Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” was published in 1888, and its origins are, sadly, autobiographical. It tells of young siblings Punch and Judy, who live a happy, near-carefree life in India with their young, loving parents—until it’s time to go Home.
First the idea of going Home must be introduced. Neither Punch nor Judy (several years younger) really understands—and certainly they don’t understand they will be left there. The story is told from Punch’s perspective, and he doesn’t really understand “Mamma’s passionate appeal to him never to let Judy forget Mamma,” though he promises to do his best on this front. When Papa and Mamma have actually left the two children at Downe Lodge, the foster home where they will spend the next several years, Punch and Judy are bereft.
When a matured man discovers that he has been deserted by Providence, deprived of his God, and cast, without help, comfort, or sympathy, upon a world which is new and strange to him, his despair, which may find expression in evil-living, the writing of his experiences, or the more satisfactory diversion of suicide, is generally supposed to be impressive. A child, under exactly similar circumstances as far as its knowledge goes, cannot very well curse God and die. It howls till its nose is red, its eyes are sore, and its head aches. Punch and Judy, through no fault of their own, had lost all their world. They sat in the hall and cried; the black-haired boy looking on from afar.
Claire, who is young and impressionable—and easier to forget Mamma—quickly becomes a favorite of foster mother Aunty Rosa, who frankly despises Punch and makes him into a household scapegoat. The formerly spoiled young Sahib now finds himself caned for no offense at all, berated with Aunty Rosa’s twisted religion, known as “Black Sheep” in the household, and, over time, convinced that even his parents will hate him and punish him when they finally return. After Uncle Harry, his foster father and the fairer of the two guardians, dies, Punch’s despair is complete—even as Judy spends her time with the family of the house, sitting on Auntie Rosa’s lap to have her hair brushed.
As time went on and the memory of Pap and Mamma became wholly overlaid by the unpleasant task of writing them letters, under Aunty Rosa’s eye, each Sunday, Black Sheep forgot what manner of life he had led in the beginning of things. Even Judy’s appeals to “try and remember about Bombay” failed to quicken him.
When Punch’s mother does arrive years later she sees right away what has happened. When “she drew him to her again…[h]e came awkwardly, with many angles. ‘Not used to petting,’ said the quick Mother-soul. ‘The girl is.’” Later, at bedtime:
“Oh, my son—my little, little son! It was my fault—my fault, darling—and yet how could we help it? Forgive me, Punch.” The voice died out in a broken whisper, and two hot tears fell on Black Sheep’s forehead.
“Hush, Punch, hush! My boy, don’t talk like that. Try to love me a little bit—a little bit. You don’t know how I want it. Punch-baba, come back to me! I am your Mother—your own Mother—and never mind the rest. I know—yes, I know, dear. It doesn’t matter now. Punch, won’t you care for me a little?”
But once away from Aunty Rosa, life improves so quickly for Punch and Judy. Punch’s Mamma is right when she writes his father that she “shall win Punch to [her] before long.” But the horror of “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” isn’t in the beatings or the exquisite psychological torture practiced on poor Punch. The narrator, at the end of the story, contradicts Punch’s claim that it’s “as if she had never gone.”
Not altogether, O Punch, for when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge; though it may turn darkened eyes for a while to the light, and teach Faith where no Faith was.
This is also the message Gardam has adopted for Filth. Nothing—not even the resolution of the mystery that absolves Filth of a foolish childhood guilty, not the love of a woman who stays with him until death, not the care of a friend who would never let harm come to him—nothing stops Filth’s fear or his dread of being alone.