A Fluent Liar

A Fluent Liar

This week’s poem is by Rudyard Kipling and is a commentary on the jaundiced view of nineteenth century British M.P.s held by administrators of the Empire’s eastern dependencies.

Pagett, M.P., was a liar, and a fluent liar therewith

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936)

Poem 183. Pagett, M.P.

The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes.
The butterfly upon the road
Preaches contentment to that toad.
Pagett, M.P., was a liar, and a fluent liar therewith—
He spoke of the heat of India as the “Asian Solar Myth”;
Came on a four months’ visit, to “study the East,” in November,
And I got him to sign an agreement vowing to stay till September.
March came in with the koil. Pagett was cool and gay,
Called me a “bloated Brahmin,” talked of my “princely pay.”
March went out with the roses. “Where is your heat?” said he.
“Coming,” said I to Pagett, “Skittles!” said Pagett, M.P.
April began with the punkah, coolies, and prickly-heat,—
Pagett was dear to mosquitoes, sandflies found him a treat.
He grew speckled and mumpy—hammered, I grieve to say,
Aryan brothers who fanned him, in an illiberal way.
May set in with a dust-storm,—Pagett went down with the sun.
All the delights of the season tickled him one by one.
Imprimis—ten day’s “liver”—due to his drinking beer;
Later, a dose of fever—slight, but he called it severe.
Dysent'ry touched him in June, after the Chota Bursat—
Lowered his portly person—made him yearn to depart.
He didn't call me a “Brahmin,” or “bloated,” or “overpaid,”
But seemed to think it a wonder that any one stayed.
July was a trifle unhealthy,—Pagett was ill with fear,
Called it the “Cholera Morbus,” hinted that life was dear.
He babbled of “Eastern Exile,” and mentioned his home with tears;
But I haven't seen my children for close upon seven years.
We reached a hundred and twenty once in the Court at noon,
(I’ve mentioned Pagett was portly) Pagett, went off in a swoon.
That was an end to the business; Pagett, the perjured, fled
With a practical, working knowledge of “Solar Myths” in his head.
And I laughed as I drove from the station, but the mirth died out on my lips
As I thought of the fools like Pagett who write of their “Eastern trips,”
And the sneers of the travelled idiots who duly misgovern the land,
And I prayed to the Lord to deliver another one into my hand.

This is a fierce excoriation of the British political class who visited India when it was convenient (and safe) for them to do so, and who knew little of the people of the country and their lives. At the time, Kipling was working for the Pioneer, an English language daily newspaper still extant in India. He was in his early twenties and usually exerted his considerable talents in promoting the paper’s interests which were generally aligned with the British rulers of the country. As this poem shows, he was not above condemning those he considered unworthy of respect. By this time, Kipling had lived in India for four years and could claim to know a lot more of the people and country than many of its de facto remote governors. Amongst these were the members of Parliament who took care to visit India in the cooler months, leaving before the punishing hot season took hold.

The poem opens with an allegorical stanza where the ignorant butterfly who has freedom and leisure urges the toad to be happy with its lot, though the toad is grounded and endangered by the farmer’s harrow. In just this way, the visitors from Britain would preach contentment to those who lived there year-round. There is, of course, an irony in that Kipling, a member of a privileged and powerful minority, was himself protected from the worst vicissitudes of life in India and never suffered the dangers experienced by the vast majority of Indian people, but he was conscious of these dangers and was prepared to write about them.

In the second stanza, we are introduced to Pagett, a Member of Parliament who visits India to “study the East”. He speaks of the “Asian Solar Myth”, which is to say he considers the heat of India a falsehood and an exaggeration. He initially intends staying from November to February but the narrator of the poem, who seems to conceive a hatred for the M.P. at first sight, gets him to agree to stay six months longer “till September”.

The first four months apparently pass without event and when March comes “in with the koil” (a bell bird with a rather irritating call), Pagett is ebullient, describing the narrator as a slothful and overpaid administrator and scoffing at the idea of a season of dangerous heat, though the narrator warns him that it is coming.

The temperature begins to increase in April, and the country makes ready for the hotter months to come, while Pagett suffers prickly heat and the bites of flies and mosquitos which make him “speckled and mumpy” and takes out his frustration and discomfort on the Indian servants, described as “Aryan brothers”, a term derived from a mistaken concept of racial categorisation that became the basis of the Nazis definition of racial purity. Kipling, however, is using the term in its original (if mistaken) context as a synonym for Indian people.

In May a dust storm strikes and Pagett really begins to feel ill, suffering sunstroke and “liver” from drinking too much beer in the sun and later getting a touch of fever (perhaps malaria carried by April’s mosquitoes) which Pagett imagines is a grave case. A month later, and Pagett has dysentery after the early rains; he is now getting desperate to leave and no longer abuses the narrator, seeming amazed that anyone can bear the conditions. As July wears on, Pagett becomes tearful, fearing that he will contract cholera and die “exiled”, far away from his family, though the narrator and many like him have had no contact with their own families for many years (their children having been sent back to Britain to be educated as Kipling himself was).

The corpulent Pagett’s ordeal ends with a faint in the law court one day when the temperature reaches 120°F (nearly 50°C) and the honourable member flees, his misconceptions and misrepresentations of the truth replaced by solid experience of the realities.

The last stanza shows the narrator, exultant in his triumph over the perjured Pagett, becoming serious and sober as he considers the other “travelled idiots who duly misgovern the land” and wishes that God will provide another for the narrator to educate in the same way.

I like this poem because Kipling expresses his contempt for people like Pagett so clearly and it seems as if there are parallels with the modern political class who seem to know or care little for conditions on the ground.