (sedan chair), enamelled, brocaded, and lined with silk. Each month, on pain of dismissal, the winner gives the palanquin back to Dearsley.

Mulvaney threatens to expose him, and demands the palanquin as the price of his silence, but Dearsley, a great hulk of a man, says he will fight for it. Learoyd takes him on, beats him to the ground, and the three make off in triumph with the palanquin. But they still have no beer money.

Mulvaney sets off in the palanquin, hoping to sell it, but calls in to mock Dearsley on the way. Dearsley plies him with drink, and when Mulvaney awakes, he and the palanquin are on board a train, hastening north towards the holy city of Benares, so far that Mulvaney seems bound to be charged with desertion when he gets back to his regiment.

In Benares he finds himself in the street, where the palanquin is surrounded by others, and is carried into a temple where the queens of India are praying together. Amazed and fascinated, Mlvaney slips out of the palanquin, swathed in its silk lining. He looks uncommonly like the god Krishna, and the queens prostrate themselves. Mulvaney swiftly makes for the door, finding a priest, who helps him find the way out and gives him a goodly handful of rupees.

Back at the regiment, the Colonel, who has a sense of humour and a high regard for Mulvaney’s capacity to lick new recruits into shape, lets him off lightly; and the Three have their beer money.

Some critical comments

Knowles (A Kipling Primer, Chatto & Windus, 1900) p. 129, quotes Blackwoods Magazine (no date is given): What is (this story) but rollicking, incomparable, irresistible Farce ?

It is indeed a rollicking yarn, but had the scene in the temple occurred in a Christian church, it would probably be regarded as desecration. J M S Tompkins observes (p. 225): The tale has displeased many, and with some reason. Dr Tomkins does not, unfortunately, give details of the criticisms made, but she goes on to suggest a link – confirmed in the epigraph – between this story and the Hans Breitmann ballads of C G Leland (1824-1903):

…it is an attempt by Kipling to annexe for Mulvaney part of the territory of Leland’s cynical, hard-drinking, battered exile of ’48, who quarters his troop in a church, swills whisky in the aisle with grim indecency and listens … to a fellow-exile playing on the organ the melodies of the fatherland.

Hers, however, is the only objection discovered in the thirty or so biographers and commentators consulted, which is somewhat surprising when one considers the various literary and other crimes of which Kipling has been accused, although Charles Carrington (page134) notes that Kipling allowed Mowbray Morris, editor of Macmillan’s Magazine, in which the tale first appeared, to censor thirty lines of (this story)… which was ‘a little too drunken’ for English middle-class taste.
Louis Cornell, however takes a very different view (p.159):

At his best, Mulvaney becomes larger than life. Tougher, stronger, more imaginative than any man could be, he takes on heroic size and enters a realm that is outside normal human experience; part of the greatness … lies in the fact that he becomes, in some mysterious way, equivalent to Krishna, the legendary hero whom he impersonates.

All that for a drunken soldier desecrating a temple!

Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), a contemporary writer, in Questions at Issue, Heineman 1893 (p. 260), argued:

It is the strength of this new story-teller that he reawakens in us the primitive emotions of curiosity, mystery, and romance in action. He is the master of a new kind of terrible and enchanting peepshow, and we crowd around him begging for “just one more peep.”

Gosse also wonders how Dearsley got hold of the palanquin in the first place; that, alas, we shall never know ! [Ed.]

Guy Liardet comments:

In common with soldiers of the day, Mulvaney would have been heavily moustached if not whiskered.

Krishna is always clean-shaven. As a baby his milk was poisoned by the wicked fairy – Krishna did not die but turned a bright blue and is always shown painted that colour.

Kipling was unsympathetic to Hinduism; indeed at the ruined fortress of Chitor he sits and gloomily meditates

‘on the unholiness of Hindu art and what power a shadowland of lewd monstrosities had upon those who believed in it’.
[Letters of Marque XI, From Sea to Sea vol 1. p. 99 line 12]

He clearly had not studied his Hindu gods very closely. [G.L.]

ORG has, on p. 931 onwards (Volume 2), a brief bibliography of these stories, and reprints of Introductions by Andrew Lang (1844-1912) and Henry James (1843-1916). See also ORG Volume 1, pp. 7-16 for the origins of “Mulvaney” and the actions in which he might have been engaged.

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2005 All rights reserved