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The Plea of the Simla Dancers -- Rudyard Kipling

(Poem #1077) The Plea of the Simla Dancers
     Too late, alas! the song
     To remedy the wrong; --
 The rooms are taken from us, swept and
       garnished for their fate.
     But these tear-besprinkled pages
     Shall attest to future ages
 That we cried against the crime of it --
       too late, alas! too late!

 "What have we ever done to bear this grudge?"
   Was there no room save only in Benmore
 For docket, duftar, and for office drudge,
   That you usurp our smoothest dancing floor?
 Must babus do their work on polished teak?
   Are ball-rooms fittest for the ink you spill?
 Was there no other cheaper house to seek?
   You might have left them all at Strawberry Hill.

 We never harmed you! Innocent our guise,
   Dainty our shining feet, our voices low;
 And we revolved to divers melodies,
   And we were happy but a year ago.
 To-night, the moon that watched our lightsome wiles --
   That beamed upon us through the deodars --
 Is wan with gazing on official files,
   And desecrating desks disgust the stars.

 Nay! by the memory of tuneful nights --
   Nay! by the witchery of flying feet --
 Nay! by the glamour of foredone delights --
   By all things merry, musical, and meet --
 By wine that sparkled, and by sparkling eyes --
   By wailing waltz -- by reckless gallop's strain --
 By dim verandas and by soft replies,
   Give us our ravished ball-room back again!

 Or -- hearken to the curse we lay on you!
   The ghosts of waltzes shall perplex your brain,
 And murmurs of past merriment pursue
   Your 'wildered clerks that they indite in vain;
 And when you count your poor Provincial millions,
   The only figures that your pen shall frame
 Shall be the figures of dear, dear cotillions
   Danced out in tumult long before you came.

 Yea! "See Saw" shall upset your estimates,
   "Dream Faces" shall your heavy heads bemuse,
 Because your hand, unheeding, desecrates
   Our temple; fit for higher, worthier use.
 And all the long verandas, eloquent
   With echoes of a score of Simla years,
 Shall plague you with unbidden sentiment --
   Babbling of kisses, laughter, love, and tears.

 So shall you mazed amid old memories stand,
   So shall you toil, and shall accomplish nought,
 And ever in your ears a phantom Band
   Shall blare away the staid official thought.
 Wherefore -- and ere this awful curse he spoken,
   Cast out your swarthy sacrilegious train,
 And give -- ere dancing cease and hearts be broken --
   Give us our ravished ball-room back again!
-- Rudyard Kipling
 duftar: office
 babu: clerk (especially one literate in English)

Today's poem is pretty enough in a 'minor Kipling' sort of way, but not
really all that outstanding - apart, that is, from the opening verse. That
verse ranks among my favourite pieces of Kipling - haunting, melodious, and,
particularly in the last four lines, capturing an emotion so beautifully and
precisely that it quite transcends the poem to which it is attached and
achieves that universality that is the mark of a perfectly-phrased idea.

The poem itself is, in part, a comment upon the stultifying bureaucracy
that, even today, remains one of the more enduring legacies of the British
occupation of India. A bit of historical background: Simla was, at the time,
the summer capital of British India, and was as such periodically overrun by
the machinery of government.

    Between 1864 and 1939 it was the official 'summer capital' of British
    India, which raised this small town from the status of a mere pleasure
    resort to a powerful community from which the government of the Raj was
    conducted between April and October.
        -- [broken link]

Note, however, that the 'Simla Dancers' in the poem's title do not refer to
native Indian dancers displaced by the invading British bureaucrats; rather,
Kipling seems to be referring to the demise of a very English ballroom (note
the references to cotillions and waltzes, for example). There are other
mentions of Benmore in his work, too - for instance, the following from 'The
Bisara of Pooree':

        Pack went to a dance at Benmore - Benmore was Benmore in those days,
        and not an office

but I could not find any other reference to it - does anyone know the actual
historical facts involved?


Kipling might have been influenced by the following:

        Ahead, to windward and to lee,
          The foaming surges roar:
        "O Holy Virgin ! save us now,
          And we will sin no more!"

        "We vow to lead a holy life;"
          Too late! alas, too late!
        Their vows and plaints to imaged saints
          Cannot avert their fate.

                -- James Kennard Jr., 'Wreck of the "Seguntum". A Ballad.'

  and then again, he might not - the phrase is a simple enough one to hit

An extremely readable piece on Simla:

  Simla didn't exist before the British came, and they built the town in
  their own image, turning their backs on India and trying to imagine they
  were in Sussex. (When they finally retired to Sussex, many of them spent
  the rest of their lives wishing they were back in Simla, which is how it
    -- [broken link],8922,528336,00.html


60 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

> but I could not find any other reference to it - does anyone know the actual
> historical facts involved?

That was the Viceroy's summer residence in Simla, back when Simla was the
summer capital.

So - stuff like "it was a real place where you could go to balls and parties,
not just yet another government office like it is today - perhaps something
like a "those were the good old days", or maybe the viceroy back when kipling
was around believed in more work than play.


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