The Naulahka – X

Notes on the text

by Sharad Keskar

[Heading] These two stanzas are verses 5 & 6 from the poem “For the Women” (not “The Song of the Women”), published in the Civil and Militarty Gazette, unsigned, on 18 February 1887 and collected in Early Verse (1900) and in the Sussex and Burwash editions. They echo the description of the maternity ward of Kate’s Hospital on p. 130.

[Heading, line 4] Sootak (sutak) is the state of ritual impurity following birth, and has nothing to do with the physical state of the room or the mother. The Jewish purification period after birth is forty days, when the mother is not to be approached. Similarly the Hindus have a period when the woman is considered “unclean” ritually; soot as a root to the word sootak means ‘thread’. After birth has taken place, the midwife ties a ritual thread on the umbilicus or navel. That possibly explains the use of the term.

[Heading, line 6] spite an abbreviation of ‘despite’, in spite of.

[Heading, line 8] haunt her home in death Kipling writes in Kim, Chapter VIII, p. 197:

A churel is the peculiarly malignant ghost of a woman who has died in child-birth. She haunts lonely roads, her feet are trurned backwards on the ankles, and she leads men to torment.

How sad it is that Kipling should be accused of misogyny when here’s a poem full of concerns “For the Women” –“Are all our gifts for men alone, or may your women share?” Thus the twenty-one year old Kipling, possibly by early association with Indian servants, is drawn to the native community, their ways and dialect, which later will enable him to observe with a good measure of intuitive understanding; and later still use in both “The Song of the Women” (The Naulahka) and “William the Conqueror” (The Day’s Work. 1898)

Hinduism is both ancient and protean. Hindu communities have varying customs, symbols and rituals. For instance not all Hindus resort to the purdah. The fact that Kipling mentions it in the poem, places it in Northern India, where he would have been at the time.

As for the harsh and, as it happens, inaccurate “jibe”, that is not Kipling’s intention. He is using the universally accepted description of Hindus, as a people who reverence the cow, and resorts to poetic licence. Instead of using the word ‘Hindus’, which wouldn’t scan or rhyme with the foregoing “teach us now”, he uses “Servants of the Cow—”
Verse Five of the poem creates a vivid picture of the “women only” room for childbirth. There the busy dahees or mid-wives are doing their best, while chanting and dancing women appease the gods. For Hindus, childbirth is fraught with dangers that are both obstetric as well as open to nazur–the “evil eye”—the ‘envy’ spell that can harm mother and child. Hence “The Hundred Danger Time”, a native dialect hyperbole used commonly to describe a situation fraught with dangers.

Asked what the risks and hazards are during childbirth, the mid-wife is very likely to reply ‘ek sor’, that is ‘one hundred-fold’. ‘Hundred’ lends emphasis. It stands for ‘countless’ or ‘umpteen’ in Western usage. To counteract the ‘evil eye’, “Birth-fires” are lit, in the already torrid room, for keeping the evil spirits at bay and for the casting out of ‘nazur’—the evil eye—by throwing salt, dried chillies, and oil into the fire. The rituals may vary, but the “Birth-fires” are invariably lit.

Sometimes, and Kipling would have known of this, when news of a birth reaches any hermaphrodite community, a troupe of them arrive and sing to the accompaniment of clapping, dancing and drums outside the house or hut. They are there to claim the child, if he or she is born hermaphrodite. The child’s family usually agree to let the child go, rather than bear the shame of abnormality.

[Page 124, line 30] Rhatore a make-believe city in Rajputana {Rajasthan] disguised to hide an actual reference to one in “Letters of Marque”.

[Page 127, line 3] small-pox this dreadful and disfiguring disease was endemic in most large cities in India at that time. It has now been eradicated. See Dr Gillian Sheehan’s notes on “Kipling and Medicine”.

[Page 128, line 33] Duff College the Reverend Alexander Duff (1806-1878), a well-known medical missionary, practically founded the Calcutta University, and the Medical College there was named after him. The Church of Scotland sent him out as its first missionary.

[Page 132, lines 21 & 27] Order going through me offeecially officially. An immemorial custom of the East—it surprised the European going to India for the first time to realise that everything he purchased had to bear a charge for one or other of his servants. In the early twentieth century it was 1 anna in the rupee, then equal to 6%, but sometimes double that.