This week we were not a group, but a pair. It was a first, and I was none too happy about it. Although a couple of people gave notice to say they would not be attending, it was only after the fact that I came home to a cluster of apologetic emails explaining the other no shows. Each individual understandably felt their absence would not be noticed. But that is to miss the magic of a group: it exists because of a collective act of will.

The next hurdle was thrown up Otis. ‘Oh, Kipling again’, he said. Yes, I said, again. Last Spring’s reading of ‘The Miracle of Purun Baghat’ — Kipling’s deceptively simple story of a man who renounces material pursuits and desires in order to lead a life of spiritual contemplation — was one of the highlights of the year.

Everyone had loved the story about a high-ranking Brahmin official who takes up the begging bowl and the staff of the Sannyasin and beats a slow retreat into the Himalayas to live a simple life, communing with the creatures of the forest and allowing himself to be fed by villagers from a hillside settlement situated far below his elevated mountain cave. Years pass without incident. But when heavy rains threaten a landslide, the Sannyasin resumes the mantle of authority and descends to save the villagers.

Our discussion had ranged over wide terrain. We talked about the lure of turning one’s back on material success, about mid-life crises and why we have them, the different ages of man, the need for modern rites of passage, the Hindu ideal of the spiritual quest, the tensions and slippages between east and west, and much much more. I moderated only lightly, since the group just ran with these themes.

This week was different. As an intimate two-hander, it couldn’t have been anything else.

I brought in one of Kipling’s late stories ‘The Debt’. First published in 1930, it offers one of his rare portrayals of Indian life seen through Indian eyes. The story is set in a prison compound, where it follows a conversation between a trusted convict doing baby-sitting duty for the English prison doctor’s 6-year old son, and a local tailor, Mahmud. Both characters are Muslims, and they share a keen interest in the health of King George V, who has been struck down with a chest infection.

Mahmud is also an Imam at the local mosque. In an effort to divine the way the King’s sickness will go, he has consulted the names of Allah, according to a system known as the Abjad in which each letter of the Arabic alphabet carries one of the ninety-nine Names of God, as well as the attributes assigned to that name. Accordingly, he predicts that the Padishah (a term deriving from the Persian word for Prince, but here referring to the King) will recover in the month of the Crab.

Directing his augurings towards One Three Two, Mahmud tells him that it’s little wonder he’s a ‘lifer’ given that the attribute assigned to his name is ‘Terrible’. The convict chuckles at the truth of this. Then invoking his own bit of Islamic magic, he owns that he would have gone to the gallows for his crime were it not for the fact that ‘a man may draw back-pay, as it were, for his good deeds.’ In his case, the good deed was saving the life of a British army Captain on the battlefield in Flanders.

This theory of pay back, of action followed by sympathetic reaction, persuades One Three Two that the King’s recovery is also assured, for his Captain gave him a report of a good deed that the King performed while visiting the war graves in France. One Three Two now relates this story to Mahmud, casting it in a rich, lyrical language that evokes the fairytale atmosphere of A Thousand and One Nights. Except instead of the sultry Arabian setting the players are steeped in a ‘cold that cuts off a man’s toes’. Such was the winter’s ferocity the servicemen standing on ceremony suffered terribly. Especially a much-medalled General who was very sick. This General had taken off his greatcoat in oder to appear properly uniformed before the King. But instead of acknowledging him, the Padishah ignores his salute. He chastens him for taking off his coat, and orders him to put it directly back on. As a matter of duty to his health. Because of this act of kindness, One Three Two is convinced the King will be saved.

It’s difficult to ignore the fact that the King’s good deed appears much smaller than the one credited to One Three Two. But as the convict himself points out we cannot know about the ‘great things which the Padishah does daily in his power’. We can only judge him by the way he bears himself  ‘off parade.’ A gun, he reminds Mahmud, does not throw true unless it has been bored true.

So far, so good. However One Three Two goes on to explain that the unspoken transaction between the King and the General qualifies as a blood debt. ‘The life of that General is owning to the Padishah. I hold it will be paid to him, and that the Padishah will live.’  The debt, in other words, cannot be repaid by any re-tuning of unseen cosmic forces, or smoothing out of imbalances in karma. It demands a life for a life. By this step we  encounter the twist, familiar to modern readers through Sharia, whereby back pay is all too easily construed as pay back. Having taken us to the brink of this reasoning in his story, Kipling suddenly pulls us back to a place of comfort, lightening the touch with an inshallah from Mahmud, and a sweet final scene in which the boy (whom his keepers believed to be sleeping all the while they jawed lazily on) gives an innocent rendition of the pay-back theory to his mother, now returned from her tennis game.

It turns out that Kipling based this story on a real-life visit made by King George to the war graves in Ypres, in 1928, when the he did, in fact, pick up a chest infection. For his part, Kipling — in attendance at Ypres, having written the King’s speech — picked up something equally virulent, his story: for while waiting for King George to arrive, Kipling caught sight of a General attempting to shelter himself from the biting cold, and the image stayed with him.

Otis and I suspected there was more real life experience underpinning this tale than perhaps even Kipling knew. And that it was contained in the character of William, the sleepy young boy, who nonetheless doesn’t miss a trick; who understands the Islamic logic of his carers, even as he follows the medical hocus-pocus spun by English doctors, and who knows what it means to be sick and to die, as he watches, listens and learn from the prisoners and prison workers around him.

Kipling was 5 when he left India for England and as precocious as the boy in the story. Like William’s, his was a seemlesly integrated world, where influences British and Indian were co-mingled, co-existant and contiguous. His language, like William’s, would have been peppered with Hindi phases. The internal compass of his emotions,  like William’s, would have fidgited from east to west and back to east again. It is a mystery to me that Kipling is so frequently taken as an apologist for Imperialism, when everything about his stories resists such bald categorical interpretation. But one can’t have it all.

Otis was glad we read this story in the end. He said it made him want to read more Kipling. His only regret was that our discussion was a back and forth affair, as opposed to a round table. He missed the input of others, the wayward injection of the unexpected, and the way that having multiple perspectives in play brings a unique layering to the reading experience, impossible to achieve when you read alone. I missed the group dynamic, too, and wondered if there was an Abjad that covered the probability that six or seven people, operating without knowledge of each other’s actions, would all decide not to come on the same day. And if there was such an Abjad, what would it’s attribute be?

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