By Margaret H. Laing,
November 19, 2019 at 12:15 pm
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 regimentalbhisti, Gunga Din,
He was ‘Din! Din! Din!
‘You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!
‘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, www.poetryfoundation.org, 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?
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I moved to Chicago from the south suburbs in 1986. I have diverse interests, but I love writing about what I'm interested in. Whether it's a personal interest or part of my career, the correct words to get the idea across are important to me. I love words and languages -- French and Scottish words enrich my American English. My career has included years as a journalist and years working in museums, and the two phases were united by telling stories. I'm serious about words and stories. So here I am, ready to tell stories about words and their languages.