The poem is told by a British soldier; he is expressing admiration for a native water-bearer who loses his life not long after he saves the soldier's.
The soldier tells his audience that they might talk about beer and gin while they are stationed out here, and partake in small fights, but they can only lick the boots of "'im that's got it". In India's sunny land where he served England, the finest of the "blackfaced" crew was Gunga Din, a regimental bhisti (water-carrier). Everyone always ordered him to get them water and called him names, such as "You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din!"
His uniform was nothing much to speak of, and his only field equipment was a goatskin water-bag and a rag. When the soldiers would lie about in the heat, sweating, they would call out "O brother" to Din, and call him a heathen, asking him where he had been and threatening to hit him unless he filled up their water bottles quickly.
He did not seem to know fear; whenever the soldiers fought, he would be fifty paces behind with his water-skin on his back. He would wait for them until they were allowed to retire. The soldier muses that despite Gunga Din's dirty skin, he was white on the inside, especially when he went to tend the wounded after they had been fired upon. The men called out "Din!" "Din!" when the carriages ran out, and called for "ammunition mules" and Gunga Din.
The soldier says he can never forget the night when he was struck with a bullet and was "chokin' mad with thirst". Gunga Din, grinning and grunting, was the first to find him. He lifted up the soldier's head and staunched his wound and gave him the only water he had, even though it was green and slimy. This was still the best drink the soldier had ever tasted. He remembered his words – there was a man with a bullet in his spleen groveling on the ground, and "For Gawd's sake git the water, Gunga Din!"
Gunga Din carried him away, but the native was struck with a bullet. Right before he died he got the soldier inside and said he hoped he had enjoyed his drink. The soldier comments that he will meet Gunga Din in the future, in the same place where he squatted on the coals and gave drinks to "poor damned souls". He will get a swig in Hell from the native, and, he concludes, Gunga Din is a better man than he.
This poem, included in Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses, is one of Kipling’s most popular verses. It is written in the same cockney dialect as “Tommy”, “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”, “Danny Deever”, and others. It consists of five stanzas with rhyming lines. There is a lot of dialogue, as Kipling includes the words that the soldiers would shout out to Gunga Din. The name of the poem is familiar to many readers because of the 1939 film about three British soldiers (two of them played by Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and their water-carrier fighting a malicious band of Thuggee Indians. It is also the name of a song by The Byrds and the inspiration for an episode of the TV show “Mr. Magoo”.
The poem details the respect and admiration for a bhishti water-carrier on the part of a British soldier. A bhishti is the traditional water-carrier of South Asia, including India; they usually carry their water in a goatskin bag. It is rather interesting that Kipling expresses such blatant admiration for this figure, even going to the lengths of titling the poem after him, because it is common to ascribe to Kipling only the beliefs about "Oriental" peoples as found in the noxious "White Man's Burden". Indeed, Kipling's views on native peoples are complicated; even though there is clearly racism at play in this poem and in "The Ballad of East and West", there is also a frank portrayal of admiration.
The poem's speaker describes Gunga Din in a very racist way: the native comes from a "blackfaced crew" and is a "squidgy-nosed old idol". He is a "'eathen" who is simple and stupid – a "good, grinnin', gruntin' Gunga Din". This is a very disturbing portrait. However, the British soldiers are also depicted in an unflattering light. They are loud and coarse, full of insults and threats. They rely on Gunga Din for the basest sustenance, but cannot help but yell and mock, albeit in a (mostly) good-natured fashion. Using the traditional sense of black and white as depicting good and evil, Kipling uses Din's portrayal of blackness to contrast with his inner virtue: "'E was white, clear white, inside", which can be taken as both an insult to the members of Din's race, whose blackness signifies evil, and the narrator's fellow men for the low behavior that negates their own whiteness. At the close of the poem the narrator suggests both Din and the soldiers are doomed to hell.
The speaker of the poem owes Gunga Din for much more than just the normal sips of water, however; he is carried out of harm's way by the native and thus owes him his life. Unfortunately the native's heroic act is his last, for "a bullet came an' drilled the beggar clean". The soldier is very grateful to Gunga Din and ends the last stanza of the poem by proclaiming him a "better man than I am, Gunga Din!" Again, the poem is complicated by the reality of imperialism and the overtones of racism, but the soldier's tribute to the man who saved his life is touching nonetheless.