In 1887, 22-year-old Rudyard Kipling must be one of the highest paid journalists in India as he was transferred from the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore to the Pioneer in Allahabad to explore the length and breadth of Rajputana on a princely Rs 600 a month and paid railway expenses.
In a diary letter to his cousin, Margaret Burne-Jones, of 25 January-24 March, 1888, he wrote on 25 January: “Since November last I have been a vagabond on the face of the earth. But such a vagabondage! Did I tell you how the Pioneer took me over and bade me go out for a month into Rajputana — the home of a hundred thousand legends and the great fighting pen of India. They gave me generous masters Rs 600 a month and paid my railway expenses. Was there anything like that dissolute tramp through some of the loveliest and oldest places upon the face of the earth.”
During his travels through Rajputana from December 1887 to February 1888, Kipling wrote 19 articles for a column named “Letters of Marque” (A ‘Letter of Marque’ was a commission issued by a belligerent state to a private person permitting him to employ his vessel as a ship of war. A ship so used was a privateer) which can be said to be Kipling’s description of life in the semi-independent states of India.
On a solitary journey, Kipling zig-zagged Rajputana travelling by different modes of transportation. He arrived in Jaipur from Agra by rail, went to Udaipur on a tonga-carriage from there he took a tonga and elephant ride to reach Chitor. From Chitor, he took a train for Ajmer. For Jodhpur, apart from rail, he took a horseback ride.
It must has been quite risky for a 22-year-old “white man” to travel through the native lands where people could hardly speak English. At one place in his letter to his cousin, he clearly says that for the last six days he did not see a white face!
“I wrote a series of letters called “Letters of Marque” – by the way it is running still – and I railed and rode and drove and tramped and slept in Kings’ palaces or under the stars themselves and saw panthers killed and heard tigers roar in the hills, and for six days had no white face with me, and explored dead cities desolate these three hundred years, and came to stately residences where I feasted in fine linen and came to desolate way side stations where I slept with natives upon the cotton bales and clean forgot that there was a newspapery telegraphic world without.
“Oh it was a good and clean life and I saw and heard all sorts and conditions of men and they told me the stories of their lives, black and white and brown alike, and I filled three note books and walked ‘with death and morning on the silver horns’ [Tennyson, “The Princess”, vii.189] and knew what it was to endure hunger and thirst.”
But what he saw during his travels was so enriching and exhilarating that it not only changed his life forever but also became inspiration for many of his fictional works.
It was in Sukh Mahal in Bundi where he got the inspiration to write famous Kim. The other works like Bubbling Well Road, The Man Who Would Be King, The Naulhaka co-authored with Wolcot Balestier were also the result of this experience.
However, the most interesting incident Kipling encountered in Rajputana was during a night journey to Udaipur across 70 miles of scrub-land. Kipling was travelling in a two-wheel mail-tonga when one of its wheel broke down in the middle of the night. First the soldier escorting them galloped off in search of help, then the driver disappeared, leaving him in charge of the mailbags. It was black night and bitterly cold as he perched on the bags by the roadside. The hapless white man had to hitch a lift from a reluctant heavily-armed Thakur and his retinue, who agreed to take the mails and their carrier. During the entire journey Kipling feared that the Thakur may take the mail and leave him behind.
Writing in an essay titled “Vagabondage in Rajasthan: Kipling’s North India Travels”, John Montefiore says: “Seating himself upon parcel-bags, the Englishman cried in what was intended to be terrible voice, but the silence soaked it up and left was only a thin trickle of sound, that anyone who touches the bags would be hit with a stick, several times, over the head. The bags were the only link between him and civilisation which he had so rashly foregone. And then there was pause”.
But worse was to follow. During the entire eight-hour journey while the others in the tonga addressed each other as ‘Sahib’ and ‘Hazoor’, he was disrespectfully addressed as “thou”, prodded, bumped and squashed by burly Rajputs with a revolver, which in the British-ruled territory was considered an illegal possession for a “native”.
The hardships he faced in Rajputana brought him literary fame and when Kipling returned to office after the first trip to the desert state, he was shocked to see his name emblazoned across railway hoardings. Kipling, who despised the world of metropolitan celebrity and market value (unlike present day journalists) said: “When I came out of wilderness, having touched the edge of the Great Indian Desert, and seen many wonderful and awful things, I found the railway stations blazing my name (…). If you had your name placarded up and down 2,200 miles of line and written big in every newspaper in India and were yourself invited to dinner parties for people to look at you and ask ‘how do you those – er -things?’ you wouldn’t feel happy.”
The article was earlier published in Arbit, Rashtradoot