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The Phantom 'Rickshaw, and Other Ghost Stories

Rudyard Kipling

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    I am not a huge fan of Kipling, although I've liked most of his works that I've read so far. It's kind of like the way I feel about Chesterton—you had to be there. Puck of Pook's Hill and its sequel, Rewards and Fairies are fantasies based on real British history, and British history goes back a long, long way. For one who is less familiar with it, those works are a bit difficult to comprehend, although I liked them both. Plus, many believe Kipling was racist, and he certainly was a British Imperialist. He was born in British India in 1865, where his father "was the Principal and Professor of Architectural Sculpture at the newly founded Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Bombay." He was sent back to the U.K. for schooling, but returned to India, and from 1883 to 1889, worked for local newspapers. As might be expected, many of his works reflect Indian life, which often makes them a bit difficult to understand. This work is an example, but once I got accustomed to the terms and the way of life, reading became easier and I did like these stories. Here is Kipling's Wikipedia page, and here is my Index Page for him where you can find out more about him and read the many reviews I have written on his works. This story collection apparently has a couple different versions. Wikipedia's page only includes the four stories that take place in India, but the Project Gutenberg version linked above and at the bottom of the page includes five stories, the last taking place in London, and was one of my favorites. By the way, a 'rickshaw is a form of transportation, like a carriage or buggy, but pulled by humans.
    The stories in this collection are rather short, except for the fourth one, so I will tell just a bit about each, beginning with the title story. It is truly creepy, about a man who gets involved with the really wrong woman! It is told by a third person who stayed with this man when the doctor was called away, and there he learned the story, which may or may not have been true, and he may or may not have been sane.
    Three years prior, this man had sailed from Gravesend to Bombay, meeting a married woman on the ship—a Mrs. Agnes Keith-Wessington, whose husband was an officer in Bombay. They sort of "fell in love," or, rather, she did. His—Jack's feelings were more of a short-term whim.
    After reaching India, they met later in the year in Simla, where they spent the season together, and Jack declared to her that he was sick of her by that August. She, however, didn't "get it," always uttering the same phrase: "Jack, darling!" was her one eternal cuckoo cry: "I'm sure it's all a mistake—a hideous mistake; and we'll be good friends again some day. Please forgive me, Jack, dear."

Next year we met again at Simla—she with her monotonous face and timid attempts at reconciliation, and I with loathing of her in every fibre of my frame. Several times I could not avoid meeting her alone; and on each occasion her words were identically the same. Still the unreasoning wail that it was all a "mistake"; and still the hope of eventually "making friends." I might have seen had I cared to look, that that hope only was keeping her alive. She grew more wan and thin month by month. You will agree with me, at least, that such conduct would have driven any one to despair. It was uncalled for; childish; unwomanly. I maintain that she was much to blame. And again, sometimes, in the black, fever-stricken night-watches, I have begun to think that I might have been a little kinder to her. But that really is a "delusion." I could not have continued pretending to love her when I didn't; could I? It would have been unfair to us both.

    They meet the following year, and though he attempts to avoid her, she hasn't changed. The year after, 1884, he describes as a "confused nightmare." He was courting Kitty Mannering, whom he truly loved, but still found it difficult to avoid Agnes, though she knew about Kitty. It was then that on a certain occasion, when she encountered him, as usual in her 'rickshaw, he finally gets her to understand. "My answer might have made even a man wince. It cut the dying woman before me like the blow of a whip." She dies a week later, and then the fun begins.
    He and Kitty are engaged to be married the following year, but death does not keep Agnes from interfering with Jack's life. She and her 'rickshaw show up as he and Kitty are out riding, but Kitty never sees her, what's more, Kitty rides right through her. It happens again, in fact, Jack just can't get rid of Agnes, and to all appearances, has gone mad. The engagement is broken, obviously, as Jack descends into the abyss.
    Below is a rickshaw in Calcutta, India.

Rickshaw in Calcutta, India

    The next one, My Own True Ghost Story, begins with a warning on how Indian ghosts must be treated:

Somewhere in the Other World, where there are books and pictures and plays and shop windows to look at, and thousands of men who spend their lives in building up all four, lives a gentleman who writes real stories about the real insides of people; and his name is Mr. Walter Besant. But he will insist upon treating his ghosts—he has published half a workshopful of them—with levity. He makes his ghost-seers talk familiarly, and, in some cases, flirt outrageously, with the phantoms. You may treat anything, from a Viceroy to a Vernacular Paper, with levity; but you must behave reverently toward a ghost, and particularly an Indian one.

There are, in this land, ghosts who take the form of fat, cold, pobby corpses, and hide in trees near the roadside till a traveler passes. Then they drop upon his neck and remain. There are also terrible ghosts of women who have died in child-bed. These wander along the pathways at dusk, or hide in the crops near a village, and call seductively. But to answer their call is death in this world and the next. Their feet are turned backward that all sober men may recognize them. There are ghosts of little children who have been thrown into wells. These haunt well curbs and the fringes of jungles, and wail under the stars, or catch women by the wrist and beg to be taken up and carried. These and the corpse ghosts, however, are only vernacular articles and do not attack Sahibs. No native ghost has yet been authentically reported to have frightened an Englishman; but many English ghosts have scared the life out of both white and black.

    Anyways, the narrator tells a story about the night he stayed at a dâk-bungalow in Katmal, India. I wonder if Kipling actually did have this experience. Wikipedia does not supply a background about it. Anyways, it is short and simple. The narrative explains the situation he is in, which is the most miserable dâk-bungalow in which he had ever stayed, and elaborates the details. But the "ghost" part happens during the night when he is half asleep, and hears a party enter the next room and begin to play billiards. He keeps his door barred and stays awake until he hears them leave. The next morning, when he enquires about the billiard game in the next room, he finds that no one was there.
    Except . . . .
    Below is a dâk-bungalow in India.

Dâk-bungalow in India

    The third tale isn't actually a "ghost story," but a prison for the living dead—people who were thought to be dead, but "woke up" when their bodies were about to be burned, and are not accepted back into society. I don't know if there were such places in India that were real, but it would not surprise me. When I was reading The Wit and Wisdom of Gandhi, he spoke of the caste system and the lowest class, called the "Untouchables," and it all seemed rather cruel to me, so I would suspect that these people would be treated as outcasts. This is also the scariest of the tales, perhaps because it is not about ghosts but about the things human beings do. It is called The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes, and is about an Englishman who is riding at night when he and his horse fall into this pit. When he awakens in the morning, he is made aware by a man he knows—a Brahmin named Gunga Dass—of the situation he is in. The hill of the pit is sand, so there is no way to climb out, and there are riflemen in boats on the surrounding body of water to make sure no one escapes. But there is a way out, and Gunga Dass proves to be not only a traitor, but a murderer.
    The fourth story, The Man Who Would Be King, is the most well-known—very well-known—in fact it was made into a film starring Sean Connery, who plays Daniel Dravot (the King), Michael Caine as Peachy Carnehan and Christopher Plummer as Rudyard Kipling, and is a stunning likeness! The exquisitely gorgeous Roxanne, who brings it all to an end, is played by Caine's wife, Shakira. You can watch it for free at Internet Archive, unfortunately with Spanish (?) subtitles. This story, the longest of the collection—really a novella rather than short story, and is the only one with a Wikipedia page of its own. This is not a "ghost story" at all, but again I want to point out that this present version of the collection is the only one that has the word "ghost" in the title.
    When I read it, I really did not "get it," and did not like it that much, perhaps for that reason. Kipling was the epitome of British Imperialism, and the whole mindset that countries that think they are better than other countries have the right to invade and rule them, I find so repugnant. But I decided to watch the long movie before I published this review, and movie watching is not my favorite activity. Though there were some differences, the movie followed Kipling's story quite accurately. One big difference is that in the story, both Dravot and Carnehan become kings, as was set out in their agreement. In the story, the narrator has no name, however, the story is told in the newspaper office in Lahore, fictitiously called The Northern Star, but in reality, Kipling did work in a newspaper office in Lahore—the Civil and Military Gazette. Lahore, at the time was part of India, but is now in Pakistan. Check out the Wikipedia page to see some beautiful architecture. So it was a good call to have that character in the movie be Kipling. A couple more points: The country that Dravot and Carnehan basically invade and take over is Kafiristan, which had been wiped off the maps, and it was questionable whether it had existed. We now know that, historically, it did and was part of Afghanistan. And the tale itself was not entirely made up by Kipling. The Wikipedia page for this story, linked above, lists a number of men from which Kipling may have drawn his models.
    In any case, after watching the movie, I do "get it." The first hour was a challenge, because the whole military thing is not a subject I am interested in, and in fact totally oppose. However, the second hour changed everything, because the human side of it emerged, and in fact, it is not glorifying Imperialism, but is a warning that those who lust for such power will eventually come to a very terrible finale. Let us hope that proves true here in 2023. I ended up loving the movie, and strongly recommend watching it. It is a John Huston film from 1975, and is a grand epic to the likes of The Ten Commandments. The scenery is incredible, and the ethnic portrayal of these peoples is even more breathtaking, complete with ethnic music, costume, language and customs and played by Middle-Eastern people. I have such a huge interest in learning about all different peoples of the world, that this aspect alone sustained my interest. The performance of everyone is top-notch, especially, of course, the stars. It is a haunting and horrifying yet magnificent film in all respects. No wonder it is considered one of Huston's classics, and both Connery and Caine regarded it as their favorite film. Please watch!
    And so, after all that, I will provide a short synopsis. I will refer to the "narrator" as Kipling, as in the movie. He is boarding a train which is also being boarded by Carnehan, who steals Kipling's watch with a Freemason emblem. Seeing that Kipling is a fellow Freemason, he makes his way onto the seat opposite him, and pretends to recover it from another man whom he blames for the theft, though Kipling knows the truth. He is a former British military man, and a terminal rascal, and asks Kipling to give a message to a Daniel Dravot who will be on a train in eight days, that "Peachy has gone South for the week." Kipling does as requested and later finds out what scoundrels the two men are, and reports them to have them removed from India. However, they show up very late one night—early morning—at the newspaper office, and tell Kipling their plans to go to Kafiristan to become Kings. All they want are some resources—books, maps, etc. They even have a contract drawn up that seals their loyalty to each other—they had been military comrades with a long friendship. They includes not drinking or having anything to do with women until their goals are met. They ask Kipling to sign as a witness. He thinks they're nuts, but he signs anyways.
    These are two incredibly creative men, determined to reach their goal. In the movie, the scene where they are freezing on the mountain with both their coming and going paths destroyed is horrific. Little by little, they reach their goal, but the problem is, the people think they are gods, (in the movie, just Dravot), and they do not correct this misconception. It all progresses, and it appears to the people that Dravot is the descendent of Alexander the Great, who was a god to them centuries earlier. When the Masonic emblem is discovered on Dravot (given to him by Kipling), the pagan priests are convinced. Their catacombs are filled with precious gems and metals, and the High Priest tells Dravot it is all his. Carnehan is ready to take the loot and flee, as they are free to do whatever they want with the wealth. But Dravot has let, not the wealth, but the power go to his head. And on that, I will end the review of this tale.
    As mentioned above, the final story is not included in the Wikipedia version, and is the only one that does not take place in India, but in London. Again, it is narrated by one who could be Kipling himself—a writer. It begins as he meets a 20-year-old bank employee named Charlie Mears, who lives with his widowed mother and has "aspirations." He is at a billiard-saloon "looking on", and the narrator warns him that is not a cheap amusement and he should go home. But they get to know each other, and Charlie begins to visit him.
    He wants to be a writer, but his mother doesn't encourage him. His writing desk is the edge of his washstand, but he declares: "I've a notion in my head that would make the most splendid story that was ever written. Do let me write it out here. It's such a notion!" So he scratches away for a half hour, and realizes what he has written is "awful rot." So he reads what he has written, and the narrator suggests he put it away and return to it another time. Charlie protests, and agrees to tell the story instead.
    When the narrator hears the story, he is determined not to let it remain in Charlie's "own inept hands." So the narrator offers to write it, and there they begin an interesting relationship. The story is about slaves rowing an ancient ship—galleys and galley-slaves." The narrator is rather surprised. It is as if Charlie did it himself, yet he cannot recall even reading about it.
    At the next visit, Charlies said he had been making up all kinds of things for the story, in fact, he even wrote down some markings that might have been scratched on the oars with their handcuffs. He pulls it out of his pocket and hands it over.
    The next day, the narrator goes to the British Museum and asks to speak to the "Greek antiquity man." And this is what he learned:

I might have been excused for forgetting much. To me of all men had been given the chance to write the most marvelous tale in the world, nothing less than the story of a Greek galley-slave, as told by himself. Small wonder that his dreaming had seemed real to Charlie. The Fates that are so careful to shut the doors of each successive life behind us had, in this case, been neglectful, and Charlie was looking, though that he did not know, where never man had been permitted to look with full knowledge since Time began. Above all he was absolutely ignorant of the knowledge sold to me for five pounds; and he would retain that ignorance, for bank-clerks do not understand metempsychosis, and a sound commercial education does not include Greek. He would supply me—here I capered among the dumb gods of Egypt and laughed in their battered faces—with material to make my tale sure—so sure that the world would hail it as an impudent and vamped fiction. And I—I alone would know that it was absolutely and literally true. I—I alone held this jewel to my hand for the cutting and polishing. Therefore I danced again among the gods till a policeman saw me and took steps in my direction.

    Charlie was remembering a past life, therefore, it was extremely important to not let him know. Now, here in 2023, that sort of thing is not only accepted and explored, but considered normal that we have all been here many, many times before. But apparently in Kipling's time, it was not something that "fate" would allow—that is, people were not allowed to remember their previous life experiences. He later receives a sharp warning from a friend, a young Bengali Hindu. "There is a chance. Oah, yes! But if he spoke it would mean that all this world would end now—instanto—fall down on your head. These things are not allowed, you know. As I said, the door is shut." So he also discourages the narrator from writing the story at all. Anyways, since this is something right up my alley, as I have been involved in past-life work for decades, I found it was a tale with which I could resonate.
    This is an enjoyable collection to read, and once you get acclimated to the India stuff, the stories are not that difficult to understand. If you are a Kipling fan you should definitely read these tales, and be sure to download this version from Project Gutenberg so that fifth story is included.

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