Today I had the chance to re-read a terrific story that Rudyard Kipling wrote many years ago. Like his best works, it is set in India, and is called simply “Moti Guj, Mutineer”. You can read it online here.
The story is about a huge elephant called Moti Guj, who is employed by a (white) coffee-planter to uproot stumps in some forest land which is being cleared for cultivation. This “very best of elephants” belongs to “the very worst of mahouts” – a drunkard called Deesa. After a hard day’s work, Deesa always get drunk on toddy, sharing his liquor with the elephant, and calling him a variety of terms of endearments and abuse.
One day, Deesa decides that he needs a break from his workman’s toil, and decides to go off in search of an orgy of bacchanalia, to get properly drunk. He asks for permission from the planter, who tells him he can take leave for ten days, but only if he will instruct Moti Guj to work under the instructions of another mahout, a gentle family man called Chihun. Deesa agrees, and Moti Guj begins hauling stumps under Chihun’s care. Chihun’s wife and baby pamper Moti Guj, and Chihun treats him very well. But Moti Guj “was a bachelor by instinct, just as Deesa was”, and does not understand these “domestic emotions”. For ten days he works regardless, and on the eleventh day, Deesa does not return – and Moti Guj goes on strike.
Chihun calls to him to return to work, but Moti Guj “put his hands in his pockets, chewed a branch for a toothpick, and strolled about the clearing, making fun of the other elephants who had just set to work.” The planter tries to have him chain-whipped by two other elephants, but he is so much bigger and more imposing that his taskmasters-to-be decide at the last minute to swing wide of him, and pretend they had “brought the chain out for amusement”. So Moti Guj strolls around, “talking nonsense about labour and the inalienable rights of elephants”, loafing around “like an eighty-ton cannon”, until finally, Deesa comes back, and all is well.
I love this story. Rudyard Kipling has the gift of drawing incredibly lovable characters, and his anthropomorphic description of Moti Guj is absolutely humorous. Kipling has no rival when it comes to describing elephants – from their physical appearance (such as Moti Guj, who, after his bath, comes up “all black and shining with a song from the sea”) to their mental processes (for example – apart from four or five hours of sleep, the rest of elephants’ nights are filled with “eating, and fidgeting, and long grumbling soliloquies”).
I consider Rudyard Kipling to be India’s first Nobel Laureate, and certainly the finest Indian poet and writer of the 20th century. I do not think Kipling himself would have liked very much to be called an Indian writer. But when you write about something, your story defines you instead of vice versa, and a writer is never described by his nationality quite so much as by the nations he writes about. Kipling’s poems are the best – he has a ear for the rhythms of the English language which is unparalleled by any writer before or since – but his short stories (like Moti Guj) are also evidently very, very good.