The Kipling File
By Sudhir Kakar
In his latest novel, psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar endeavours to explain Rudyard Kipling's attraction-repulsion relationship with India.......
At the outset of acclaimed author and psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar's latest novel, erstwhile newspaper editor Kay Robinson receives an injunction from an old friend demanding that his letters be returned. The friend is Rudyard Kipling, and he wants his letters back so he can be sure they are destroyed.
Based on Kipling's well-documented - and miserably failed -- efforts to destroy his correspondence, in another sort of book this incident might be the launching point for a salacious fictional exploration of the imperial bard's secret life. (Or a wonderful satire, such as the brilliant "lost" diaries of Captain John Smith that John Barth imagined in The Sot Weed Factor). But Kakar has a different game in mind: For him, the "fictional biography" or historical "faction" is not so much a springboard for literary conceit as an opportunity to clothe biographical research and a close reading of Kipling's poems, stories, novels and, yes, letters with the immediacy and intimacy that a novel affords.
For such a book "facts are a framework for the play of imagination inside the frame," Kakar said via email. "A biography is factual; a biographical novel aims to be truthful."
Kakar was drawn to the great colonial writer - whose position in the canon has fallen mightily since he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907 - because of his own upbringing among the class sometimes disparaged as "brown sahibs." But he approached the author now almost synonymous with the racist colonial phrase "the white man's burden" - the title of one of his more famous poems - with more than a little distaste.
"I grew up in a milieu of Westernized Indians in the higher echelons of the civil services, army and the professions who were convinced of the benefits of British rule and were dismissive of the 'dhotiwalas' who were soon to become India's new rulers," said Kakar, who was born in what is now Pakistan in 1938. As a young man, he revolted against this "colonization of the mind" by refusing to go to Britain for higher studies, opting to attend Gujarat University and then Mannheim Business School in Frankfurt, Germany, instead. (He did not pursue psychology until significantly later).
Now that he has left the cut and thrust of Delhi behind for Goa, in a facsimile of the Hindu tradition of retiring to the forest in later life, his "much older and mellower" self found in Kipling a way he could not only revisit colonial Lahore, his family home, "but also ambivalently reconnect with a preceding generation that held Kipling in high esteem and shared many of his attitudes and prejudices."
Some writers drift further from the historical record than he does here, however. Rather than daring to render Kipling's thoughts directly, Kakar frames his story in the eyes of the renowned author's newspaper colleague and friend, who also can only speculate about what might be happening in his mind. Approached with the proper expectations, the result is thought provoking and evocative. Kakar makes an admirable effort to understand and contextualize the great writer's troubling racism - circling and circling his attraction-repulsion to Hindu India's mystery and filth (Kipling's words) to culminate in a brilliantly imagined continuation of an actual Kipling letter describing his experience in an opulent local brothel to add his feelings toward the "unclean" and "pestilential" ones he actually preferred. But the book's title, which is what the narrator Robinson calls the letters he refuses to return to his friend, unfortunately sets up false expectations of a more plot-driven novel - readers of a certain age will inevitably think of the Michael Cain thriller The Ipcress File, but for everyone else, too, it sets expectations of John Le Carre-like machinations.
The test of a historical novel is not whether it is accurate or entertaining. Those are the basic requirements. To be "of note" a historical novel has to bring something to the subject that cannot be found in the contemporary works of the period. Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong and other novels of the First World War offer nothing that cannot be found in better and more authoritative form in Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms or Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier, for instance. But Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy treats poet Siegfried Sassoon's homosexuality and experience of post-traumatic stress disorder in a way that no contemporary writer - including Sassoon himself - could manage.
By that measure, The Kipling File justifies itself through Kakar's (the postcolonial subject) simultaneously skeptical and sympathetic effort to understand the love-hate relationship that defined the colonial experience - adding a new perspective to indispensable (and still remarkably enjoyable) contemporary works like George Orwell's scathing Burmese Days, E.M. Forster's warmly humorous A Passage to India and Kipling's own, now underrated, Kim.
So, too, Kakar's background as a noted psychoanalyst - he has written a dozen-odd nonfiction books in that discipline, as well as treating patients for more than 40 years - informs the text in a way that's either absent from or more prosaic in a conventional biography. Psychology is a valuable tool, he explained. But it can also be reductive as the result of its diagnostic purpose. The beauty, and perhaps the reason for the existence, of novels is that they can approach these same questions - here Kipling's relationships with his kind and indulgent Indian ayahs versus his abuse at the hands of the woman he boarded with while he attended school in Britain - without coming down completely on one side or the other.
In that respect, The Kipling File's admirable ambiguity is the perfect complement to Kakar's always eloquent prose.
Courtesy India Today