The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling is a classic and also a Kindle Single. Because I am traveling a bit for the holidays, I am reading and posting a review for shorter works. When reading Rudyard Kipling, short stories are great for this purpose. This presentation has the story itself, a biography of Kipling, and 19 selected “best” Kipling quotes. It is a book that can be read from back to front, as I did, keeping the story for last.
A part of the charm of Rudyard Kipling books is the insights on an Indian culture unfamiliar to many in the West. India has an institutionalized caste system that was embraced and copied by western colonial masters. For the Western foreigner, an adopted caste system was not formally stated but was culturally recognized by the colonizers. This is exemplified by Kipling’s description at the beginning of this story of passengers on a train who were classified as “Intermediates.”
“There are no cushions in the Intermediate class, and the population are either Intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty; or Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated.” (loc 18-19). A further comment on the value of these human beings is “in the hot weather Intermediates are taken out of the carriages dead, and in all weathers are most properly looked down upon.” (loc 21).
Another part of the charm of Rudyard Kipling books is his phrasing and language use. On the one hand, it is reflective of his time and era. Additionally, it is multi-layered with inferences and clever wordplay so the sentences can be read and appreciated. It is not a quick read with a straightforward narrative. The entire story is an example of this but I want to give one specific example I found rather remarkable. It is long and requires a bit of a background. The Indian States in the late 1800s resembled what readers in the US might call the wild west. It was a time for adventurers, also known as con-men. To make their fortune, anyone could represent themselves as a person of position or authority and reap whatever gains and benefits the position was entitled to. As this story opens, the narrator, Kipling, is this type of individual. On a train trip, he meets another who asks Kipling to pass a message to yet a third individual. All three at this point are described (by Kipling) as penniless vagabond adventurers. Kipling passes the message but later thinks better of it. Fearing he might be thought an accomplice to a scheme or fearing more to be caught, he reveals the identity of the two to authorities. He hears they were caught. Kipling moves on with his life.
Kipling settles down to “the daily manufacture of newspapers.” This could mean everything from duties as a journalist to those of a printer. The job is “legitimate” and Kipling is no longer a vagabond. This description of a newspaper office is an example of the author’s depth of writing. It causes the reader to reflect on the history and culture of Kipling’s era.
“A newspaper office seems to attract every conceivable sort of person, to the prejudice of discipline. Zenana-mission ladies arrive, and beg that the Editor will instantly abandon all his duties to describe a Christian prize-giving in a back-slum of a perfectly inaccessible village; Colonels who have been overpassed for commands sit down and sketch the outline of a series of ten, twelve, or twenty-four leading articles on Seniority versus Selection; missionaries wish to know why they have not been permitted to escape from their regular vehicles of abuse and swear at a brother-missionary under special patronage of the editorial We; stranded theatrical companies troop up to explain that they cannot pay for their advertisements, but on their return from New Zealand or Tahiti will do so with interest; inventors of patent punkah-pulling machines, carriage couplings and unbreakable swords and axle-trees call with specifications in their pockets and hours at their disposal; tea-companies enter and elaborate their prospectuses with the office pens; secretaries of ball-committees clamor to have the glories of their last dance more fully expounded; strange ladies rustle in and say:— “I want a hundred lady’s cards printed at once, please,” which is manifestly part of an Editor’s duty; and every dissolute ruffian that ever tramped the Grand Trunk Road makes it his business to ask for employment as a proof-reader. And, all the time, the telephone-bell is ringing madly, and Kings are being killed on the Continent, and Empires are saying, “You’re another,” and Mister Gladstone is calling down brimstone upon the British Dominions.”
Kipling, Rudyard. The Man Who Would Be King (Illustrated) + Free Audiobook – Francson Classics (Kindle Locations 88-99). Francson Classics. Kindle Edition.
While employed in the newspaper trade, Kipling meets the two men he had earlier met on the train. They were in such good disguise that at first, he did not recognize them. They explained they were on their way into some of the disorganized states (Afghanistan) to establish their own fiefdom. They intended to establish themselves as kings using arms as well as religion. Because they are both experienced con-men, they set up rules for themselves. The two are confident that if they follow their own rules, they will succeed; they would become kings.
And they succeed, up to the point when one of them breaks one of their own rules. Kipling knows the story because one of the men returned to Kipling’s newspaper office to relate the account. In this short story, Kipling tells us the story of the man (not men) who would be king.