[November 29, 2018] Like many of my generation, I grew up hearing the phrase, ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!’ It comes from the 1890 poem by Rudyard Kipling; written from the point of view of an English soldier in India. Understanding the poem means the reader has learned that the character of a person is not determine by his status in life.
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
The poem is about an Indian water-bearer (a low-status Bhishti) who saves the soldier’s life but is soon shot and killed. In the final three lines of the poem, the British soldier regrets the abuse he dealt to Din and admits that Din is the better man of the two.1
“Gunga Din” is named after the Indian, portraying him as a heroic character that is not afraid to face danger on the battlefield as he tends to wounded men. The English soldiers who order Din around and beat him for not bringing them water fast enough are presented as being callous and shallow, and ultimately inferior to him.
Of course, many have seen the 1939 movie, Gunga Din starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks. Darn good movie. It reminded me of Kipling’s poem, which I occasionally go back and read; mostly for nostalgia but also to again experience his brilliant poem. You can find Rudyard Kipling’s poem at this link and it only takes a minute to read.
Whenever I tell someone ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!’ it’s a compliment. It will always be a compliment because it is referring to Din, an Indian Bhishti of unexpected character and bravery. So, the next time someone refers to you using this phrase, thank them for the compliment and their insight.