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"Do you like Kipling?" - "I don't know.... I've never Kippled"
Rudyard Kipling's novella 'The Man Who Would be King' (let me abbreviate it to TMWWBK) was published in 1888 and due to its short length of just over 40 pages is often included in compilations of his short stories. The tale is probably better known for the 1975 film adaptation starring Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer more than for the book itself. Not unlike Kipling's arguably most famous book 'The Jungle Book', TMWWBK is a story we think we know but many of us have never bothered to check it out in its original form. I was one of those people.
I'm always ashamed by my Kipling ignorance (and no, he doesn't make extraordinarily good cakes) especially since everyone seems to assume that anyone as obsessed with India as I am, must surely know and love (or at least have an opinion on) him and his writing. To add insult to my Kipling injury, two of my three cats are named after characters in the Jungle Book.
One really good thing about Kipling - though obviously not for him - is that he's been dead a very long time and almost all of his writing is available on Kindle for free or for very little money. I downloaded 'The Man Who Would be King' a couple of years ago and finally got round to reading it recently. It's not a long book and it won't take long to read although you may find that no sooner have you finished than you want to go back to the start and read it again just to try to make more sense of the subtleties you may have missed the first time round.
"Brother to a Prince and fellow to a beggar if he be found worthy"
The book opens with the narrator, a journalist, taking a train, in which - due to shortfalls in the budget - he is forced to forsake his normal second class ticket and travel 'Intermediate' class instead. This is a class which forces him to travel with natives and Eurasians and is "awful indeed". On this journey he meets a man, a "vagabond like myself, but with an educated taste for whiskey" who asks him to do him a favour, to deliver a message to another Englishman who'll be passing through the area a few days later. Why would a man go out of his way to help a stranger? We soon realise - and the readers of his time would not have needed the heavy hints that I required - that the two men are Freemasons and bound by the obligations of their membership of 'the Craft'. The vagabond is off to the south to bribe a local prince for 'hush money'. The journalist delivers the message and returns to Lahore to his newspaper and to the normal humdrum life.
One Saturday night, the journalist is sitting in his office waiting for someone to die or for a big story to break, when the man from the train and the man to whom he delievered the message turn up to see him. They are Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot, con men with big ambitions because they are "going away to be kings". They've been bouncing around India for many years making a living by their wits and off the gullibility of others, when they come up with an audacious plan to make their fortune. They will go to Kafiristan, a wild corner of Afghanistan inhabited by pagans (a.k.a Kafirs - not a term you hear used too often these days without a sharp intake of breath) who have a wide variety of gods. Dravot aims to become their latest and greatest god and the two men will be kings.
The plan is simple. They will read the books and maps they borrow from the journalist and then set out with a small cargo of rifles, one of them dressed as a priest and the other as his servant. They will use the rifles to settle local disputes and win the trust of the native leaders. That done, they will set themselves up as kings. They draw up a contract between the two of them forsaking women and alcohol and swearing to conduct themselves with "Dignity and Discretion" during their adventure and to always stick together and support each other.
The story is narrated by the journalist whose name we never learn but who is undoubtedly modelled on Kipling himself. After he sees the two men off on their adventure he returns to work and thinks little more of them. Two years later he's visited by a poor, filthy beggar dressed in rags who he recognises as Carnehan. He has begged his way back from Kafiristan and returned to see the narrator and to tell him all about how everything went wonderfully right up to the point where it all went completely wrong
Short but Powerful
TMWWBK is a fascinating morality tale about the danger of greed and ambition and a cautionary story of how the best of plans can go horribly awry when one person deviates from the rules of engagement. We are left to wonder whether if Dravot hadn't demanded a change to his contract with Carnehan, they might have kept their status, their wealth and their kingship instead of facing violent repercussions.
The outrageous behaviour of the men seems surprisingly believable within the setting of the time and place in which the story is set. It's not always easy to follow what's actually happening due to Kipling's old-fashioned writing style and to some of the terms used which are now obsolete or long forgotten or are so deeply related to Freemasonry as to be unintelligable to most of us. You can't skip quickly through this prose as there's a lot of detail that needs the reader of the 21st century to ponder things which would have been obvious to a 19th century reader.
I know a little about Freemasonry after living for several years with a guy whose father was a mason, but most of the plot devices related to 'The Craft' went over my head. There are many quotations and phrases from Freemasonry texts which are used and which won't be obvious to most readers although if you're interested, there are many websites that can offer to uncover some of the meanings. There's a coincidence that happens at one point where the men's Freemasonry saves their lives which I found totally baffling although I can only assume that we should see that the men were not the first Freemasons to travel that path, despite their initial belief that they would be the first white men to pass that way. If shooting people and teaching the women to embroider mason's aprons is a way of progress, then it's perhaps no more unbelievable than killing off the locals with foreign diseases and buying their land for beads.
Many of Kipling's attitudes to natives, Eurasions and even his fellow Englishmen might seem to modern eyes to be prejudiced and sometimes even racist. However, we should not impose our modern perceptions of such attitudes from a distance of more than 120 years. He was writing at a time when Queen Victoria was Empress of large tracts of the earth and when marching into a country and taking over by virtue of nothing more than being British was still fairly commonplace. Let's be honest, even now we can see that the leaders of our country and others happily take the same approach of rolling into a country, supplying weapons and helping to settle local conflicts in return for power and influence. We're just perhaps ever so slightly more subtle in how we do it these days.
Despite the writing style that's 'clunky' to the modern eye, the story is as believable now as it ever was - if only there were still lands so cut off from the world that the locals wouldn't just whip out their iPhones and check the status of their would-be-kings by a quick bit of Googling. The abuse of power and the creation of an image of invincibility is as effective today as it's ever been. The Man Who Would be King is simultaneously both deeply 'dated' and as fresh as it every has been and is well worth a read.