The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 23, 2000
Time Off

Retreat from Naulakha
By Manohar Malgonkar

A HUNDRED years ago, there were neither film stars nor sports stars. The cult figures of the times were military heroes and explorers, but the special correspondents of the major newspapers also came in for a good deal of mass adulation.

These men — there just were no women reporters — wielded enormous power, too. They were the men on the spot, watching history happen, and it was on their interpretation of events that politicians shaped n ational policies. Enterprising young men plotted to secure reporting jobs and the example that jumps to mind is that of Winston Churchill, who, unable to go as a soldier to fight against the Boers in South Africa, pulled wires quite shamelessly to have himself appointed a war correspondent.

There was neither radio nor TV. The only way to keep up-to-date with the news was to scan the papers. And here big names made all the difference. The richer newspapers wooed well-known authors to serve as their special correspondents. This practice lasted till well into the 60s of the 20th century — John Steinbeck went to Vietnam to report on the war. During World War II, Ernest Hemingway, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was roped in by a newspaper chain to act as a war correspondent: He covered the liberation of Paris.

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John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway were both at the height of their fame and both must have been paid a lot of money to serve as war correspondents. But then American editors have never hesitated to pay good money for quality writing....or to be first with the news of some sensational event.

Way back in the 60s of the 19th century, while India was still reeling in the aftermath of British vengeance sparked off by a failed attempt to throw off their rule, the world’s newspapers were getting anxious about the fate of a Scottish missionary turned explorer, David Livingstone, whom the British Government had sent off to what was called ‘Darkest Africa’ to discover the source of the river Nile.

Livingstone had set off on his expedition in 1866. And just disappeared. Four years later, when there had been absolutely no news of the fate of the expedition for more than two years, the manager of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, decided to send out his star reporter, Henry Stanley, to Africa, on a sort of rescue mission. Bennet told Stanley; "Find Livingstone, no matter how long it takes, how much it costs."

In other words: Mount an expedition in Africa to find a man who got lost while seeking the source of the Nile. Take your own time. I’ll foot the bill.

This was the time, the last decades of the 19th century, when newspaper moguls were both rich and powerful and would pay handsomely for the services of good writers.

How ironical therefore, that positively the best on-the-spot reporting of the times — of a journey along the eastern seaboard of Asia, covering Rangoon, Hong Kong and the Japanese islands and ending, after a Pacific crossing, in America, by a writer of such talent that he later won the Nobel Prize for Literature — should have been published not in one of these prestigious British or American newspapers but, unbelievably, in one or the other of two small-town Indian papers: Lahore’s Civil & Military Gazette and Allahabad’s The Pioneer?

These articles were consistently of the highest literary merit, indeed classics of their kind, which are to this day — a hundred and ten years later — read and admired and studied in English classes as examples of inspired reporting.

I’m sure you have guessed who I’m talking about. Rudyard Kipling, of course, and his articles later published as a collection in a volume called From Sea to Sea. It is doubtful if Kipling was paid anything at all, for any of them, since he was still on the payroll of The Pioneer as its editor. In fact the paper’s owners were doing him a favour by making it easy for him to slip out of the country with as little fuss as possible. And that may be why, instead of going to England by the direct route — by train to Bombay and thence by ship to London — he had been sent eastwards, to cross the Pacific from Japan and then reach England, via America. To elude pursuit.

This was the device of The Pioneer’s owners to spare Kipling from facing a libel suit brought by a certain Captain Hearsay, who had been so angered by something that Kipling and written about him in his paper, that he had come charging into The Pioneer’s office to horsewhip its editor. He was bodily thrown out and roughly handled. He had filed a libel suit.

Kipling’s hasty departure from India and a job which he loved and a land in which Englishmen enjoyed ruling-race privileges, brings out a besetting flaw in his character: his unbearable rudeness and arrogance. He once walked into the court of the Maharaja of Patiala and hurled abuse at the council of ministers. But while he could get away with such behaviour towards the natives, his fellow Englishmen were quick to take umbrage, as, indeed, ‘the sour-faced Captain Hersay’ had. Even Kipling’s own mother ruefully told him: "You must learn to be civil."

It was as though ‘to be civil’ went against his nature, for he could be rude to people for no ostensible reasons; as for instance; in the bar of Lahore’s Punjab Club, when a friend called out to Kipling, "Come, I want you to meet MacMahon."

"Why should I want to meet MacMahon?" Kipling answered.

In the ranking order of the Raj, Henry MacMahon, of the Political Service, belonged to the highest caste among Sahibs. He, at once, challenged Kipling to "come outside where I’ll give you the biggest thrashing you ever had in your life." We’re told that other members intervened to keep the two from thrashing each other.

Also in Lahore, at a public function, something Kipling said about a fellow Englishman, a lawyer, provoked him into "kicking him downstairs."

If Captain Hearsay’s libel suit terminated Kipling’s career as a newspaper editor, it also pitchforked him into his proper milieu: London’s literary world.

Kipling reached London in 1889 and soon after installed himself in a dingy flat and put himself on an overdrive, churning out articles and short stories for which he found an insatiable demand. He began to make good money, but he never felt at home in London and longed for the vivid blue skies and wide open spaces of Africa and America. Finally, in 1892, his marriage to an American girl, Caroline Balestier, made him decide in favour of America.

Caroline was raised on her family’s estate in Battleboro, a small town in Vermont. On their honeymoon, she took her husband to her Battleboro home and with Kipling, it was love at first sight. He readily bought a twelve-acre plot from his wife’s brother Beatty, and set about building his dream house on it. He gave it a name: Naulakha, an Indian ornament.

He engaged a staff, bought a spanking new carriage for his wife to drive about in style and found an English coachman. Then he settled down in his new study, in the full confidence that here, in Naulakha his talents and his capacity for hard work would find their just reward.

Alas, his dream collapsed. In his wife’s brother, Beatty Balestier, Kipling found a man who vastly outclassed him in sheer boorishness. Since the two were neighbours, not a day passed without some ugly incident. It was a clash not only of two irascible men but of their cultures: American and British; the frontier spirit against gentility; locals against aliens; sweaty dirt-farming against white-collar comforts. When Beatty, tall and muscular, warned the undersized and myopic Kipling that he wanted to "kick the God-damned soul out of him", all Kipling could do was file a case for a restraining order. The jailing of a local brought a howl of protest from the American Bible belt. Headlong retreat was the only way out.

So, barely four years after he had gone to live in it, Naulakha was abandoned to its fate. The Kipling family returned to England.

Where, of course, both fame and fortune were just waiting in the wings. But that, as Kipling himself often wrote, "is another story."

This feature was published on July 16, 2000