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  • On Truth and Lie in a Colonial Sense: Kipling’s Tales of Tale-telling
  • Ambreen Hai

In his posthumously published autobiography, Something of Myself, Kipling describes an ugly childhood inquisition where his sadistic foster brother traps him into contradictions, and then accuses him of lying. 1 In this repeatedly recalled primal scene, which became a meta-narrative for his own fiction, a story about story-telling, Kipling suggests an originary relation between his fiction and lies:

If you cross-examine a child of seven or eight on his day’s doings (specially when he wants to go to sleep) he will contradict himself very satisfactorily. If each contradiction be set down as a lie and retailed at breakfast, life is not easy. I have known a certain amount of bullying, but this was calculated torture—religious as well as scientific. Yet it made me give attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell: and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort. 2

As the child Kipling discovers the dangerous distortions of hostile reception and repetition, he also learns to question the absolutism of an Evangelical reader who insisted upon an uncomplicated binarism of truth and falsehood. Accused of lying, Kipling ends up lying—but, in no simple inversion of religious or moral ideas of truth, he re-defines his lies in his own terms as fiction, and thus his fiction as necessary lies.

In an almost identical account in his early autobiographical short story, “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” young “Punch” is also bullied and bewildered by the loss of control of his own language. 3 He is then punished by his piously evil foster-mother, also an Evangelical Christian, who forces him to wear a placard that publicly brands him a “Liar.” That Kipling avenged his actual ill-usage by publishing his experience as autobiographical fiction testifies to his early sense of the power of the lie (as fiction), which can work indirectly to report on the tyrant, to tell tales even of his own family, to turn the lie of that earlier text, “Liar,” upon itself by telling truths as fiction. The problematic relation between biography and fiction is not here my [End Page 599] subject—instead, it is Kipling’s revision of lying as a commentary on his own fiction, particularly colonial fiction, that calls for attention.

As emblematized in the passage above, “literary effort” becomes the product not of one “author” but of a collaboration embedded in a context of intimate and unequal power relations: at first, a bully falsely denominates a child’s confusion as intentional “lie,” but later, the child Kipling actually begins to lie as a form of resistance. Fabrication, or fiction, is created from the very pressures that twist language to conform to prescribed “truths,” when, in response to those pressures, the artful child, and subsequent artist, turns to “the necessity” of lies as fiction. From this inaugural moment, Kipling links imaginative creation not only with questioning given ideas of truth, but also with a certain kind of hidden resistance to powers that are too close for comfort. As an adult, his fiction may be founded upon similar relations to empire.

In the context of Kipling’s colonial fictions, the implications of his continuous preoccupation with his fiction as lies become manifest. Kipling was heavily self-conscious about his role as a colonial writer, both implicated in and potentially subversive of colonial power, even as this role was both enabled by and potentially threatened by that power. An unstable duality pervades his discourse of lies, for while the lie is predominantly a highly valorized form of truth-telling, it also registers the uneasy knowledge that empire is founded upon lies (lies as both misleading and creative, as discursive foundations of reality), and that colonialism necessitates that certain truths can—must—never be told. If it may seem surprising that the so-called “bard of empire” repeatedly referred to perceived censorship and limits, or meditated upon self-censorship and unspeakability, then, as many recent postcolonial theorists have taught us, it may be instructive to examine the ambivalence and self-knowledge that underlie his colonial writings. 4

Through readings of...

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