The Descent of
the Punkah

(notes by Philip Holberton, drawing on the researches of Andrew Rutherford and Thomas Pinney)


Published in the Civil and Military Gazette (CMG), 10 October 1884. Pinney writes of this signature:

The initials stand for “Esau Mull”, a pseudonym that RK had used from May, 1884. It is the most frequently-used of his many pseudonyms, for he typically used it to sign his many “Week in Lahore” columns. A ‘Mull’, short for ‘mulligatawny’, is a slang term for a Madras civil servant. ‘Esau’ presumably stands for ‘exile’.

The poem was never collected by Kipling but is to be found in Rutherford (p. 259) and Pinney (p. 1738).

The Poem

Rutherford notes that this poem celebrates the end of the hot season, as “The May Voyage” did its beginning.

A punkah is a large swinging cloth used as a fan, pulled backwards and forwards by a servant – who never seemed to pull hard enough to please the person being fanned.

In verse 2 he is described as a fiend for this failing, and dismissed the minute his services are no longer needed (though he is given a tip – see Verse 3)

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

jharun a duster material with loud colourful checks, much affected for summer suits or jackets, especially by military men. It can be put aside in favour of heavier tweeds now that the cooler Autumn has come.

bottled beer thought to affect the liver if drunk in hot weather.

[Verse 2]

Juldee chuti do! Dismiss him quickly.

Noor Ahmed! Presumably the head servant in charge of hiring and firing others.

have all the punkahs downthe punkahs are no longer needed and can be taken down and
stored till next Summer. Hence the title of the poem.

[Verse 3]

Eight annas half a rupee, given as a gratuity to the punkah-puller for his season’s work.

[Verse 4]

Friends return who have spent the hot weather in cool hill stations.

Monopole champagne. Heidsieck & Co. Monopole is one of the most respected Champagne houses, established in 1785. A bottle of Heidsieck Dry Monopole costs some £27 in London today.


©Philip Holberton 2020 All rights reserved