Excerpts From Rudyard Kipling’s A Real Live City’ Chapter I

“Calcutta holds out false hopes of some return. The dense smoke hangs low, in the chill of the morning, over an ocean of roofs, and, as the city wakes, there goes up to the smoke a deep, full-throated boom of life and motion and humanity. For this reason does he who sees Calcutta for the first time hang joyously out of the ticca gharri and sniff the smoke, and turn his face toward the tumult, saying: ‘This is, at last, some portion of my heritage returned to me. This is a city. There is life here, and there should be all manner of pleasant things for the having, across the river and under the smoke.’

The litany is an expressive one and exactly describes the first emotions of a wandering savage adrift in Calcutta. The eye has lost its sense of proportion, the focus has contracted through overmuch residence in up-country stations—twenty minutes’ canter from hospital to parade-ground, you know—and the mind has shrunk with the eye. Both say together, as they take in the sweep of shipping above and below the Hughli Bridge: ‘Why, this is London! This is the docks. This is Imperial. This is worth coming across India to see!’

Flower Market

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Baxter, James K. (1926–72), poet, dramatist, literary critic, social commentator, was born in Dunedin into an Otago farming family. Family fable has it that Archibald *Baxter prayed that he ‘might have a poet for a son’. James, the second son, indeed became one of New Zealand’s finest poets and most controversial figures, often at odds with a society unable to stomach its disturbing reflection in his work.

James Baxter (known by friends as ‘Jim’ or, later, ‘Hemi’) once described each of his poems as ‘part of a large subconscious corpus of personal myth, like an island above the sea, but joined underwater to other islands’, and elsewhere commented that what ‘happens is either meaningless to me, or else it is mythology’. This tendency to mythologise his life in verse makes biography important in any response to his poetry.

Baxter was overwhelmed by the poverty and the situation of ethnic minorities. The Indian poor would haunt his imagination and his poetry. His sense of displacement and disorientation is evident in the ‘Asian’ poems of his collection, * Howrah Bridge (1961).

Speaking of his book Howrah Bridge,which contained the poems written in India as well as some earlier work, Baxter said: ‘the first part was written by a man who thought he was a New Zealander; the second part by a man who had become, almost unawares, a member of a bigger, rougher family’ (James K. Baxter, Howrah Bridge, Oxford University Press, 1962, comment on dust wrapper)

 

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