Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan is an expert on international relations and in her doctoral dissertation, had covered the British Raj in India. This is a period in Indian history that I am particularly interested in. So, when she recently came to present Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim” at the Massey College Book Club, it was a God-sent opportunity! I arrived fifteen minutes before the presentation to find the library packed. The buzz in the room reminded me of a classroom full of children eagerly waiting to hear a favorite tale, even if it was one that most already knew by heart. It was evident that almost everyone had read this famous book and some members of the audience were even able to extemporaneously quote verbatim, key conversations between the main character Kim and his venerable mentor Teshoo Llama.
Margaret spoke very eloquently and authoritatively on the subject. She highlighted aspects of Kipling’s writing as the “imperialist” that he clearly was, but also read out excerpts that demonstrated the author’s nuanced understanding of and love for India. Some of Kipling’s works were arguably considered to be racist even back in 1900s and one wonders if he could have got away with that style of writing if publishing his books or poems in the highly charged, “seen to be” politically correct environment we live in, today. Most members of the audience confessed to having read the book during their school days and had not found it offensive then, or now, nearly 120 years later. I wonder however, if audiences unexposed to Kipling would find his poem “Gunga Din” racist by today’s measure?
Are we becoming overly sensitive? Has our tolerance for real or perceived slights shrunk? Is technology that is available today allowing each of us to be the soapbox speaker who can now reach out to harangue a much larger, global audience, instead of the few hangers-on in the corner of the park? We can now pretend to be a reporter, historian, author, motivator, life coach or an authority on any subject under the sun. “Innocent until proven guilty” is still the adage we use, but insinuations through a single Facebook post or a Twitter feed today have the power to sway public opinion more than ever before and bring the reviled subject to heel. One person’s insistence for freedom of speech may violate another’s rights. How is culture appropriated and who owns water or air?
Children, with their innocence intact, are fortunate. They do not know any better and express their emotions honestly and without malice. They read stories and visualize the characters without prejudice, other than to learn that the “big bad wolf” is nasty and the “stepmother” keeps one back from attending a ball! Until we start to indoctrinate our kids that “we” are different from “them.”
Our three and a half years old granddaughter and the 16 months old grandson do not tire of “reading” their favorite books over and over again. No sooner than we walk in to his home that our grandson toddles over and clambers on to the lap, wanting my wife or me to read from one of his favorite story books. I sincerely hope that children today grow up to read and enjoy books like Kim as much as I did; that the future does not ostracize Peppa Pig or label Moana a racist.
I had not known about the activist and rapper Richard Williams (aka Prince Ea) until very recently, when I heard his “I am not Black, you are not White” on YouTube. It included the following lines
“…Isn’t it funny how no baby is born racist
Yet, every baby cries when they hear the cries of another
No matter the gender, culture or color
Proving that deep down, we were meant to connect and care for each other…”
Ea adds, “If religions had taught, “Instead of being destructive, be creative. Rather than renouncing the world, renounce the nation, renounce the race; renounce all discriminations between black and white; renounce all limitations, boundaries that divide humanity. It is one humanity. This planet is our home, and we are all responsible to make it more beautiful, more livable…”