In the case of Rukhmibhaio

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


There is a handwritten version of this poem in Kipling’s Scrapbook 3 of his own press cuttings in the Kipling Papers at the University of Sussex Special Collections. An incomplete fair copy appears on p. 305 of the scrapbook. The version printed here is supplemented by Andrew Rutherford from rough drafts on pp. 310-11 of the scrapbook. It is undated, but in the view of both Rutherford and Pinney was probably written in April 1887.

The poem was not published in India and never collected by Kipling; it is to be found in Rutherford (p. 373) and Pinney (p. 58), as well as on this site. Pinney includes it among ‘Incomplete and fragmentary poems’.

The Background

Rutherford writes (p. 373):

This case is one on which Kipling commented several times, always with indignation.
Rukhmabai—her name is variously spelt—was an educated Hindu woman who had been married in her childhood but had never lived with her husband Dadaji. He had now sued for restitution, or rather initiation, of marital rights. She resisted on the grounds that he had not means to support her, that he was suffering from disease, and that he was immoral in his way of life. In September 1885 a verdict was given in her favour, the judge stating that:

‘it would be a barbarous, a cruel and revolting thing to do, to compel a young lady, under these circumstances, to go to a man whom she dislikes.’

The case went to appeal, however, and in the Civil and Military Gazette for 9 April 1886 Kipling wrote with anger at the higher court’s ruling that according to Hindu law Rukhmabai was bound to join her husband now, regardless of the circumstances.

‘The whole case furnishes a convincing instance of the utter rottenness of the law; and is a sufficient answer for those who clamour that the East and the West shall be treated on an equal footing. A society that tolerates such a law….is a society that places itself, by the cowardly cruelty of that law, below all civilisations.’

Rukhmabai still refused to join her husband, and in the CMG for 11 March 1887 Kipling writes with indignation of her being sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for contempt of court, and of the lack of any protest from the native press. On 16 April he denounced the attitude of the Indian Mirror, which he accused of accepting the humiliating status quo for Hindu women while urging political reforms to give more power to Indian men.

The Indian Mirror was a leading Indian, as opposed to Anglo-Indian, paper published in Calcutta: the leading oracle of the leading city of verse 5.

The Poem

Kipling addresses the educated Indians who hope to be given a greater share of power in the Governance of India. They can sign a huge memorial complaining that they can’t get commissions in the Army; (see “On A Recent Memorial”). But they not only accept the sentence on Rukhmabai without any protest, they say it serves her right and will be a lesson to their wives. They would loath a very low-caste mehter (sweeper) to share their rank; the ‘brutal Briton’ feels the same disgust when the men who persecute Rukhmabai clamour for equality with him.

To a modern reader, the last three verses are unashamedly racist in their passionate attack on the social beliefs of Hindu men, from the standpoint of an Englishman who feels himself to be more enlightened. They are in square brackets so were not in either of Kipling’s fuller versions but retrieved by Rutherford from ‘rough drafts’. Kipling may well have decided against using them— and he never did make the poem public. Significantly, though, he kept it his scrapbooks.

He calls the Briton ‘the higher race’, on the grounds that the educated Indian, a ‘graduate of culture’, claiming a greater share in government, has shown himself no better than the lowliest ‘cooly’ by his unpitying reaction to Rukhmabai’s sentence.

A dôm The Glossary to the seventh edition of Departmental Ditties (1892) defines dôm as:

The name of a very low caste representing some old aboriginal race spread all over India. In many cases they perform such offices as carrying dead bodies, removing carrion etc.

See also “Trial by Judge”, and “A Study of the Congress” by Rudyard Kipling, in KJ 382 for March 2020, edited by Richard Maidment.


©Philip Holberton 2020 All rights reserved