Kipling Tuesday: What 'Gunga Din' is really saying

Kipling Tuesday: What 'Gunga Din' is really saying
Rudyard Kipling. Source:

To many, Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Gunga Din” is a relic at best, an offense at worst. I don’t agree, and I ask your indulgence as I take a few moments to look at what it really says and the noble view behind it. Yes, noble.

(As a digression, enjoy one of the reasons the poem is so vivid — the description of India as “where the heat can make yer bloomin’ eyebrows crawl.” The accompanying portrait of Kipling himself shows just how uncomfortable that image would be to him, even as we struggle here to remember that sort of heat.)

The poem is the reminiscence of a British officer about the help given his regiment by its bhisti, or water carrier, Gunga Din. He’s of a lower station than anyone in the regiment, but they depend on him so much that the narrator imagines that even in hell itself, he’d get a drink from Gunga Din.

Here’s how Kipling starts the poem. Think of the missing  letters in words like ‘im as if you’re watching “My Fair Lady.”

You may talk o’ gin and beer   
When you’re quartered safe out ’ere,   
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter   
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ’im that’s got it.   
Now in Injia’s sunny clime,   
Where I used to spend my time   
A-servin’ of ’Er Majesty the Queen,   
Of all them blackfaced crew   
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din,   
      He was ‘Din! Din! Din!
   ‘You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!
      ‘Hi! Slippy hitherao
      ‘Water, get it! Panee lao,
   ‘You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.’
The uniform ’e wore
Was nothin’ much before,
An’ rather less than ’arf o’ that be’ind,
For a piece o’ twisty rag   
An’ a goatskin water-bag
Was all the field-equipment ’e could find.
When the sweatin’ troop-train lay
In a sidin’ through the day,
Where the ’eat would make your bloomin’ eyebrows crawl,
We shouted ‘Harry By!’
Till our throats were bricky-dry,
Then we wopped ’im ’cause ’e couldn’t serve us all.
I encourage you to find the whole poem at The Poetry Foundation’s excellent site,, if you don’t have it in a book-length collection of poems. The narrator’s adventures are worth the complete read, but I want to point out a large part of why I think so.
The uniform description, above, and the treatment of the “old idol” may give you pause, and our century’s ideals don’t seem to be here. But consider the ending. Could someone thinking of another as a lesser being be portrayed as saying this?
   By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
   You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
“The finest man I knew” and “a better man than I am.” What’s so bad about that?
Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.
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  • I think your reviews of Rudyard Kipling fall short in one regard: you are not confronting the problem presented by artists who fail contemporary social norms. You seem intent on trying to show that Kipling was not racist and imperialistic. But he clearly was. The first work you reviewed, Recessional, and the work I mentioned, The White Man's Burden, show this. And in recognizing this, how should we assess his art?

    Richard Wagner was a very active anti-Semite, yet today his music is performed by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. Does Kipling's art transcend his shortcomings? Maybe some does. For example, it could be argued that Gunga Din should continue to be admired--precisely because is a grudging acknowledgement of the dignity of just one member of what a racist viewed as a lower order of humanity.

    Do other Kipling works deserve this forgiving admiration? I don't think The White Man's Burden does. Nor am I persuaded that Recessional does.

  • In reply to jnorto:

    Thank you for your well-considered reply, jnorto. I see your point. I am trying to confront the problem, as you put it, by showing that there are parts of Kipling's works that transcend the standards of his time.
    Yes, that's why I'm arguing that "Gunga Din" should be admired; I'm glad you saw my point in your second paragraph.
    As for "The White Man's Burden," I'm considering it -- and I keep noticing that it's addressed not to the British, but to the U.S.
    As for "Recessional," it sometimes looks to me like it's very recent
    -- and I was looking at it mostly to defend the origin of "Lest we forget."
    Wagner's another subject altogether, but an intriguing idea. (As idea, that is -- I can stand his music only as overtures, "condensed Wagner" as my dad called it.)

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