The Undertakers

(Notes edited by Alan Underwood and John Radcliffe)


Written while Kipling was in holiday from Vermont, living near his parents at Tisbury, Wiltshire. Published in the New York World on November 8, 9, 10 and 12 1894, and the Pall Mall Gazette on November 14 and 15 with illustrations by Cecil Aldin. In the Pall Mall Gazette the poem “A Ripple Song” was printed as a heading, with the word ‘Translation’ below; it was placed after the story in book form. Collected in The Second Jungle Book in 1895.

The story

One night an Adjutant-crane, a jackal, and a huge old man-eating mugger (crocodile) are gossiping on a river bank below a new railway bridge. The mugger reminisces of the villagers he used to catch and devour in the old days, when they had to wade across through a ford, and the time of the ‘Indian Mutiny’, when many bodies of dead English floated down the stream, so many that they touched each other, and the mugger ‘got his girth’. He remembers a boat coming down with a white child in the bows trailing little hands in the water, closing his jaws but missing his hold, and being shot with a revolver by a woman in the boat.

After a time the mugger goes to sleep on a sandbar, and the others hear quiet voices above on the bridge. It is two white men with guns, one of whom is the engineer who built the bridge, and the very child who the mugger had failed to catch all those years ago. They shoot him dead,and the villagers hack off his head. ‘That was worth sitting up for’ said the jackal and the Adjutant, after the men had gone.

Critical comments

Angus Wilson (p.123), noting Kipling’s use of journeys in his tales, refers to the mugger’s journey in this story :

How the mugger-crocodile recalls the delights of his exploration of the Ganges when the Mutiny brought down such a wonderful harvest of drowned bodies is one of the most extraordinary passages in The Jungle Book.

In an earlier chapter Angus Wilson refers (p. 94) to the close connection between this story and “The Bridgebuilders” in The Day’s Work:

…when the mugger says, “I was faint with hunger. Since the railway bridge was built my people at my village have ceased to love me; and that is breaking my heart.” The crocodile’s protest, like Mother Ganga’s to the Gods, is the protest of Indian natural life against the British order and civilisation, but whereas the Gods are shown to be of longer duration than any British rule (though even they are only part of Brahma’s dream), the mugger is wholly evil. And he is destroyed at the end by a bullet from the bridge engineer’s gun – ‘he took about fifteen of my coolies while the bridge was building, and it’s time he was put a stop to.’

But the bridge engineer as a baby had been nearly eaten by the mugger, when escaping with his mother from the horrors of the Mutiny. The floating bodies of that time on which the mugger recounts that he feasted seems to me to prove that the story (and “The Bridge Builders”, for surely the engineers are the same men) concerns the Ganges, since the association of bodies with a river is something that is indelibly left by seeing the burning ghats. In any case, together, the two stories are the most powerful evocations of the glory (the company of the Gods) and the horror (the ‘Undertakers’) of the Indian natural scene that awoke such fabulous balance in Kipling’s imagination.

Mark Paffard (p. 91) also writes of this story as expressing Kipling’s apprehension of the dark side of India:

The jungle that Kipling creates for Mowgli is a curious amalgam. It is a place to be explored with the relish of childhood, and yet an evocation of a stereotypical ‘India’ of dark luxuriance and hidden danger. In The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895) we can observe, clinging to the lessons that are absorbed, the dark and treacherous side of ‘India’ that is only finally dispensed with in Kim. Outside the ‘Mowgli’ stories themselves, it is most noticeable in the gruesome animal story “The Undertakers”, the only work in which Kipling comments directly on the ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857.


©F A Underwood 2008 All rights reserved