Gunga Din

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The sixth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.   The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here and here.

Kipling is usually regarded, and often dismissed, as the poet laureate of British Imperialism.  A close examination of his poetry and stories reveals a good deal more complexity than that.  A prime example of this is Kipling’s poem Gunga Din, written in 1892:

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! slippery 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.
It was “Din! Din! Din!
You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?
You put some juldee in it
Or I’ll marrow you this minute
If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!”

‘E would dot an’ carry one
Till the longest day was done;
An’ ‘e didn’t seem to know the use o’ fear.
If we charged or broke or cut,
You could bet your bloomin’ nut,
‘E’d be waitin’ fifty paces right flank rear.
With ‘is mussick on ‘is back,
‘E would skip with our attack,
An’ watch us till the bugles made “Retire”,
An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide
‘E was white, clear white, inside
When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!
It was “Din! Din! Din!”
With the bullets kickin’ dust-spots on the green.
When the cartridges ran out,
You could hear the front-files shout,
“Hi! ammunition-mules an’ Gunga Din!”

I shan’t forgit the night
When I dropped be’ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should ‘a’ been.
I was chokin’ mad with thirst,
An’ the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din.
‘E lifted up my ‘ead,
An’ he plugged me where I bled,
An’ ‘e guv me ‘arf-a-pint o’ water-green:
It was crawlin’ and it stunk,
But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,
I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.
It was “Din! Din! Din!
‘Ere’s a beggar with a bullet through ‘is spleen;
‘E’s chawin’ up the ground,
An’ ‘e’s kickin’ all around:
For Gawd’s sake git the water, Gunga Din!”

‘E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.
‘E put me safe inside,
An’ just before ‘e died,
“I ‘ope you liked your drink”, sez Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet ‘im later on
At the place where ‘e is gone –
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen;
‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

India was the heart of the British Empire.  British rule over the subcontinent, the British Raj, was dear to the heart of all those Britains who loved the Empire, as demonstrated by the fight waged by Winston Churchill in the thirties of the last century to maintain British rule there.  Churchill realized that the end of British rule in India was the effective end of the Empire.  Kipling was born in India to English parents in 1865.  Although he left India in 1889, India was never far from his thoughts as his writings demonstrate.  (Kipling still remains a literary influence in post Independence India, with Indian critics both praising and condemning his writings on India.)

The Gunga Din poem is an interesting commentary by Kipling on British rule in India, a few years after he had left.

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! slippery hitherao!
Water, get it! Panee lao!
You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.”

 We must imagine a veteran British soldier talking to new recruits, probably in an informal setting like a pub.  He comments on how easy life is for a soldier in Great Britain, with his references to gin and beer.  Aldershot was the largest Army training ground in England in the time of Kipling.  Penny fights is a reference to the Army allowing civilians to pay a penny in order to see British units put on mock battles.

He compares and contrasts this life of ease with active combat duty in India where the tropical heat makes simple water in combat far dearer than anything else.

One would expect a British veteran to talk about his comrades from his days in India, but the recruits would have been startled by the veteran’s statement that the finest man he knew was a native Indian.  The late nineteenth century was a high point of the day of scientic racism, where races were classified as inferior and superior.  An Indian like Gunga Din, perhaps an Untouchable, would definitely have been considered to be inferior by the vast majority of whites in 1892.  This Gunga Din wasn’t even a native soldier but a lowly bhisti, a water bearer.  The recruits would have wondered what the veteran was getting at.

 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.
It was “Din! Din! Din!
You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?
You put some juldee in it
Or I’ll marrow you this minute
If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!”

The mystification of the recruits would have intensified by these comments of the veteran.  This Gunga Din was almost naked and routinely beaten by British soldiers because he couldn’t serve them water fast enough to serve them.  How in the world could the veteran find anything to admire in this man?

‘E would dot an’ carry one
Till the longest day was done;
An’ ‘e didn’t seem to know the use o’ fear.
If we charged or broke or cut,
You could bet your bloomin’ nut,
‘E’d be waitin’ fifty paces right flank rear.
With ‘is mussick on ‘is back,
‘E would skip with our attack,
An’ watch us till the bugles made “Retire”,
An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide
‘E was white, clear white, inside
When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!
It was “Din! Din! Din!”
With the bullets kickin’ dust-spots on the green.
When the cartridges ran out,
You could hear the front-files shout,
“Hi! ammunition-mules an’ Gunga Din!”

 Now the recruits begin to understand.  Soldiers will usually respect courage, no matter the source.   Din’s tending the wounded under fire would have grabbed their attention.  The nightmare of every soldier is being wounded and left on a battlefield.  Din’s courage and charity causes the veteran to remark that despite Din’s dirty hide he was white, pure white, inside.  At first glance this seems racist condescension, until the thought strikes us that perhaps Kipling is making this statement to demonstrate how absurd it is to judge men by their skin color than by the character they demonstrate by their actions.  Considering that Kipling contrasts Din’s selfless courage and charity with the brutality of the veteran and his fellow white soldiers in beating Din because he couldn’t give them water fast enough, it is hard for me not to suspect that such a point was being made by Kipling.

I shan’t forgit the night
When I dropped be’ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should ‘a’ been.
I was chokin’ mad with thirst,
An’ the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din.
‘E lifted up my ‘ead,
An’ he plugged me where I bled,
An’ ‘e guv me ‘arf-a-pint o’ water-green:
It was crawlin’ and it stunk,
But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,
I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.
It was “Din! Din! Din!
‘Ere’s a beggar with a bullet through ‘is spleen;
‘E’s chawin’ up the ground,
An’ ‘e’s kickin’ all around:
For Gawd’s sake git the water, Gunga Din!”

 The recruits now fully understand why the veteran thinks that Din was the finest man he knew.  No man ever forgets someone who saves his life.

‘E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.
‘E put me safe inside,
An’ just before ‘e died,
“I ‘ope you liked your drink”, sez Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet ‘im later on
At the place where ‘e is gone –
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen;
‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

Din saves the veteran at the cost of his own life.  The veteran assumes that both he and Din will end up in Hell:  the veteran due to his sins, I assume, and Din because he is not a Christian.  The veteran believes that even in Hell Din will strive to aid others.  The veteran ends the poem by stating that although he had beaten Din, a man made by the same God he was, Din was a better man than he is.

In this poem Din shows the casual racism and brutality of a group of men he greatly admired:   British soldiers.  He points out the essential injustice of this by contrasting them with the heroic and selfless Din.  In the view of Kipling, in the end race and other factors are not important in determining the essential worth of a man.  Courage and selflessness determine who is the better man in Kipling’s world.

3 Responses to Gunga Din

  • T. Shaw says:

    To me: best part is

    “You may talk of gin and beer
    When yer quartered safe out ‘ere
    And yer sent ta penny fights
    And Aldershot it.

    But when it comes to slaughter
    You’ll do yer work on water
    And lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im what’s got it.”

    Here we have a vet teaching recruits. He finishes the lesson with the truth that some among that “black faced crew” are better men than you and me.

    My Dad (RIP) told me gin and beer could take the legs out from under you. I never tried.

  • pat says:

    Thanks, Donald. Kipling was earnest, yes, and sincere in his supposed ‘burden.’ I don’t know if that’s the nuance you’re referring to. That he was imperialistic can’t be denyed. His was a time of decadence, though. Folks were jaded. The rich were, at least. People couldn’t get enough of the ‘exotic,’ but civilization arrived. It seemed there wasn’t much else to do. I think that’s why they rushed into WWI.

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