The Pit that they Digged

(notes edited by John McGivering)



ORG Volume 5, page 2413 records the first publication of this item (Uncollected No. 172) in the St. James’s Gazette on 14 December 1889, with collection in the Sussex Edition vol. iii, page 289. It is also collected in in the Burwash Edition vol iii.

Stewart notes it as included in Macmillan’s New York edition of Under the Deodars in 1895, and the Internet records a 6 page booklet published in New York by Macmillan the same year. Martindell records it in the Swastika Edition published by Doubleday & McClure, New York, 1899.

The story

J M S Tompkins has a neat summary in her Chapter Seven “Man and the Abyss”, she says:

At times there is a macabre oddity in his reports and inventions. “The Pit they Digged” (sic) is a connoisseur’s piece. Mumrath, a Bengal civilian is sick, and a beautiful brick-lined grave is prepared for him under a scheme of Government subvention. He recovers; and then begins the bandying to and fro of the unpaid account from department to department of the Provincial and finally the Supreme Government. At one stage the cost of his grave is deducted from his pay. Meanwhile, a cobra lays her eggs in the unused . grave. At last Mumrath gets the deduction recouped, drives out to the cemetery to chuckle over his hard-won victory beside the grave and absently treads on a cobra’s tail. The grave is filled and the account closed.

For stories on a similar theme see “At the Pit’s Mouth(Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories), and for glimpses of the civil service in British India, “Pig,”, “Consequences” and others in Plain Tales from the Hills.


Notes on the Text

“The Pit that they Digged” An echo of Ecclesiastes 10,8: ‘He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it’.

Bengal Civil Service Bengal was one of the three ‘Presidencies’ then existing in India (Bengal, Madras, and Bombay) the three major divisions of the Indian Empire, dating back to the days of the East India Company. There was a Bombay Civil Service, a Bengal Civil Service, and a Madras Civil Service, and men in Calcutta would refer to colleagues over in the West as being ‘on the Bombay side’.

Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the capital of Bengal, and the old province is now divided between the Indian state of West Bengal, and the independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh (previously East Bengal and later East Pakistan).

enteric fever Typhoid fever, often fatal, see Dr Gillan Sheehan’s notes, and “With Number Three”.

subventionised An appalling bureaucratic word, meaning ‘in receipt of a grant from the government’.

St. Golgotha-in-Partibus an invented saint, named after Golgotha (‘the Place of a Skull’) in the New Testament, where Jesus was crucified; an appropriate name for a cemetery. Perhaps Kipling was thinking of ‘St. Xavier in Partibus’ (the school where Kim was educated). In Latin in Partibus means ‘in heathen (non-Christian) regions’.

175 rupees 14 annas Then worth about £12 Sterling, a not inconsiderable sum, about half Kipling’s monthly pay at the Civil and Military Gazette afier a year on the paper.

in perpetuity for ever.

wharfage the charge made for the use of a wharf for loading and unloading vessels.
demurrage is the charge for a vessel exceeding her time at a berth or wharf, here used metaphorically. These were the charges for transporting the dead to a grave.

a Prussian officer … dead and wounded presumably an incident in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. Leaving dead and wounded men ‘uncollected’ on the battlefield would be bad for morale. To burden the pension regulations with too much detail about what would happen after their death would demoralise civil servants.

Armenian a native of the Republic of Armenia, an Asian country to the east of the Black Sea. bordering Turkey and Iran, formerly part of the Soviet Union. Armenians had the reputation of being wily traders.

to know the inwardness of that grave to know what was in it.

having the honour to be… Official correspondence in India, like formal correspondence in Britain, began: ‘Sir, I have the honour to inform you….’ and ended: ‘I have the honour to be, Sir, your Obedient Servant …’ . It perhaps still does, in the many official languages of modern India.

bandinage and defalcations ‘bandinage’ does not appear in modern dictionaries, but may be related to ‘badinage’ (French) meaning ‘banter’. Thus it may mean ‘looseness’ or ‘lack of seriousness’.
defalcations are the misappropriation of funds. Kipling seems to have coined a phrase here, like ‘assault and battery’.

burned bricks clay bricks fired in a kiln or clamp as opposed to mud bricks dried in the sun.

the Provincial Government Under the British, India was divided into provinces under a Governor, such as The Punjab, and many functions of government were exercised at the provincial level.

the Supreme Government see “Tods’ Amendment” (Plain Tales from the Hills p. 196, line 9.

reboisement (French) Reforestation, the management and maintenance of woodland. See “In The Rukh” (Many Inventions) (p. 201).

pro re nata (Latin) ‘For a special emergency’, according to the circumstances.

the Babu mind A Babu is an educated Bengali. As Hobson-Jobson explains, ‘Babu’ (or ‘Baboo’) is properly a term of respect, like ‘your honout’. Bengalis made excellent clerks, and were perceived by Indians—and indeed Anglo-Indians— in Kipling’s Punjab, as clever, though timorous, good at applying rules, but not at making decisions or facing physical danger.

See “The Head of the District” in Life’s Handicap. But see also Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, who plays an important part in Kim. He sets great store on formal education, and calls himself ‘a fearful man’, but is in fact a courageous intelligence agent.

the biers carriages or frames for carrying coffins to the grave.

what the deuce an exclamation not often heard today, meaning ‘What on Earth ?’, or ‘What the Devil?’; ‘deuce’ means ‘plague’ or ‘mischief’.

she-cobra A common snake in India, whose bite is lethal. See “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi“ (The Jungle Book (p. 170, line 7) and Dr. Gillian Sheehan’s notes.

[J. H. McG.]

©John McGivering 2010 All rights reserved