A Tale of Two Cities

Old Calcutta Old Simla

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)

Publication history

This poem (see ORG vol. 8 (V.I.) page 5174, verse No. 267) was first published in the Civil and Military Gazette of 2 June 1887. See David Richards p. 20 for further details of publication.

It is collected in:

  • Departmental Ditties and Other Verses (1888)
  • Early Verse (1900)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 153
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)


The poet looks at Calcutta, then the seat of government of India, and compares it unfavourably with Simla, where, as described in Verse 3, the government moved to escape the unhealthy and unpleasant climate of Calcutta during the hot weather..

This piece is arranged in rhyming six–syllable and three-syllable lines. There are seventy-eight lines in all, three verses of sixteen lines, one verse of twelve and one of eighteen. In form, it borrows from “Love Among the Ruins” by Browning, one of Kipling’s favourite poets since his schooldays:

Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles,
Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Tinkle homeward thro’ the twilight, stray or stop
As they crop–
Was the site once of a city great and gay,
(So they say)
Of our country’s very capital, its prince…



Simla was annexed in 1819 after the Gurkha War and the first British summer home was built in the town in 1822.

Lord Amherst, Governor-General of Bengal from 1823 to 1828, established a summer camp here in 1827, when there was only one cottage – over a hundred were built in the next ten years.

Sir John Lawrence, Viceroy from 1864 to 1869, decided to move the administration the thousand miles (some 1750 km.) from Calcutta to Simla in March/April for the ‘Hot Weather’, and back in October when the Plains grew cooler.

Lord Lytton, who was Viceroy from 1876 to 1880 began to plan the area and it was developed over the years with the Town-Hall. Assembly Rooms and other buildings mentioned by Kipling.

Soon after his transfer to the Pioneer at Allahabad Kipling visited Calcutta in February 1888, and was appalled at its insanitary condition and its apparently supine administration. See his “City of Dreadful Night”.


Notes on the Text

[Title] “A Tale of Two Cities”: This is also the title of a celebrated novel of the French Revolution, published in 1859 by Charles Dickens (1812-1870), the cities being London and Paris, both capital cities. While Simla could not be regarded as a city, it was certainly the capital of British India during the summer.

[Verse 1]

byles: defined in a footnote as ‘cattle’.

cholera: an acute infectious disease of the small intestine characterized by diarrhoea, vomiting, muscle cramps, severe dehydration etc. See Dr Gillian Sheehan’s article “Kipling and Medicine”.

cyclone: very strong winds rotating counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.

crow: one of thirty-five species of the genus Corvus found all over the world. See “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes” (Wee Willie Winkie) and Beast and Man in India by Lockwood Kipling, Chapter II, “Of Birds.”

indigo: the dark blue dye made from the plant Indigofera tinctoria.

hides: the skins of cattle for making into leather.

ghi: defined in a footnote as butter.

Babu: an English-speaking Bengali clerk. Hurree Chunder Mookerjee plays an important part in Kim. See also Kipling’s verse “What Happened”.

a city: Calcutta, one of the four great cities of India, the other three being Delhi, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and Chennai (formerly Madras. Calcutta is now called Kolkata. See “An Unqualified Pilot” in Land and Sea Tales”. Also “City of Dreadful Night”, Kipling’s account of his visit to Calcutta in February 1888, in which he complains of the Big Calcutta Stink.

On a later visit on his way home to England the following year, he observed (see From Sea to Sea Volume I, p. 211) ‘I hate Calcutta’.

However, see also his lines quoted below.

Charnock:  Job Charnock (c 1630-1692) an administrator of the East India Company usually regarded by the British as the founder of the city of Calcutta on the east bank of the Hooghly River. Now the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal and the capital of India during the British Raj until 1911, when New Delhi was completed.

In 1690 Charnock persuaded the Council of the East India Company that Sutanuti was the place to establish its Bengal headquarters because of its defensible position and its deep-water anchorage. The Company received permission from the Great Mughal in Delhi to build a factory in Bengal, and Charnock set up his headquarters in the place he called Calcutta. A ‘factory’ in this context signifies a depot and warehouse rather than a manufactory.

Bay: the Bay of Bengal.

the Sunderbunds unwholesome:  defined by Hobson-Jobson (p. 869.) as:

The well-known name of the tract of intersecting creeks and channels, swampy islands and jungles, which constitutes that part of the Ganges Delta nearest the sea. The limits of the region so-called are the mouth of the Hoogly on the west, and that of the Megna … on the east …

the City and the Viceroy: There may well have been differences of opinion and policy between the Government of India and the municipality.

[Verse 2]

two hundred years ago: Calcutta was established in 1690.

mere trade / Grew to Empire:  The East India Company, with headquarters in London and its own army and navy, governed India until the Crown took over in 1858.

silt:  sediment deposited by water in a channel or harbour – often dries out to form rather soft land: see “Calcutta” in “The Song of the Cities”:

Me the Sea-captain loved, the River built,

Wealth sought and Kings adventured life to hold.
Hail, England! I am Asia—Power on silt,
Death in my hands, but Gold!

[Verse 3]

the sickness of the noontide: probably cholera or typhoid. See Dr Gillian Sheehan’s on “Kipling and Medicine”.

Beat retreat: a military ceremony dating back to the 16th century used to recall patrols at sunset; now a ceremonial evening parade with a band.

Peshawur: The spelling varies; capital of the North-West Frontier Province, now in Pakistan near the Khyber Pass. It is a military and communications centre and the terminus of the Grand Trunk Road described in Kim.

Ceylon: now Sri Lanka, an island republic off the southeast coast of India.

[Verse 4]

the resting place of Charnock ‘neath the palms:  After Job Charnock’s death a mausoleum was erected over his grave by his son-in-law in 1695 in the graveyard of St. John’s Church in Calcutta. It is now regarded as a national monument.

alms: money given to a charity for the relief of the poor.

St. Lawrence: Christian saint and martyr who was grilled alive on a gridiron in 258. A daytime temperature of 35 Celsius (95F) is common in Kolkata between April and October.

[Verse 5]

prints: newspapers; some Indian newspapers were often seen by the Government as subversive.

Darjeeling: a Himalayan town in the Indian state of West Bengal, dating back to the mid-19th century, when the British set up a sanatorium and a military depot. There are also extensive tea-gardens.

Argosies: an historical term for sailing-vessels carrying rich cargoes. Calcutta was—and is—a major trading port.

out-station: a remote small British settlement like Kashima, described in “A Wayside Comedy” (Wee Willie Winkie.)

[J McG./J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2011 All rights reserved