Saturday, January 11, 2014

Gunga Din

And now, as Monty Python's Flying Circus are wont to say, for something completely different . . .


I used the phrase “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din” to my son recently but he didn’t understand the reference.  Another example that as another generation gains ascendancy, knowledge of earlier generations falls by the wayside.  It may also be that the work from which it comes has fallen into disfavour and is no longer studied or read, much like Mark Twain's works having been dropped from many syllabuses (syllabi?) because of the racist expressions.

The phrase comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) who, according to one writer, “is usually regarded, and often dismissed, as the poet laureate of British Imperialism.”

The somewhat lengthy article which follows is an interesting look at the poem Gunga Din and at the attitudes behind it.


Kipling was born in Bombay but was taken to England by his family when he was aged 5. There he boarded with an English couple whilst his parents continued their service in India. In his autobiography 65 years later Kipling described these years as being of abuse and neglect. Asked later why he and his siblings never complained at the time, he wrote that “badly-treated children have a clear notion of what they are likely to get if they betray the secrets of a prison-house before they are clear of it.”

In 1882, aged 16, he returned to India to become assistant editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, a local newspaper which Kipling was to call "mistress and most true love". Kipling wrote incessantly, contributing articles and short stories to his newspaper. These, plus additional prose and poetry, were published in a number of works.

In 1889 he returned to England and won success with Barrack Room Ballads. Settling in the US after a world trip, he wrote Captains Courageous and The Jungle Book.


A quarrel with his brother in law made him leave the US and he returned to live in England. Kipling was by now regarded as the People’s Laureate and the poet of Empire.

His son John was killed in World War 1 and he became much involved in the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission, King George V becoming a personal friend. Rudyard Kipling died in 1936, just three days before his King. He had declined most of the many honours which had been offered him, including a knighthood, the Poet Laureateship, and the Order of Merit, but in 1907 he had accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Having gone from acclaimed writer to one regarded as old fashioned, imperialistic and jingoistic, his works are today being reassessed and appreciated, with allowances being made for the non PC items as a product of their time, as with some of Twain’s works.

The poem Gunga Din is a good example. 

India was the heart of the British Empire, rule over the subcontinent being known as the British Raj (“reign” in Hindi). The Brits loved their Empire and British rule in India was a key element of that Empire. It was a captive market for British goods and services, and served defence needs by maintaining a large standing army at no cost to the British taxpayer. Gunga Din is an commentary by Kipling on British rule in India, a few years after he had left that country. It typifies the attitude of British Empire, with all its politically incorrect references, attitudes and comments but with an overlying message that is Kipling’s . . .

Gunga Din 

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!


Here is the poem again with commentary and analysis:

Gunga Din 

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;

The speaker is a veteran British soldier, probably retired, addressing new recruits in India. The speaker compares life as a soldier in England with the much harder life of being a soldier in India. They can talk of the gin and beer they had back in England, where civilians paid a penny to see British military units put on mock military battles. Aldershot was the largest military training ground in Kipling’s day and is today known as “The Home of the British Army”.

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.

Life in the army in India, according to the speaker, is not ceremonial and mock battles, it is active combat duty in blistering heat where life (and the slaughter) is so hard that you will lick the boots of he who has water to supply.

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.

A bhisti is a water carrier. At a time when racism was common, often supported by pseudo-science, the late 19th century British attitude was that the Indian race was an inferior one. Moreover the Indian caste system divided society into different ranks, the lowest being known as “untouchables”. It is likely that Gunga Din was an untouchable, which would have made astonishing to his listeners the speaker’s declaration that the finest man he has ever known was the regiment’s Indian water carrier.

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.”

“Panee lao” means “bring water”. 

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!”

“Juldee” means “be quick”. Having already no doubt shocked his audience by declaring that the finest man he knew was the lowest person on the social scale, he then describes him in unflattering terms: limping, squidy nosed, heathen, wearing a piece of rag that was half as much behind as it was in front. He was beaten (“wopped”), whipped (“marrowed”) and threatened if he wasn’t fast enough or deliver sufficient quantities of water to satisfy all the troops. The readers of the poem at the time would have seen nothing odd in this. 

‘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”,

A “mussick” is a “water skin”. The speaker begins to offer some praised for Gunga Din: he was fearless and stayed with them throughout any battles.

An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide
‘E was white, clear white, inside
When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!

Again, a comment that would have been understood and approved by the readers in Kipling’s day. Even when I was a kid there were still people who thought nothing of saying “That’s mighty white of you”, an expression that has the following comment in the online Urban Dictionary: "Originally used under colonialism and before civil rights, this phrase expressed appreciation for honorable or gracious behavior, under the assumption that white people were inherently more virtuous Today, it is generally used sarcastically in reference to underwhelming acts of generosity."  In the Gunga Din poem the speaker is saying that when it came to tending the wounded, Din is as honourable as any white man, he is white inside.

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!”

The call during battle was for ammunition carriers (the mules) and the water carrier (Gunga Din), showing the importance of both.

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,

A ‘ddoli” is a “stretcher”

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 speaker and brings him water at the cost of his own life. They will meet again in Hell, presumably the speaker going there for his sins and Gunga Din because he is not a Christian, but even then Din will be giving tormented souls a drink. Then, in the ultimate accolade, the speaker declares that although he has whipped and beatern Din, nonetheless Din is a better man than he. 

In Kipling’s mind, race and similar factors is not the determinant. What matters in what a man is depends on courage and selflessness. 

Kipling's views on native peoples are complicated. On the one hand there is the attitude of superiority with a duty to civilize inferior races, as in another of his poems The White Man’s Burden; yet at times there is admiration of those races, or members of them, in The Ballad of East and West and Gunga Din.

Whatever your views on Kipling and Gunga Din, there is this to be said: It contributed the expression “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din” to the English language.

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Btw:

The website for Strine (the phonetic version of the word “Australian”), which provides helpful translations from Australian into English, says this about Gunga Din:

Normally, of course, the translation is provided the other way around, as it would be with any Dictionary or Phrase Book. For instance, the term 'Emmeny Jiwant' translates into 'How many do you want?'. The art form comes into its own, however, when the true Dictionary translation approach is employed. A perfect example of this is:-  
Gunga Din - Unable to gain access to (eg. a place or room), as in:-  
'I Gunga Din, the door slokt! Cummer nope nit formee!' 

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Btw #2:

In 1939 RKO made a film, also called Gunga Din, loosely based on the poem:


Many of the elements of the 1939 pic are incorporated in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

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3 comments:

  1. Thank you for this analysis. I learned a few things about a poem that I thought I already knew and understood. Love the 'String humor, too - and the illustrations.

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  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  3. It seems Mr. Fan'fani was NOT a "Fan'fani" of the British Army! (hopefully not a Mussolini Fan'fani !!)
    A very useful, and reinforcing for me, article.
    BTW, for folks (that Bush Pres. has his influences) that don't know Kipling's poem "If" (that is, "IF), try and look it up!

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