A reader in England, knowing my fondness for the essays and stories of V.S. Pritchett, wrote some time ago asking for help locating a travel essay Pritchett published in a magazine, The Hindu, in 1961. He and his family lived for many years in India and his sister found a portion of Pritchett’s article, “A Glimpse of India,” among their mother’s possessions. The rest of the clipping had vanished. I checked the books and libraries I have access to but that was no help at all. One becomes spoiled by the ease of access to almost everything afforded by the internet, so I felt nearly as disappointed as my reader. On Monday this note arrived:
“I thought you might like to know that a correspondent (in New Zealand!), who saw my enquiry posted on the India-British-Raj list, has managed to provide most of the text of the essay by finding it in a Google digitised book (and extracting text from a number of Google's 'snippet views'). As well as also appearing in Harper's Bazaar (March 1961), the essay was anthologized in Essays Today: No. 5. Ed. Richard. M. Ludwig. (N. Y.: Harcourt Brace, 1962).”
This global anecdote, rooted in bookish love, family devotion and perhaps post-colonial solidarity, would have sounded like science fiction a few years ago. Such miracles have grown commonplace. It’s reassuring to know technology can perform tasks as humble as solving minor maternal mysteries, and connecting readers and writers separated in time and space. Here’s a Dickensian/Kiplingesque sample from “A Glimpse of India”:
“A long burning red band of light seared my eyes. It was the vermilion band of sunrise in mid-air over the brown floor of India. From that moment, I time my total entry into unreality that was to last fourteen days. `So this is your first visit to India. What is your impression please?’
“One hears the brisk Welsh twitter of Indian English. Peter Sellers, the Kipling of `The Man Who Would Be King,’ boys' books about Orientals and New Yorker jokes about turbans, first of all. E.M. Forster comes later, when someone says: You must remember our self-pity. Asia and Europe are ridiculous in each other's eyes. Which are more farcical - my trousers or his bare arms or legs sticking out of a whirl of bedclothes?”
One of Pritchett’s (and Kipling’s) gifts was for vivid, colorful, comic distillation. A magazine travel piece for Pritchett was easy money; for his reader’s, a delight. Alex also passed along a story from Saturday’s Daily Telegraph about attacks (read: displays of moral exhibitionism) on Neil Gaiman after he expressed admiration for Kipling’s work. Gaiman, a writer unknown to me, is quoted as saying:
“I started getting – not exactly hate mail – it was more disappointed mail.
“People would tell me, `How could a writer like you – that we like – like a fascist, an imperialist dog?’”
Alex also scanned for me a letter to the editor in the Telegraph from David Horsley of Moldgreen, West Yorkshire, who responds to the Gaiman donnybrook:
“Kipling’s greatest character, Kim, is the orphaned, mixed-race son of an Irishman who had died in the British Army, and lives as a vagrant in colonial India.
“To compare a late 19th-century British imperialist with the gangsters of 20th-century European fascism is to redefine ignorance.”
Guy Davenport considered Kipling the premier English short story writer. In “Journal I,” collected in The Hunter Gracchus (1996), he writes:
“What got Kipling a bad name among liberals is his intelligence, humor, and affection. These they cannot tolerate in anybody.”