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Rudyard Kipling: The Early Opium, Sex Workers And Booze Years

Kipling was born in India but shipped back to England when a child, as was the custom back then. But he returned aged 16 for seven explosive years until he was again sent back to the UK, this time because he’d become too hot to handle.

Drugs, prostitutes and unflinching tales of adultery and suicide among the expats shocked the authorities but they were the experiences upon which Kipling built the rest of his career.

On his childhood return to England with younger sister Alice, Kipling was brought up in Southsea, Portsmouth, but couldn’t wait to return to the country of his birth. Arriving in Bombay aged 16 in 1882 Kipling made his way to Lahore, which is now in Pakistan, and found work on a newspaper, the Civil and Military Gazette.

Rudyard Kipling - portrait with cigarette

Left alone, rattling around his parents’ vast mansion, Kipling began to develop night terrors, convinced he would succumb to some terrible disease. At first he got the servants to pour water on him to cool him down and then began to visit the old walled city of Lahore, where he found a different world from the way of the Raj.

Loud, colourful and chaotic, filled with alleyways and bazaars, he encountered liquor shops and dancing girls, all manner of temptation. Kipling loved it but when his fellow Brits found out they were appalled.

Kipling had broken a taboo: associating with the 'natives'. From then on he started breaking a lot more. Next up was drugs: in 1884, when he was suffering from a terrible stomach ache, someone brought him opium, which he tried for the first time.

It became a habit, along with morphine and Indian hemp. An anonymous account of an opium trip appeared in the Civil and Military Gazette, probably written by Kipling. Opium opened up his mind, according to the documentary, and soon appeared in one of his short stories about an addict dying in an opium den.

A 1925 copy of 'Kim' showing an example of fore-edge painting.

It was but a short step to finding more night-time delights and the prostitutes of Lahore were far more than just streetwalkers. Akin to Japanese geishas they were sophisticated women, well-versed in song, poetry and dance.

It was Kipling who coined the phrase “the world’s oldest profession” and it was these women who showed him the real India, not the sanitised version that the Raj preferred. Rudyard was soon writing stories – always with tragic endings – about love across the racial divide.

But it was by no means just the local population who led lives that were very different from what we associate with Victorian society. Kipling eventually made it to a hill station, Shimla, where the cream of the Raj spent the blisteringly hot summer months.

What remains of North Bank Lodge, Kipling's summer residence in Shimla.

It was a hotbed of disgraceful behaviour, full of the “fishing fleet” – British girls who came to India to look for a husband – and “grass widows” – married women whose husbands were working on the plains and indulged themselves with the handsome young soldiers in town.

“Every Jack has someone else’s Jill,” was how one wag portrayed it and it gave rise to the term “poodle faking”. There was even a part of the town known as Scandal Point where people would meet to exchange gossip.

Kipling initially loved it but became disillusioned very fast. When Kipling’s first book of short stories, Plain Tales From The Hills, was published in 1888 it caused shock in India and back home in England.

Filled with stories concerning adultery, loneliness and betrayal and, most shocking still, suicide, the India-based Brits thought that Rudyard had let the side down by revealing what was going on.

In the UK there was fury that life in the Jewel of the Crown, as India was known within the empire, was nothing like as publicly portrayed. When Kipling wrote another interracial love story it was the English who were portrayed as being in the wrong, not the locals – ironic given the way that Kipling is thought of as a defender of empire today.

It was all too much, someone had a word and Kipling, whose fame was growing rapidly, was told to go home. Kipling had been away just seven years but India was to shape his life. Books including The Jungle Book, Just So Stories and Kim established his fame as a writer, while generations of schoolchildren have been set to learn the poem If.

In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the youngest recipient of the award and the first English speaker. He turned down a knighthood and the Poet Laureateship.

Nor was that the end of his travels: he spent time in the United States and South Africa before settling in Sussex, where he died aged 70 in 1936.

A consummate storyteller and described as an inspiration by many of the most famous 20thcentury writers, Kipling’s reputation has taken a battering in post-empire years – George Orwell called him a “prophet of British imperialism” which might not have been helpful – but it would appear to have a half-truth.

In many ways Rudyard Kipling was not so much an apologist for colonialism as a man attempting to show the real British-India, warts and all.


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