Rudyard Kipling is best known for the story of Mowgli from the aptly titled novel, The Jungle Book. It was Kipling’s fascination with the Indian subcontinent during the height of the British Raj that truly set him apart from his peers.
The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Eerie Tales comprises seven short stories which were originally published nearly 125 years ago but remain timeless, for readers of the subcontinent in parti-cular.
Kipling was one of the great subcontinent romanticists of his time. Born in Bombay, and returning to British India after his education in the United Kingdom, Kipling joined The Civil and Military Gazette as an assistant editor at the age of 17. It was these times, during the 1880s, that the British Raj was at the peak of its glory and splendour. The Indian subcontinent was part of the British Empire and for an Englishman like Kipling the cultural stories of this exotic land made him feel more at home than the newspaper headlines he was printing.
It is because he drew so heavily from his own experiences that nearly all of Kipling’s stories are told in the first person. And because of this writing style, the reader is automatically drawn in and mesmerised with the adventures narrated.
The short stories collected in the book include ‘The Phantom Rickshaw’, ‘The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes’, ‘The Return of Imray’, ‘My Own True Ghost Story’, ‘At the end of the passage’, ‘The Man who would be King’ and ‘Without benefit of Clergy’. All of these are set in and around exotic lands and times; from the exciting journey across the Khyber Pass into what was known as Kafiristan to the many colourful characters that come across the reader’s way.
There are fakirs, princesses, soldiers, sepoys and other fantastical yet real characters that populate his stories.
In the preface Kipling makes it clear that the book ‘is not exactly a book of downright ghost stories’. He admits that ‘it is rather a collection of facts that never quite explain themselves.’ Out of all the stories, the most notable is ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, which tells the daring tale of two Masonic conmen who venture upto the Khyber Pass and beyond it in search of the elusive Kafiristan.
The story was eventually adapted for the big screen in 1975, in a film directed by John Houston and starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery.
Critics refer to Kipling as being classist, racist and even sexist at times. Most if not all of his stories do have a tinge of these elements, but then such were the times in general. Nowhere in literature does the British attitude towards the people of the subcontinent, and the region itself, become more apparent. Fellow British author Eric Arthur Blair (better known as George Orwell) called him the champion of British imperialism.
There are no close comparisons to the works of Kipling, though many authors have written about various cultures. What separates him from the rest is his total dedication and devotion to the form of short story.
In fact, Andrew Rutherford called Kipling ‘an innovator in the art of the short story’, a fact that would be recognised by the Nobel Foundation which awarded him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907.
The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Eerie Tales makes for a gripping read, especially for children. It features an introduction by another English author born in India, Ruskin Bond.
Bond writes ‘It is Kipling’s brilliance as a storyteller and stylist that carries the reader along and obscures some of his faults.’ And concludes with: ‘At times his own heart may have remained hidden, but he looked closely into the heart of others. And the rest was genius.’ This book proves Bond right.
The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales
By Rudyard Kipling
Introduction by Ruskin Bond
Penguin Books, India
170pp. Indian Rs199
Originally posted here