Initial reading of Rudyard Kipling’s “Overland Mail” presents itself as a quintessential embodiment of British imperialism with its repeated eulogies for the English Queen and the overland mail. Peter Keating has described “The Overland Mail” as “Kipling’s most unashamedly joyful endorsements of imperial endeavour, with the postal activity offered as a microcosm of the far-flung Empire” (Keating, 1994, p. 21). The poem describes the advent of the postal service in India but it is more than that.
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Many believe that “The Overland Mail” does not simply describe the advent of the postal system in India but presents Kipling’s joyous endorsement of the imperial endeavour. The object of the poem is the definitive extoling of the British Queen who is seen as the vehicle of advancement and modernity in India, which is described as a “Jungle”.
Such direct degradation of the native land in the face of imperialism by an Indian writer has often been criticised, and Kipling has historically been considered as a colonial writer ingratiating the colonial rule. However, reading into postcolonial literary theory shows that the texts written during colonial rule, which were considered as strictly imperialistic in nature, may be described in a different light. Thus, this description of the poem clearly presents an idea setting for reading the poem as a study of Orientalism.
However, Homi Bhabha’s insight into cultural difference and diversity shows that the poem may be infused with greater ambivalence than Keating is ready to acknowledge. In this essay, I posit that the earlier readings of Kipling’s works are myopic in their understanding as they are influenced mostly by the ideals of nationalism; however, contemporary postcolonial theories points at the influence of the difference and diversity of nationalism and creates a third space where the differences submerge to form a new culture.
Contemporary postcolonial work by Homi Bhabha points out “all recognize that the problem of the cultural emerges only at the significatory boundaries of cultures, where means and values are (mis)read or signs are misappropriated” (1990, p. 206). In other words, Bhabha stresses on the importance of examining the boundaries between cultures where they meet when he talks of the “difference” and “diversity” of cultures (1990, p. 206). Cultural differences between cultures become apparent when two or more diverging cultures meet and that is when the boundaries between the cultures must be examined.
The boundaries are the representation of the cultural differences and are the place where most of the problems pertaining to cultural difference arise. Misunderstanding arises through various cultural signs and signifiers between two colliding and different cultures. According to Bhabha, the point where the problem arises is what he terms as the “Third Space” where it is essential for the subalterns to look at ourselves and the others in order to overcome the problems (1990, p. 208).
Bhabha points out that “it is that Third Space, though unrepresentable in itself, which constitutes the discursive conditions of enunciation that ensure that the meanings and symbols of culture have no primordial unity or fixity; that even the same signs can be appropriated, translated, rehistoricized and read anew” (1990, p. 208). Clearly, the postcolonial theory presented by Bhabha points out that it is in this space that we need to look beyond the cultural and language discourse of nationalism in order to explore broader aspects of cultural difference and diversity.
In “Overland Mail”, Kipling presents the third space between the two differing cultures – British and Indian. Kipling sets a physical dominion of this difference through the emergence of the overland mail in India, which is a land set, the rules of the Jungles. The invasion of modernity into the lives of the “exiles”, awaiting the arrival of letters from “Home”, is described in the poem (Kipling, 2012, p. 1778). He describes the Indians as the recognizable other who are reformed by the intervention of the colonial rule.
In the poem, Kipling tells the story of the postal service introduced in India by the colonial ruler where the colonial prowess over the subcontinent is indicated implicitly and not overtly. The environment created by Kipling creates a surrounding that directly presents the aura of he colonial power existent in the country. The poem describes the inhabitants of India as being exiled and requests the robbers and the “Lords of the Jungle” to make way for the mail bearers to deliver the long awaited letters from Home safely.
The mail runner, described in the poem as one with “soft-sandaled feet” and “brawny brown chest”, represents the colonial postal system and the native Indians, for he is stereotypically described with brown skin. Here Kipling shows the runner as an Indian with “brown” skin, who is evidently strong and knows his way around the Jungle. This “runner” is the collision line between the two cultures where the differences become apparent. The description of the “runner” who is described by Kipling as an Indian is evidently one with brown skin and muscular strong features.
The description of the runner offered by Kipling is representative of the prevalent stereotypical description of the Indians by the colonial rulers. The poem describes the runner’s prowess in face of natural adversities. He is shown as an indomitable representation of the postal system that must continue his commitment to his duties as a runner even when he faces torrential rain or tempest:
Is the torrent in spate? He must ford it or swim.
Has the rain wrecked the road? He must climb by the cliff.
Does the tempest cry halt? What are tempests to him?
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The service admits not a “but” or an “if.”
While the breaths in his mouth, he must bear without fail,
In the Name of the Empress, the Overland Mail. (Kipling, 2012, p. 1778)
In the very beginning of the poem the description of the dusk falling in the second stanza describing the Indian landscape, the Indian runner receives the mail from the railway and embarks on his hazardous journey on foot. The image of the Indian terrain created in the very first stanza is that of a Jungle and the infestation of wild animals and delinquent robbers running amok in them.
However, the poet dutifully warns the wild animals and robbers to make way for the representative of the Majesty’s postal service to be delivered “In the name of the Empress”. Thus, India is described as a land infested with many difficulties for the mail service, a sign of modernity and prosperity, laid down by the British Queen. The runner’s way becomes even more difficult as he embarks on his task of delivering the mails. The third stanza, quoted above, presents the various natural hazards that replete the path of the runner.
Thus, Kipling describes the Indian climate as hazardous and malignant. The higher the runner advances, the more precarious his path becomes. However, nature becomes servile when the runner reaches his destination in the hill station in the last stanza. Thus, Kipling describes India as a dangerous, unruly land until the runner reaches the hill station. The description of the land directly points at the comparison of the orient as the dark, sinister, untamed land whereas the western culture is all brightness.
In the description of the landscape of the Indian terrain, Kipling makes a clear demarcation of the hostile lands in the beginning but the sunny arid air of the hills. According to Bhabha’s postcolonial theory, there is no “pure” culture and there is no superior culture. Thus, the land described in the poem is definitively not restricted to one particular culture, rather, represents an amalgamation of the colonial and the native cultures. “The Overland Mail” creates a perfect assimilation of the native and the colonial culture.
An Indian runner who toiled the adversities of the native terrain to deliver the mails to the hills ran the British postal mail that ran “In the Name of the Majesty”. Again the description of two form of landscape – the treacherous landscape as the runner begins his journey and his eventual destination of the calm and sunny hills. The amalgamation of the two landscapes shows the merging of the colonial and the native, and creation of the Third Space, as described by Bhabha.
Thus, the differences that Bhabha predicts when two cultures clash i.e. the postal service representative of the colonial British rule and the native Indian terrain creates a lot of problems for the runner, who is the point of collision, or the Third Space in the poem. The runner eventually overcomes the problems of cultural difference and creates an environment of cultural diversity through merging of the two cultures. Thus, “The Overland Mail” should not be read as a joyous representation of orientalism as described by Peter Keating, but rather, should be read as a poem that embraces cultural diversity within the colonial rule in India.
Bhabha, H. K. (1990). Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences. In B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths, & H. Tiffin, The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (pp. 206-209). New York: Routledge.
Keating, P. J. (1994). Kipling the Poet. London: Secker & Warburg.
Kipling, R. (2012). The Overland Mail. In R. Kipling, The Collected Verse of Rudyard Kipling (p. 1778). NA: Digireads.com Publishing.