A Postcolonial Reading of Kipling's "Muhammad Din"

Note: this postcolonial critique was completed with the assistance of students in English 600 as part of a group project.  I wish to thank my fellow graduate students for their assistance in the completion of this project. 

 

 

 

The binary opposition of dehumanization: a post-colonial analysis of Kipling's "Muhammad Din"

 

Our Place as Readers

Disclaimer: In criticism, we rely on a construction of binary oppositions. We understand texts by relying on systems of dualistic oppositions. Even as we try to break down that structure (of binary oppositions ) we’re entirely relying on it. According to Edward Said, even when we perform Post-Colonial critiques, we are emphasizing the very systems we’re trying to break down.


We are reading this text within the context of a society that is performing its own brand of neocolonialism (Pope). English, and American English in particular, are world languages that many cultures aspire to learn, or need to learn in order to thrive in the capitalistic, financially-driven sphere of business, education, science, medicine, and popular culture.

If we choose to break this down further, we can say we are students at HSU, in a liberal, rural area of the U.S. Although the student population in our class is predominantly white, our reading of this text may be different, say, than a reading performed by a class of white students in an affluent, urban school. Because Humboldt County society is, for the most part, liberal, our reading of Kipling’s story is already influenced by the cultural forces around us.

Kipling's "The Story of Muhammad Din" definitely asserts dominant polarities. In addition to the narrator's descriptions that initially dehumanize MD, the narrator sets up the nature vs. civilization dichotomy by portraying MD as close to the earth. The child's favorite activity is to play in the dirt, which he is allowed to do in the Sahib's garden (or a space of nature that is carefully controlled by humans) by the Sahib's "singular favor."

The binary of culture opposed to nature can be seen in the contrast between the dining room and the garden. Muhammad Din is found in the dining room once, but when he is chastised for being there, he is never found there again. Instead, Muhammad Din (MD) plays in the garden, waits by the trellis, and hides in the castor-oil bushes. It is only the "Heaven-born" who is allowed in the official spaces of civility: the dining room and the office. An interesting twist is that Muhammad Din creates a palace in the garden, his natural realm. Perhaps Muhammad Din's garden palace is Kipling's way of saying that within one generation the British will have succeeded in civilizing the "savages" of India.

However, the garden also seems to offer the potential for resistance to imperial forces, although this resistance is never fully realized due to MD's death. The garden "belongs" to the Sahib, but the garden grows on land that the Sahib has stolen from the original owners. However, MD uses this land to build his own kingdom, including a palace. In a way, MD seems to be reclaiming his people's lost land, although the narrator interprets it as the harmless play of an eccentric child.

The construction of MD as something less human and more animalistic is not confined to the nature/culture opposition. One aspect of the narrator's characterization of Muhammad Din is the repeated use of synecdoche (part for the whole). The reader first meets the child as "a hurricane of joyful squeaks, a patter of small feet." Other uses of synecdoche include: "the little whited shirt and the fat little body used to rise..." (322), "all that was left of little Muhammad Din" (323).

Additionally, upon meeting MD, the narrator describes the boy as an "it:" "It wandered round the room, thumb in mouth..." (321). As the story progresses, the narrator slowly begins to "anthropomorphize" the creature, who is clearly less than human. MD gradually becomes "a baby," "a child," but never a "boy" or a "person." These descriptitons stand in stark contrast to the boy's own assertion (the only time he speaks within the text) that he is "a man."

The narrator fashions MD's character as if he is less than human, which was an important aspect of the imperial project. In order to justify dominating a population and subjecting them to outside rule and culture, colonizers often described the native populations as "savages" that needed (and often wanted) to be ruled. Natives who ascended the ranks had to adopt the racist behaviors of the colonizers. We see Imam Din doing this when he describes MD as a "budmash," or a criminal, to appeal to the narrator.

One final word. I think an important factor of "post"colonialism is that Kipling did not believe that the British were oppressing or subjugating the Indian people. For much of his life, Kipling firmly believed that the British were helping to civilize and educate a previously "savage" people. They were doing good deeds. Furthermore, Kipling spent his earliest formative years in India, and he was likely more intimately involved in the local people. Because of his intimacy with the culture and the seemingly positive effects of the British occupancy, Kipling may have allowed himself to romanticize the idea of raising up a people. We see this differently. When we look at foreign occupation, we see an oppressed culture, lost traditions, and a confusion of landownership and resources.

Kipling, Rudyard.  The Story of Muhammad Din.  Rob Pope, The English Studies Book.  London: Routledge, 2002.