Guest poem submitted by Vikram Doctor -
(Poem #151) Recessional
God of our fathers, known of old, Lord of our far-flung battle-line, Beneath whose awful hand we hold Dominion over palm and pine - Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget - lest we forget! The tumult and the shouting dies; The captains and the kings depart: Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice, An humble and a contrite heart. Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget - lest we forget! Far-called, our navies melt away; On dune and headland sinks the fire: Lo, all our pomp of yesterday Is one with Nineveh and Tyre! Judge of the Nations, spare us yet. Lest we forget - lest we forget! If, drunk with sight of power, we loose Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe, Such boastings as the Gentiles use, Or lesser breeds without the Law - Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget - lest we forget! For heathen heart that puts her trust In reeking tube and iron shard, All valiant dust that builds on dust, And, guarding, calls not Thee to guard, For frantic boast and foolish word - The Mercy on Thy People, Lord!
A poetic reminder from the news-stands. A recent issue of India Today has a cover story about the martyrs of Kargil with the headline emblazoned, "Lest We Forget". And in general, there has been a rash of articles in the media which use the line. It's so much a part of our collective memory that we often forget its source in Kipling's "Recessional'. Which, particularly in this case, is a pity because the source makes the quote all too appropriate - perhaps a bit more so than the media, with its jingoistic views on the war, might wish. I'm not much of a fan of Kipling's poetry. I love his prose - 'Kim' is one of the greatest novels about India - and the imperialistic sentiments in both his poetry and prose don't bother me. And I admire the technical skill of his poetry, particularly his way with colour and cadences. It just doesn't connect with me very much. But 'Recessional' is an exception, though I'm not even sure I like the poem very much. The religiosity for one leaves me a bit cold, though I do admit the power of his plea to be humble before God is undeniable. But the impact of the poem really comes from the context it was written in. A context which seems to me to matter when soldiers are dying on the heights of Kargil. No, this is not another reminder saying Zara Yaad Karo Qurbani - to use The Times Of India's suspiciously slick slogan. Quite the opposite, although I mean absolutely no disrespect for the soldiers who died. As a patriotic Indian I acknowledge out debt for their sacrifice. But... well, I admit to having some rather mixed feelings. For one, I have mixed feelings about why we are fighting this war and who's to blame. But what I have VERY mixed feelings is about the sort of attitudes the war is bringing out. I hate the jingoism thats been stirred up, and the flag waving, and the lets-think-of-our-poor-soldiers and all the Zara Yaad Karo Qurbani feelings. On the one hand, yes, being patriotic I guess we should show out support for the country. But on the other hand, exactly what is emoting away in our armchairs about the need to support our soldiers going to achieve?" Any kind of charity is to be encouraged, I guess, but I am rather dubious about people who don't mind getting worked up about something as long as its far away and doesn't really cost them much; don't we all have more direct ways we can make a contribution to society? I'm dubious at the way everyone is getting worked up about Kargil simply because this is our first real media war - what about all those soldiers who have been regularly dying on Siachen or in anti-insurgency operations in Kashmir and Assam all these years? And I have nothing but distaste for the way some marketers have jumped on to the Kargil band wagon to use it as a way to promote their products. So as I said, I have mixed feelings about this whole Kargil thing and that's why this poem is so appropriate. Because "Recessional" is really all about mixed feelings. Kipling wrote it at the most triumphal peak of the British Empire - Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887 when the Empire truly was the greatest power on the globe. The Jubilee was the obvious occasion for celebrating this achievement, yet Kipling chose not to do so. Instead he wrote this poem which warns vividly about the perils of hubris and the transience of power. Watch out, Kipling warns the revelers, none of this is lasting, nor does it matter. And of course, he was right. The British Empire has vanished so completely that today we can even lay claim to its icons - like cricket which everyone now says belongs to the former possessions rather than the home country. (Ironically, the one place where you could say the influence lingers is in the borders and margins the Empire left, like that between Pakistan and India). So when we see "Lest We Forget" being blindly used as a call to patriotism and nationalism, its worth remembering that Kipling really meant something much deeper. Vikram. PS: Something else has just occurred to me. The area where the war is happening is one which is actually full of echoes of the Raj. The whole 'Roof Of The World' from Afghanistan to Tibet was the setting for the long conflict between the British and the Russians and the indigenous tribes that was known as the Great Game - which is partly what 'Kim' is about. But it was also the setting for the First Afghan War in 1838 from which only one British soldier returned. In Bombay's cantonment area, which is full of activity for Kargil today, there's the silent shuttered presence of Afghan Church which was built to commemorate this disaster. I can't help thinking Kipling had stories like this in mind when he looked at all the hype about the Jubilee and wrote his "Recessional". And we should remember it as well, as another futile war is played out in the same area.