Trying to get your hands on Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’, to wrestle the characters and the novel itself is a challenge, though not an unpleasurable one. To be taken back to a time of adventure, of swashbuckling daring, of mystical exoticism is seductive as it is thrilling. This however is coupled with a lurking presence of the military aggression of imperialism and the even darker belief in racial superiority. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked ‘Kim’ in the top 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century.
‘Kim’ tells the story of Kimball O’Hara, the orphaned son of an Irish soldier and a poor white mother who died in poverty. Set against the backdrop of British rule in India in the late nineteenth century, Kim lives his life as a native – never seeing any discontent between his British heritage and his Indian life. Within the first chapter he befriends a Tibetan Lama on a quest to find a legendary ‘River of Arrow’ and in doing so free himself from the Wheel of Life. In his typically boyish manner he becomes the Lama’s disciple, protecting and guiding him on his search. However, this soon comes into conflict with his initiation into the ‘Great Game’ of the British Secret Service and his own quest to find the meaning of a prophecy about his birth.
Kipling himself was born in Bombay under the British Raj. However, at the age of six, he and his three-year old sister Alice were taken to boarding schools in England. What followed was to Kipling 10 years of cruel and neglectful treatment until he was finally able to return to India at the age of 16, where he began his career as a journalist.
Upon initial reading ‘Kim’ feels very much like a “boy’s own” tale. I’ve read this book twice on multiple occasions and even now I am still swept up by Kipling’s breathlessly enthusiastic use of language. Kim’s joy for life, his total acceptance of the opportunities and differences within the world he inhabits, and his ceaseless energy are infectious. Despite the common perception of Kipling as the poster-boy of English Imperialism and superiority, his depiction of ‘oriental’ characters has far more depth and variety than anything allocated to the English. India is seen as a colourful, whirling mass of nationalities, languages, cultures and religions and Kim accepts and engages with all he finds. India is the living, breathing centre of all life. English culture, in comparison, is largely reduced to the Anglo-Indian schools of the British Raj, racist and ignorant Anglican priests and nameless faceless soldiers.
However, to claim that ‘Kim’ is as innocent as it first appears would be a lie. Travelling through Kipling’s fluent and even loving descriptions of the brilliance of Indian culture, the reader still finds ugly oddities of white superiority placed in the mouths of Indian characters. The blatant manipulation stares you down like a sly little demon. The Great Mutiny of 1857 is dismissed by one Indian soldier as ‘a madness’ as if ‘the single important, well-known and violent episode of the nineteenth-century Anglo-Indian relationship’ (Said) was merely a blimp in an otherwise harmonious partnership.
For all its faults there is something bittersweet in ‘Kim’. Its themes of life, love, identity and spirituality are expanded on through Kim’s philosophical search for his identity, the Lama’s conflict between the physical and spiritual world and the absent presence throughout the novel of Kim’s father. What the reader finds here, despite the assumptions of an Edwardian mind, is a touching and almost childish longing for a realisation of this Indian fantasy. A magical place where the beauty of India is protected and ensured through British rule with Indian co-operation. One does wonder if this was an India he dreamed of returning to whilst boarding in England. A fantastical though blinkered vision to silence a child’s loneliness.
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