The English Subaltern and the Indian Colonial: Cultural Hybridity in Kipling’s “To Be Filed For Reference”


The English Subaltern and the Indian Colonial: Cultural Hybridity in Kipling’s “To Be Filed For Reference”

Julie Teasdale
Published by the PIT Journal: 


The frame of Kipling's short story "To Be Filed For Reference" is a question of belonging, of homeland, and of cultural identity. Emphasizing parallels between Kipling and Jellaludin, the Anglo-Indian protagonist, this essay considers Kipling's illustration of the English absorption of Indian culture, as he wonders whether that absorption is healthy or deadly, and questions where one finds belonging when one no longer fully belongs in either of one's homelands.


The absence of home, the lack of a national identity, the inability to speak and be understood: these are the thematic concerns in Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “To Be Filed For Reference.”  The main character, Jellaludin, is a well-educated Englishman who lives in the Caravanserai with his indigenous Indian wife; he has been assimilated into Indian subaltern culture.  The narrator, also an Englishman, views Indian culture with suspicion; he admires Jellaludin’s knowledge of, but resists the prospect of becoming absorbed into, India. The ideology in the text is difficult to determine because the similarities between Jellaludin and Kipling himself are inescapable.  The text indicates Kipling’s own cultural confusion, uncertainty about his internalization of Indian culture, and—paradoxically—ambivalence about colonialism in India.

Like Jellaludin, Kipling was a migrant and often a minority.  He spent part of his childhood in India and much of his youth in England, but he loved—and certainly preferred—to be in India.  His autobiographical writings indicate that when he returns to India, he soon begins to think of himself as Anglo-Indian, and he writes, “My English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength” (Cornell 44).  Like Jellaludin, he loved literature and tobacco—symbols, respectively, of England and India.  In the character of Jellaludin, Kipling frames the uncertain interaction of India’s past and present: Jellaludin, once an Oxford scholar, now lives as a subaltern.  And he does so by choice, mocking the English narrator who now lives as he once did.   Thus, in Jellaludin’s character, one senses Kipling’s own cultural uncertainty; like Jellaludin, Kipling exists in a liminal space between cultures.  As in much of his fiction, he “attempts to organize centers of chaos […] into contained narratives of Anglo-Indian life, and it is important to bear in mind that his fiction is simultaneously haunted by the very fears he attempts to exorcise” (Arondekar 85).  For though Kipling desires to penetrate the mysteries of the East, he believes that to do so is to suffer degradation and even death.  The ambiguity of attitudes and relationships in “To Be Filed For Reference” supports the hypothesis that Kipling writes the character of Jellaludin from his own perspective, experiencing the same level of confused cultural plurality that his character does.  Kipling and Jellaludin search for an ideal homeland, but they are irreversibly influenced by both England and India, and fully accepted by neither.

To the narrator, the allure of India represents the psyche’s destruction—the most caliginous, destructive and unacceptable of human desires.   In the narrator and Jellaludin’s first meeting, Jellaludin, though inebriated and barely coherent, immediately exhibits a level of education that parallels Kipling’s, making reference to distant regions of India and claiming that his drinking habit is quite as bad as that of Ovid in exile.  At one time, Jellaludin was the quintessential Oxford man; now, he is an alcoholic.  The text suggests that Indian culture is complicit in Jellaludin’s deterioration.  Jellaludin acknowledges the progression, saying, “My soul was among the Gods; but my bestial body was writhing down here in the garbage,” to which the narrator responds, “You were abominably drunk, if that’s what you mean” (334).  The narrator disdains Jellaludin’s assimilation and blames India for his downfall, explaining that when someone “begins to sink in India, and is not sent Home by his friends as soon as may be, he falls very low from a respectable point of view” (327).  Clearly the narrator is aware of, and in agreement with, the colonial episteme.  Jellaludin seems to agree as well, if only occasionally: the narrator says, “when he was beginning to get sober, he told me that I was the only rational being in the Inferno into which he had descended—a Virgil in the shades, he said” (330).  Thus is Jellaludin’s uncertainty: India is the Inferno, yet it is India he chooses.

If we accept the narrator’s judgment that Indians, or Anglo-Indians like Jellaludin, are inferior and degenerate, and if we apply it to the rest of “To Be Filed For Reference,” the question becomes whether the narrator’s views reflect Kipling’s, or whether Kipling, as a twenty-one year old author, identifies with Jellaludin, whose identity lies somewhere between that of an imperialist and that of a subaltern. Jellaludin cannot place himself within the cultural hierarchy of colonial biological determinism.  He claims, in his assimilation, to have killed his conscience and yet compares himself to deity, saying, “On the Soul which I have lost and the Conscience which I have killed, I tell you that I cannot feel! I am as the Gods, knowing good and evil, but untouched by either” (331).   Jellaludin and Kipling embody two cultures: they represent colonial authority simply by their nationality, and yet both reject that nationality, choosing India even if that means marginalization.  Postcolonial literary theorist Homi K. Bhabha writes the following:

If India is the metaphoric equivalence, authorizing the appropriation and naturalization of other cultures, then India is also the repetitive process of metonymy recognized only in its remnants that are, at once, the signs of disturbance and the supports of colonial authority […] if India is the seed of life, then India is a monument to death.  India is the perpetual generation of a past-present which is the disturbing, uncertain time of the colonial intervention and the ambivalent truth of its enunciation. (Bhabha 130)

The characters of “To Be Filed For Reference” occupy three cultural spaces: the colonial, the hybrid, and the subaltern.  The English narrator, who represents the colonial class, despises Jellaludin, but interestingly the narrator is also marginalized, forbidden a place in subaltern Indian culture.  Jellaludin observes that the narrator’s classical attainments are not lacking, and yet he says, “You are—forgive my saying so even while I am smoking your excellent tobacco—painfully ignorant of many things” (328).  The narrator’s tobacco is admitted to Jellaludin’s house, and metaphorically to India itself, but nothing else.  He is an “other,” unaccepted in the cultural space of the subaltern’s India.

Jellaludin, who represents the Anglo-Indian hybrid, marginalizes his Indian subaltern wife.  When the three characters eat together, the narrator notices that Jellaludin’s wife dips her hand into the dish when they do, and observes that this is wrong (2).  Jellaludin apologizes, explaining that he only married her for her culinary skill and fidelity.   He says, “I would introduce you to my wife were I sober—or she civilized” (327). Throughout the text, she remains unnamed and does not speak.  She is a subaltern as well as a woman subjected to Indian gender expectations, and her roles, in subservience to imperialist and patriarchal ideals, define her.

The narrator views Jellaludin as inferior, saying, “I did not like to be patronized by a loafer” (329).  However, there is an unusual dimension to the normative colonial social structure: the narrator despises, but also admires, Jellaludin’s cultural hybridity.  He says Jellaludin “had his hand on the pulse of native life […] as an Oxford man, he struck me as a prig; he was always throwing his education about.  As a Mohammedan faquir—as McIntosh Jellaludin—he was all that I wanted for my own ends” (332).  The Englishman wants to exploit Jellaludin’s absorption of India for his ‘own ends’, which he never reveals; the narrator, and perhaps Kipling as well, thus hint at the mysterious allure of India—even the India absorbed by a loafer.  Because Jellaludin, as a hybrid, does not fall into ordinary social divisions, any story that incorporates his character “disavows the metonymy of the colonial moment, because its narrative of ambivalent, hybrid, cultural knowledges—neither ‘one’ nor ‘other’—is ethnocentrically eluded in the search for cultural commensurability” (Bhabha 127).  The narrator and Jellaludin despise one another, certainly.  But Jellaludin, with his indigenous Indian wife and drunken allusions to Latin and English poetry, inexplicably seems to have the better life, or at least the life Kipling understands.

Finally, the main support for the hypothesis that Kipling writes the character of Jellaludin from his own experience is in the transaction at the end of “To Be Filed For Reference.”  As Jellaludin dies, he gives his beloved collection of writings to the narrator, and says, “Do your mangling gently—very gently.  It is a great work, and I have paid for it in seven years’ damnation” (335).  The narrator leafs through the work, which is very large, but he neither understands nor attempts to publish it, calling it a “hopeless muddle” (335).   He says, “some may remember this story, now printed as a safeguard to prove that McIntosh Jellaludin and not I myself wrote the book of Mother Maturin” (336).   Rudyard Kipling, like Jellaludin, labored for years on a magnum opus of his experiences in India: a book that, like Jellaludin’s, was called ‘The Book Of Mother Maturin’ and was also never published (Cornell 86). The text suggests that the narrator’s inability to understand Jellaludin’s blend of Indian and English discourse precludes his appreciation of an excellent work. 

Kipling seems to suggest that appreciation of these books that he and Jellaludin have written requires a linguistic and cultural understanding of India from an Indian, or perhaps even Anglo-Indian, perspective.  As artists, they must “compel and compose: to compel the actual reader by composing an ideal one, to prescribe the subjective conditions of ‘seeing’” (Mulhern 251).  If Kipling and Jellaludin are imperialist-subaltern hybrids, trapped between the English and the Indian frames of reference, then they cannot create conditions by which their books can be understood.  Their voices are a blend of cultures that influence them but do not allow them to speak.  Furthermore, as Jellaludin complains, a translation cannot capture the essential meaning of language.  Homi Bhabha writes,

Language baffles the communicable verities of culture with their refusal to translate […] It is from an uncertain invitation to interpret […] that the echo of another significant question can be dimly heard, Lacan’s question of the alienation of the subject in the Other: ‘He is saying this to me, but what does he want?” (124). 

‘The Book Of Mother Maturin’—both Jellaludin’s and Kipling’s—lacks an adequate linguistic medium, and therefore is simply ‘filed for reference,’ unpublished and marginalized.

 “To Be Filed For Reference” is an expression of the attempt to understand the dynamics of one’s belonging, especially when a homeland, and home language, are absent.  Kipling and Jellaludin can claim neither England nor India, for though their hybridity allows them to live in both lands, they can no longer fully belong to either.  Just as Jellaludin is no longer an “Oxford Man,” Kipling is no longer fully an Englishman, but neither is he Indian.  Both men, like their respective books, are a syncretism of languages and cultures that are mutually exclusive.  Their ideal homeland, therefore, does not, and cannot, exist.



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Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 127-130. Print.

Cornell, Louis L. Kipling in India. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966.  44. Print.

Kipling, Rudyard.  “To Be Filed For Reference.”  Plain Tales From The Hills. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1994.  325-336. Print.

Mulhern, Francis. “English Reading.” Nation and Narration.  Ed. Homi K. Bhabha.  London: Routledge, 1990.  250-264. Print.

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Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory. Ed. Patrick Williams. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 132-149. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri C. “Can The Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory. Ed. Patrick Williams. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 66-105. Print.

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