The Rupaiyat of Omar Kalvin… a clever parody

Sir Auckland Colvin, KCSI KCMG CIE (1838–1908), was a British administrator in India and Egypt, who made his reputation while working in Turkey where he was regarded almost as powerful as the Caliph. He is also credited with having started the Colvin Taluqdars’ College in Lucknow which developed into one of the most prestigious public schools in India. (See there is a Lucknow link after all. Not only is the college next to where our current home is, it aslso happens to the one of those where my father studied). However, lets return to Sir Auckland.

When Lord Cromer became British agent in Egypt, Colvin succeeded him as financial member of the Viceroy’s council in India in Aug 1883. Financial difficulties faced him. The war in Upper Burma and the danger of hostilities with Russia, consequent upon the Panjdeh incident, were not only costly in themselves, but were followed by great capital outlay on improving the strategic position on the north-west frontier, and by increases of the British and native armies. With Sir Courtenay Ilbert, then legal member, Colvin minuted against this increase, and after retirement he complained that the military element in the council was disproportionately strong. The finances were also disturbed by the continued decline in the sterling value of the rupee, while suggestions made by the Governor-General in council, at Colvin’s instance, for seeking an international acceptance of bimetallism were treated by the cabinet at home with scant respect, or as Colvin thought

Although he caused a committee to be appointed under Sir Charles Elliott to recommend economies, he was compelled not only to suspend the Famine Insurance Fund, and to take toll of the provincial governments, but to increase taxation. In January 1886 he converted some annual licence duties in certain provinces into a general tax on non-agricultural incomes in excess of Rs. 500 per annum. This unpopular proceeding was immortalised by that indefatigible chronicler of all facets of the British Raj in India – Rudyard Kipling.

The Rupaiyat of Omar Kalvin, in Kipling’s Departmental Ditties, is a clever parody of Omar Khayyam’s immortal Rubaiyat, which represents  Colvin as plying the begging-bowl among his European countrymen.  Parody is not an easy art, since it calls for a capacity for dextrous improvisation which is not an easy task, not easy at all.

The Rupaiyat will be best enjoyed by those who have read the Rubaiyat….. and to those who have not, well, all I can say is “My sincerest condolences”…….. It is the mark of its relevance that it transcends from being an account of a hapless Victorian era administrator scrabbling around for funds to being something anyone who has to juggle around to make budgets – personal, household or official – will well appreciate….

Well here it is…..

Now the New Year, reviving last Year’s Debt,
The Thoughtful Fisher casteth wide his Net;
  So I with begging Dish and ready Tongue
Assail all Men for all that I can get.

Imports indeed are gone with all their Dues —
Lo! Salt a Lever that I dare not use,
  Nor may I ask the Tillers in Bengal —
Surely my Kith and Kin will not refuse!

Pay — and I promise by the Dust of Spring,
Retrenchment.  If my promises can bring
  Comfort, Ye have Them now a thousandfold —
By Allah! I will promise Anything!

Indeed, indeed, Retrenchment oft before
I sore — but did I mean it when I swore?
  And then, and then, We wandered to the Hills,
And so the Little Less became Much More.

Whether a Boileaugunge or Babylon,
I know not how the wretched Thing is done,
  The Items of Receipt grow surely small;
The Items of Expense mount one by one.

I cannot help it. What have I to do
With One and Five, or Four, or Three, or Two?
  Let Scribes spit Blood and Sulphur as they please,
Or Statesmen call me foolish — Heed not you.

Behold, I promise — Anything You will.
Behold, I greet you with an empty Till —
  Ah! Fellow-Sinners, of your Charity
Seek not the Reason of the Dearth, but fill.

For if I sinned and fell, where lies the Gain
Of Knowledge? Would it ease you of your Pain
  To know the tangled Threads of Revenue,
I ravel deeper in a hopeless Skein?

“Who hath not Prudence” — what was it I said,
Of Her who paints her Eyes and tires Her Head,
  And gibes and mocks and People in the Street,
And fawns upon them for Her thriftless Bread?

Accursed is She of Eve’s daughters — She
Hath cast off Prudence, and Her End shall be
  Destruction . . . Brethren, of your Bounty
Some portion of your daily Bread to Me.



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