Indian Lives: Discovered While Reading Rudyard Kipling's CMG
As I've been looking through the archives of the Civil & Military Gazette, I've been encountering various historical and biographical puzzles. Some of them pertain to the Kiplings; I've mentioned the debates about the authorship of certain Kipling stories in earlier posts. But I'm especially interested in the Indian employees of the Civil & Military Gazette. We know that the top editorial staff were all white and British, and that a certain number of Eurasians also worked at the paper (though their names generally do not appear). But in Kipling biographies the only names that appear regularly are those of Rudyard Kipling's boss and chief editor, Stephen Wheeler (later Kay Robinson) and Rudyard Kipling himself. This is surprising for a newspaper that apparently had 130 people working on staff (the names of several Indian employees of the paper do come up in Kipling's letters especially around the time he had to ask them to work overtime to help produce the December 1886 "Quartette"...).
One such puzzle is Nikka Singh. He is identified in a couple of places as the accountant for the Civil & Military Gazette; he is also identified as a clerk. We know from an essay published by Noel Cooke later that he stayed with the newspaper for a very long time -- and was still working there as of about 1930. But there is also the possibility that the same Nikka Singh was a prominent member of the Singh Sabha movement then emerging in Lahore. The CMG during 1886 and 1887 carried numerous detailed accounts of Singh Sabha, Arya Samaj, and Sat Sabha meetings. Who attended those meetings and reported on them for the paper? It doesn't seem likely it was Rudyard Kipling himself, as these meetings would likely have been conducted in Punjabi and scholarly Urdu rather than English, and I don't believe Rudyard understood enough Punjabi to give these accounts.
It seems quite possible that the person who reported on these events (see an example below) was none other than the same Nikka Singh who worked for the CMG as a clerk or accountant. Below I'll present some of the scraps of information I've been able to glean from the Kipling scholarship/biography side of things and from some of the references to the man I've seen. In the weeks to come I'm going to be investigating Nikka Singh from the Sikh Studies side of things -- to look through historical materials related to the Singh Sabha movement that reference him. Hopefully I will at some point be able to provide a clearer image of someone about whom at present I have only fragmentary knowledge.
(If that image is blurry, try the version of it here).
Nikka Singh's name appears another time in the CMG on April 9, 1886, in the same section of the paper ("Lahore and Mian Mir" -- a regular section giving scraps of local news). This was filed under "Domestic Occurrences: Birth." The text of the announcement is as follows:
DOMESTIC OCCURENCES. BIRTH.
Nikka Singh.--At Lahore, on the morning of the 8th April 1886, the wife of Bahi Nikka Singh, accountant, Civil and Military Gazette Office, of a son.
You can see the full page image from the April 9 1886 issue of the paper here.
In fact the names of Indian people are fairly rare in the "Domestic Occurrences" section of the CMG -- the vast majority of announcements pertain to marriages, births, and deaths occurring within the white British community. So Nikka Singh's announcement stands out all the more.
* * *
There aren't many references to Nikka Singh in the body of Rudyard Kipling scholarship. His name doesn't appear in two big recent biographies by Larry Ricketts and Andrew Lycett. I first came across his name in Charles Allen's Kipling Sahib, and even then the name comes in as a passing reference. Allen is citing Rudyard Kipling's peers, including Kay Robinson, on the kind of impression the young Rudyard seemed to make at work in his early days at the Civil & Military Gazette circa 1884.
Allen cites a short 1964 memoir by a writer named Noel F. Cooke, who worked at the Civil & Military Gazette in 1931. That essay is called "Kipling and Lahore," and it appears in the Kipling Journal in June 1964 (a point of confusion here is that Allen gives the incorrect citation to the Cooke essay). Happily, the entire archives of the Kipling Journal are available online in text format. The essay in question appears here.
The relevant paragraphs from Cooke's essay are here:
To get to the editorial office of the C. and M. Gazette it was necessary to walk through a narrow passage between the main office and the sanctum of the manager. As one approached the eye could not help catching the glint of a well polished copper tablet. It read : ' Rudyard Kipling Worked Here 1882-87.' The tablet was fastened to the outside wall of the office of the assistant editor, across a courtyard and under a verandah. This tablet and Kipling's desk, in the newsroom, were the only relics we had to offer our visitors, unless they had more time than we had to spare. To those who had the time there was the library, further along the verandah, where hours could be spent among the old files. In the library in the 'twenties, Nikka Singh sat. He was an aged Sikh, a little bent and thin. He had the pointed features of his race and a long white beard. His uncut hair was piled up under his tightly tied white turban; on his wrist was an iron quoit and at his side a kirpan (small dagger). Nikka Singh was an orthodox Sikh and always dressed in the complete regalia of his religion. He would rise slowly from his chair when you entered and look over the steel rims of his spectacles, perched half way down his aquiline nose. Nikka Singh had known Kipling sahib.
THE MAN OF INK
All round the library were racks which held the bound copies of the C. and M. Gazette, the spines in red leather and the titles and dates in gold. There were also volumes of the Moffusalite, a journal with a smaller format, published before the C. and M. Gazette had come into being. In those old volumes were recorded the day to day happenings of north-west India and the world at large. These bound copies were treasured by Nikka Singh as though they were the sacred writing of the Khalsa. The days had gone when the old man could lift them down, but he and I spent many hours together looking for Kipling turn-overs, most of which we thought we recognised by the style. Some had R.K. beneath them.
In the 'twenties the aged Nikka Singh had only a hazy idea of the young bespectacled assistant editor who worked on the C. and M. Gazette in the far off eighties. To him Kipling was only another young English sahib who had come and gone during his long service with the journal. He remembered him as a sahib who wrote and wrote, was kharab misaij (bad tempered), threw things about and was all over ink, Nikka Singh would say. Ink on his clothes. Ink on his desk. Ink on the floor. Sab siyahi (all ink). Nikka Singh spoke good English but often relapsed into Urdu — the esperanto of the sub-continent. According to Nikka Singh, Kipling had a very large ink pot which he insisted must always be filled to the brim. In this inkpot he plunged his pen, shook the surplus on to the floor and then scratched and scratched away. An offending sentence or paragraph he struck out with a brush loaded with ink. Such was the eccentricity of the genius who must commit his thought to paper at the earliest possible moment, to make room for more. Thus with a brush he irrevocably dismissed an unwanted sentence from his mind. One can see the vast bushy eyebrows, the thick glasses, the forehead wrinkled in concentration as the ink flowed and the pen raced. To interrupt him, so Nikka Singh would say, was to see a book or a paperweight flying through the air. The old Sikh would smile at the memory of his contact with the inky genius as he paved his way to fame in the old grey bungalow next door. The bungalow, in the 'twenties, had been given up to the sale of ' T ' model Ford cars, and soon was to vanish and be replaced with shop windows and two stories of flats and offices above.