75

I grew up hearing the phrase, "You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!" used as a compliment, a genuine expression of admiration, fairly self-effacing at the same time.

I have to admit that, while I knew from context that it was meant as praise, I long ago forgot most of the poem it came from, remembering just that Gunga Din was heroic on the battlefield. Hence the admiration.

I was about to use the phrase when I realized that the person I was addressing might be too young to get the reference, so I skipped it, but went back to read the poem. It is (to me) shockingly racist, with lines like

An’ for all ’is dirty ’ide
’E was white, clear white, inside
When ’e went to tend the wounded under fire!

Researching it a bit, it seems the poem is not taught anymore, much like some of Mark Twain’s works in the US.

So, is it still a compliment or have the racist overtones made it obsolete?

Edited to add: The last stanza refers to meeting up with Gunga Din in hell someday. [Again edited to add] I realize that the meeting in hell was a compliment - once again - to Gunga Din. The author calls him, "You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!" In the Bible, the Rich man (in hell) asks to let Lazarus (in heaven) give him water: ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ While the Biblical answer is 'Nope', the author has so much faith in the goodness of Gunga Din that he believes Gunga Din will bring him - and others - water not only on the battlefield, but also in hell. (I think...) Thanks to @Michael.

Sorry, I realize this has some POB aspects to it.

  • 13
    Never heard of it in 5+ decades as a native speaker of American English. – AmE speaker May 19 '17 at 15:49
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    I know the poem, since I rather like Kipling but having just been rewatching Rosemary and Thyme, a 2003-2007 mystery series (from ITV?), I noticed it being used by Laura Thyme in what I take to be it's usual meaning, i.e. I wouldn't have guts/gall/moral fiber to do that, but I admire that you do. Thought it would be worth noting, since this was a rather main stream detective series. – DRF May 20 '17 at 15:55
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    The extremely short answer to this is that whatever compliment is intended might be overshadowed by negative concerns of association with colonialism. – Mitch May 22 '17 at 13:29
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    I'm pretty sure that in addition of listed above this quote was used in many other contexts. I'd even argue most people won't even know that it is Kipling quote, not even speaking about any assumed "racism" associated with it. – Oleg V. Volkov May 22 '17 at 14:17

12 Answers 12

123

It's a cardinal error to confuse a depiction of bigotry with bigotry itself.

Yes, the narrator of the poem is racist, not only by modern standards but in the opinion of the author of the poem. The juxtaposition of the disdainful attitude of the soldier with his candid admission that the blackfaced heathen slavey whom he beats and abuses is, in fact, the braver, better man gives the poem its power.

You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

  • 18
    I could not agree more with your first sentence. I think the poem is very well written, and, like Twain... baby with the bathwater kind of stuff. Thanks! – anongoodnurse May 15 '17 at 23:34
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    When I was a kid, "mighty white of you" could only be used sarcastically, to indicate I thought whatever you did was done in a patronizing and disdainful spirit. God knows how people would take the expression today. Fortunately, the Gunga-din reference requires the person to be reasonably literate, and so, at least in theory, understanding of nuance. That said, I was once on a corner in Hyderabad and my local friend rushed unafraid through traffic. I only got as far as "You're a better man than I" before realizing he might not appreciate the reference, if he understood it at all. – Malvolio May 15 '17 at 23:57
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    I've never heard "might white of you", before, and if I heard it now, I'd hear it as racist. I'm not sure how else one could interpret it, unless it were not meant as a compliment. – Todd Wilcox May 16 '17 at 5:58
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    @FaheemMitha -- find a historical figure from more than, oh, 75 years ago, whose bigotry and racism are not "well documented". Look at Gandhi, Lincoln, anybody you want. And any culture anywhere ever that couldn't be fairly described as "racist and bigoted". It is unjust and unreasonable to take a work that is about the moral virtue of a non-white person, extract a quote from it where a previously bigoted (white) character acknowledges that virtue, and then complain about racism, just because the author did not completely transcend his times. – Malvolio May 17 '17 at 16:47
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    It's a cardinal error to assume everyone will read a work the same way, though -- or to assume that someone who references a work naturally agrees with all the themes and beliefs it communicates. For example, some fans of the film Fight Club think the titular activity is awesome, while others regard the whole movie as a criticism of violent masculinity; and then there are many, many people who just half-remember a famous quote or two and little else about the overall context. – Alex P May 17 '17 at 23:40
45

Given that a few, presumably well-read, people here have different recollections of the poem, and different interpretations, you would be unwise to make assumptions as to the effect on your audience. Many people's reaction would be along the lines of “you what?” having never heard the quote and not even recognising it as a quote, never mind a poem or Kipling.

Those of us who studied it in the dim and distant past may remember racism in the context — but not in detail. We may remember (if we’ve read a little on the subject) that Kipling’s views are the subject of much discussion. My understanding is that while racist by today’s standards he was unusually progressive by the standards of his time in at least some aspects of his treatment of the natives.

At best, quoting Kipling will seem old-fashioned (with the possible exception of “If—”) . So I suggest you only use the quote if you don’t mind people thinking you’re a (possibly racist) dinosaur. If I were in the audience, I would give the speaker the benefit of the doubt, but that’s about me, not the quote.

Finally, although the narrator is expressing admiration (even without the racial aspects we can’t ignore) it boils down to “for someone who’s my subordinate, you’re a better man than I am”. After all, the narrator had the right to beat Gunga Din. This may not be the impression you want to give.

  • 8
    Thanks for addressing my question directly. It's refreshing and helpful. It can boil down to that (which is why I was shocked on rereading it), or it can boil down to, "for someone who's supposed to be my subordinate, I realize at last that you're not; in fact, you're a better man than ever I am (Gunga Din). But you're right in much of what you say, and I certainly am a dinosaur, so, again, thanks for the answer. – anongoodnurse May 16 '17 at 13:01
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    @anongoodnurse regarding the assertion in the above answer it boils down to “for someone who’s my subordinate, you’re a better man than I am” I am inclined to agree with you that the narrator is not making a qualified or condescending statement, but (by the end of it) acknowledging frankly and unequivocally that 'I may be the white man and you may be the native, but you are by far the better man, Gunga Din!' – English Student May 16 '17 at 13:08
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    I'm missing the reference for (with the possible exception of "If--") – Mr.Mindor May 17 '17 at 13:55
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    @Mr.Mindor Kipling's poem "If---" is still widely quoted (and misquoted). I've seen it on mugs and tea towels. – Chris H May 17 '17 at 13:57
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    Oh that is the actual title, I assumed you were oddly truncating or censoring some commonly known work. One of those moments where a few seconds of googling could have given me the answer. Thank's Chris. – Mr.Mindor May 17 '17 at 14:07
35

My dad (native to Oklahoma) uses it, and I picked up the usage from him. I believe I've heard my mother-in-law (native to Ohio) use it as well.

The way we use it isn't a compliment. Its more an observation that the person in question is undergoing a lot of (potentially hazardous) work for no really good reward. It would be used in a lot of the same contexts as "Have fun storming the castle!" (Princess Bride callback), "Good luck with that", or "Better you than me."

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    "Better you that me." Yes, it does have that connotation as well, now that you mention it. Thanks! – anongoodnurse May 16 '17 at 14:57
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    @anongoodnurse - To be perfectly honest, this is the first time I've seen the poem. I always figured the phrase was from an old movie or something.... (upvoted the question for teaching me something) – T.E.D. May 16 '17 at 18:00
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    Yep ... I used to hear the Gunga Din line sometimes used in that sort of context when I was a kid (more or less nearly half a century ago and in a different country to you) but wouldn't use it now (the only time I refer to the poem at all is if I get locked out of somewhere ... as in "Hey I'm locked out and I Gunga Din!"). But I have used the Princess Bride quote, especially with my kids; it's usually understood even by people who haven't seen the movie. – Glen_b May 18 '17 at 6:34
  • I've picked up the usage in the exact same way, my dad coming from Virginia, though – bendl Aug 21 '17 at 14:40
33
+200

Many thanks for directing my attention to this intriguing and controversial poem from one of the Children of Empire.

"A racist would not have glorified Gunga Din in the way Kipling did," wrote Andrew Roberts in The Telegraph on 13 May 2003

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3591241/At-last-Kipling-is-saved-from-the-ravages-of-political-correctness.html

and having read the full text of Kipling's famous poem, I fully agree with him, Indian that I am and a long time reader of Literature!

It is well known that Kipling had great love for India and for Empire. Lines taken in isolation may paint a nasty picture, but each poem should be read in its entirety, in context, and I am convinced there is nothing inherently racist about 'Gunga Din'.

It is amazing to see that Kipling and Mark Twain have become controversial -- are their opponents even reading their works before donning the armor of righteous indignation to do battle against the ghosts of two great humanists! In fact that is the bigotry of ignorance, absolutely incapable of recognising oblique sarcasm or self-reflexive irony, and it shows that nuance is dead!

HOWEVER, you are asking about the statement 'you are a better man than me, Gunga Din!' -- that line is by itself proof that it is not a racist poem, but earnestly politically-correct non-readers who have mentally 'tagged' Gunga Din (possibly without reading it) as a racist work may be vocally offended, especially those of the left-leaning liberals (not all but some) who are unforgiving of all imperialism except the dictatorship of the proletariat, which alone is historically and ideologically justified.

Moreover, as already pointed out in the earlier comments and answers, the vast majority of people just may not get the reference!

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    I would suggest (as I suspect others have) that Kipling is better described as nationalist/culturalist rather than racist. He seems to have had no particular animus toward people for their genetic origins. He did have an eye for the foibles of different cultures, but does not seem to have held these differences as immutable. What he was was a firm believer in his own culture, without ascribing imaginary flaws to others. He also understood the price the British Empire paid for its position, particularly in the lives of its young men. – WhatRoughBeast May 16 '17 at 19:24
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    Kipling was writer by trade. He described what he saw and heard. In all his writings I never had the distasteful feeling of racist dislike. Quite the opposite, he made me feel for the Indians he described. Think of why the girl in the story can no longer knead her own bread; the bereaved husband in Without Benefit of Clergy; Janee crying in the watercourse. They are heartbreaking. – RedSonja May 17 '17 at 9:01
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    @ChrisH thanks a lot for providing the political background of the newspaper, which was completely unknown to me here in India -- but I am only quoting their opinion as an example of a published piece, and my independent interpretation that the 'Gunga Din' poem is not racist is based on my own reading of the entire work before looking for published pieces that possibly agree with this point of view. I believe a writer of a previous century is not to be held accountable for anything based on modern concepts of political correctness, but also agree controversial quotations are best avoided! – English Student May 17 '17 at 15:26
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    I disagree with this answer, and most of the comments, but will refrain from a downvote, because at the end of the day it's about a difference of opinion. Kipling was a racist. And they're nothing wrong with calling Imperial Romans "racists". They deserve that and harsher names besides. They were a nasty bunch of thugs. And their attitudes persist in the present, particularly in Ango-American imperial racist viewpoints. It's not for nothing that significant aspects of British and US culture are modelled on Rome. (But this is only marginally relevant, so I'll stop.) – Faheem Mitha May 17 '17 at 15:39
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    @FaheemMitha we can indeed agree to disagree, but the reason I say so is because the whole concept of racially ethical behavior was unknown or unimportant in those bygone cultures! How could they strive 'not to be racist' when racism is itself a modern sensibility? That would make them only retrospectively and only in our opinion, a 'bunch of thugs' which may well be the judgment of history, but they were acting under the ethics and imperatives of their own times and not ours. What is really important is to fight the racism that we find all around us in this day and age. – English Student May 17 '17 at 16:35
27

There are several good reasons to avoid it as a cultural reference, at least among acquaintances or strangers:

  1. It's likely obsolete. The poem and the film are both quite old. Someone for whom the Cary Grant film would have been a normal childhood pop culture experience is around 90 years old now. Other answers indicate that, in the UK, Kipling is studied in less detail than he was in the 1950s and '60s.

  2. There's a status implication in the phrase. Gunga Din is subordinate to, and victimized by, the narrator. It's easy for that to come off as paternalistic, or perhaps mocking or sarcastic. (I'd argue, as T.E.D. does, that a semi-sarcastic meaning is perhaps the most natural one.)

  3. A highly racialized reference isn't necessarily "innocent" even if you think the original work is. There's a long history of people turning even "positive" portrayals into terms of abuse. Bigots and bullies aren't always particularly educated or choosy: even a muddled reference that still communicates "you are a member of a subaltern group" can serve their purposes just fine.

Getting your meaning across relies on both knowledge and a rather particular assumption of good faith from your audience. It's not a phrase that communicates much.

  • This is a really good answer... points please? :-) – Michael May 19 '17 at 10:26
  • "Quite old?" "Fortune favors the bold.", is old. I understand your points, though. I took it to mean that the fellow didn't know or care who Gunga-Din was, not really, until right at the end when he came to his now famous conclusion. – Erik Bennett May 20 '17 at 22:32
  • @ErikBennett A useful distinction is whether you need the context to make sense of the phrase. "Fortune favors the bold" is a self-contained aphorism. You don't need to know its origin to understand the meaning (I tried to look it up and I still don't actually know where its from, to be honest). If I say something about naked woodworking or grains of sand in asafoetida-bearing Cyrene, most people are just going to go, "uhhhh? what?" in response. (Bayeux tapestry marginalia and a Catullus poem, respectively, if you're wondering.) – Alex P May 21 '17 at 2:08
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    @Alex P. I agree. And for the record, "uhhhh? what?" (regarding your quotes). I've read that "Fortune favors the bold." is from Thucydides. 'τοῖς τολμῶσιν ἡ τύχη ξύμφορος'... not that I would know; it's Greek to me. But, yes. It seems that to understand the Gunga-Din reference, one would have to read the entire poem. I tried to speak to that point in one version of my carefully crafted, over edited reply. – Erik Bennett May 21 '17 at 2:32
19

I, along with much of my family, use this phrase regularly as a compliment for someone who possesses the fortitude to do something that I doubt I could do. For us, there is never anything insulting either implied or inferred.

Kipling was born and spent his first five years in India, and then lived there again after school from age 16 to 23. For him, the poem was historical. Indians of the lower classes were - much the same as African slaves in America - considered to be something less than human, and were treated as such.

Was such treatment racist? Yes and no. The English treated the lower class Indians like dirt, but then again, so did the upper class Indians. It was expected in that culture. It was not because of his race, but rather his class. The narrator of the poem had every right - even the responsibility - to treat Gunga Din the way he did. To treat him any better would have been considered an insult to the higher classes. Yet at the end of the poem, the speaker acknowledged that Gunga Din was not only in fact a man (not merely lower-class "property"), but that he was even a better man than the speaker himself, for Gunga Din possessed courage and character that the speaker did not.

I suppose that one could take such a compliment as a sort of insult, but I have never seen it that way. Basically, it is saying "Society may see you as inferior, and I have treated you terribly, but you are truly the better man." It is almost like an apology for not treating someone with the respect that they truly deserve.

  • The English also treated many upper-class Indians as dirt. If you have time, visit the Royal Bombay yacht club which has a sign with the wonderful phrase "Dogs and Indians not allowed". It says nothing about class. – Rahul May 22 '17 at 5:01
19

This poem is an explicit reference to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:

Givin' drink to poor damned souls, An' I'll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din! Yes, Din! Din! Din! You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!

The narrator of the poem puts himself in the place of the rich man in hell who begs for a drop of water from Lazarus (who is heaven, the "bosom of Abraham").

In this poem the hyperbole is actually heightened by adding that Gunga Din even comes down to Hell to give a drink to the damned souls (suggesting perhaps not even intentionally that the poet's present state alluded to here is also a kind of hell?), not that Gunga Din is "in hell" as though he belongs there permanently.

So this is pretty well making him out to be as "better as it gets" while sadly never quite removing a little demeaning servitude as Din's "natural" lot.

Within the (severe) limitations of the British post-colonial mentality, it's a perfectly generous compliment, albeit with a heavy serving of irony.

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    Many Thanks for weighing in 'with us' on the side of poor departed (and therefore personally defenseless) R.Kipling, who probably wrote the poem with the best of intentions over a 100 years ago, but some modern souls would prefer to 'read' racism into it for their own purposes, whether innocent or devious, and that is what is truly prejudiced and distasteful (not because the writing may or may not have been consciously or unconsciously racist, but) for mean-mindedly ignoring the manifest intention and sentiment of the writer as expressed in the context of his works – English Student May 17 '17 at 16:09
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    Your pointer to the parable of Lazarus (which was amazingly missed by everyone till you drew our attention to it) is also very much appreciated, not only for illuminating our understanding of the context, but also because it suggests the work of an author explicitly alluding to such a noble sentiment is very unlikely indeed to be racist! – English Student May 17 '17 at 16:59
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    Your interpretation has to be the correct one. Thank you for this; I totally didn't put that together. – anongoodnurse May 18 '17 at 0:25
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    @anongoodnurse OMG! I seem to have won the bounty of 200 points for my answer to this question! A lovely surprise... Thank you so much! I feel honored. – English Student May 19 '17 at 3:52
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    Actually I think my interpretation is a bit off-topic but at least my answer was short ;-) I think the take-home is that it's just barely a compliment, given the circumstances. – Michael May 19 '17 at 10:22
16

Well....I think I am a latecomer on this one....but I think context may be the true test of the meaning. I have a personal example....my brother, I am his sister, called me on the phone after my niece who lived with a horrendous disease died at a young age. He said to me in the most sincere way, You are a better man than I, Gunga Din. He was referring to the long years, and the long months leading up to her death of being at her side which he felt he cannot and could not do for anyone. He didn't have what it takes, and he thought I did.

Context....helps.

  • 6
    Tragic, but excellent example of a very appropriate use of the statement in its right context! Nobody can know your anguish without experiencing it in their own life... What many members here have pointed out is that a specific literary reference such as Gunga Din, particularly when burdened with controversial labels for no good reason, should be used in conversation only with somebody who we are certain knows the right context and meaning and will interpret it correctly without taking spurious offense. Thanks a lot for giving us a valuable example of its usage from your personal experience! – English Student May 16 '17 at 21:03
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    Yeah, this phrase is still current. My dad says it all the time, and I'm not THAT old ;-) – Michael May 19 '17 at 10:23
5

Sometimes we analyze too much, resulting in confusion from clarity. I first heard, then read, and later viewed the quotation as a youngster (I am now 75), and to this day I regard it as one of the most introspective and enlightening of all. And with quite positive results as to formative attitudes concerning race.

I am a white man, and if a black person were to say that to or about me, would I consider it anything other than a literate person saying a kind thing? ... I would not.

Natale Chiara

  • 2
    1 upvote for this Simplest, clearest and nicest answer! – English Student May 21 '17 at 18:12
  • There's a lot to be said for clear and simple. – Michael May 24 '17 at 8:21
1

I've heard the phrase all my life (born 1948) and my wife (a year older) has, too. My mother (born 1909) used it frequently (a public or parochial school education was a better quality than what you see today).

And, no, Kipling wasn't a racist, any more than Frederic Remington. Kipling was forever paying compliments to Her Majesty's enemies, as in Fuzzy Wuzzy

WE ’VE fought with many men acrost the seas, An’ some of ’em was brave an’ some was not,
The Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o’ the lot.

Pathan, of course, were the tribesmen of the NorthWest Frontier.

So ’ere ’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ’ome in the Soudan; 45 You ’re a pore benighted ’eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
An’ ’ere ’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ’ayrick ’ead of ’air—
You big black boundin’ beggar—for you broke a British square!

Bonaparte couldn't break a British square, but Fuzzy did.

A lot of the epithets against Kipling are the same old Lefty trash thrown at anyone who stands for values. I'll take Kipling over the Antifa, limousine, or any other kind of Liberal any day.

0

History and culture is liquid. At it's height, the English Empire was admired by much of the world and their actions were considered upright and justified. Today people look at English colonial beliefs and label them racist and bigoted. At one time Romans looked at the population of Britain and considered them backward. I suppose the Romans were racist and bigoted. Before that (and even at the height of Roman power) your average Greek considered himself superior to the Roman. I guess Classical Greeks were racist and bigoted. Xerxes looked upon the Greeks and thought them rural and mundane. So the Persians were racist and bigoted. The Egyptians tended to consider the Persians as fairly gauche... racist and bigoted Egyptians.

What is and what was are different matters. It depends upon where you stand. Is a fire hot? Your opinion would rather depend on whether you were sitting by a fire or standing in one. I'm sure there will come a time in the future when whatever culture exists will look back on the current "politically correct" movement and murmur "What foolish bigots and self righteous knotheads these people were."

  • 3
    Well, yes you're right. Racism and xenophobia are not new concepts, both have been around for thousands of years. But more importantly, does this post actually attempt to answer the question? – Mari-Lou A May 27 '18 at 18:31
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    A science fiction writer once wrote a poem summarizing Isaac Asimov's famous novel, "Caves of Steel". The hero, with the help of his robot friend and sidekick, solves the mystery. The last line of the poem has the hero tell his robot sidekick: "You're a better man that I am, hunk of tin!" – tautophile May 27 '18 at 22:07
-2

I would never have heard of the quote or the poem if I didn't go in for old movies. I enjoyed this one, mostly because the narrator caught me off-guard when he read the last lines of Kipling's poem at the end. I actually got a little misty. I thought it was a beautiful touch that rescued a somewhat far-fetched portrayal of the title role.

Gunga Din was portrayed as a native with boundless admiration for, and puppy-like devotion to, British soldiers and cavalry. Abuse and ridicule had no effect on this admiration. He exhibited so little awareness of his own heritage that his character seemed two-dimensional. In the end, he sacrificed his life blowing a bugle to warn the British of an attack by the irredeemable but elusive Thug tribe, summoning the cavalry just in time to make a climatic charge which, of course, routed the Thugs and put an end to their reign of terror.

Despite the simplicity of Gunga Din's character, the film obviously intended a sympathetic portrayal and not derogatory or derisively comical one. Kipling's lines at the end provided a discernible arc to several roles, infusing the Gunga Din with courage and dignity while imposing unfamiliar humility on the soldiers he admired.

At the risk of sounding judgmental, and given the poem's historical context, it takes a shallow analysis and a prejudicial bias to claim a racist or derogatory intent in either the poem or the movie. As many have already pointed out, ranking people by race was commonplace throughout the world at the end of the 19th century. I would wager a double cheeseburger that it is still common where literacy rates are low. Displaying a tinge of this outdated norm is a poor cause to indict the reputation of a 19th-century poet.

Roping off this quote as inappropriate speech sets a poor precedent; English becomes a minefield and "Gunga Din" becomes another mine in it - the poem lends itself to the conclusion that the memorable final stanza is complimentary to its namesake (see below). There is no reason to presume that borrowing this quote implies or might imply ill intent.

Even if it could be backed by sound reasoning, calling Kipling (or most any deceased person) a racist only provokes an insoluble debate that distracts from more productive conversations about addressing racism.

Despite the lowly status of Kipling's man, his heroic deeds, coupled with the humility expressed by the narrator, oppose the long-standing notion of inherent racial superiority that was still being championed in some academic circles in the late 19th century.

A good case can be made that the poem was bold and very progressive in its time, and that the noted aspects of the final stanza undermine the proposition that Kipling's intent was racist or otherwise unkind when his poem was published.

Given its obscurity the quotation should be applied sparingly, but one does not need to withdraw this quote or feel shame if his/her intent is misunderstood. However, presuming such a quote to be racist or provocative in the absence any corroborating indication of racist intent would be rude. Only the poor defense of ignorance could be persuasively advanced.

  • This is a rant, not a serious answer. Malvolio's answer states the essence of what you wrote with much less rancor. You ought to be commenting under the posts with which you disagree, not post a generalized rant like this. I do use the quote to express admiration, and have only seen it used in this way, including recently on a BBC production. – anongoodnurse Jan 30 at 16:48
  • Welcome rankoutsider, anongoodnurse is quite correct, this is no place for what could be a journalistic opinion piece. Please take the tour: english.stackexchange.com/tour and read this about answering: english.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-answer – Duckisaduckisaduck Jan 31 at 17:19

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