Kim is a story born of its author’s deep love for, and understanding of, the land of his birth. Kipling was born in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in 1865, the son of a British expatriate. The novel is often called a “picaresque spy story,” as its plot is episodic, like that of Don Quixote, with unconnected self-contained episodes creating a sense of plotlessness. In fact, in Kim the sequence of events that outline the plot is subordinated to rich characterization and leisurely descriptions of landscapes and native customs which can seem pointless digressions to the impatient modern reader. Kim’s story begins with his decision to accompany his friend and mentor, an elderly Tibetan lama on a spiritual mission. The lama, whom Kim deeply respects, has come down from the mountains to find a sacred river to free himself from the ‘Wheel of Things,’ the Buddhist belief that all humanity is caught up in an unending cycle of death and rebirth. Kim is free to wander with him: tanned by the sun, he looks like a native, but is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier and a poor white mother, and is thus technically British. A shrewd judge of character and imperturbably good-humoured, he has eked out a precarious hand-to-mouth existence in the slums of Lahore by artful dissembling, a glib tongue, a talent for disguise, and cunning sleight of hand. Although at first he denies it, he is, like Saroo above, caught between two cultures. When Kim’s friend the Arab horse-dealer Mahbub Ali asks him “Who are thy people?” Kim answers “This great and beautiful land.” Later, he hotly denies that he is Kimball O’Hara: “I am not a sahib!” Yet deep within himself, he ponders the existential question, “Who is Kim…Kim…Kim?” When the opportunity arises to abandon the lama and avail himself of the opportunity to obtain a private British education free of charge, he embraces it. When he has acquitted himself well there, he is successfully employed by agents of the Crown as a spy in what Kipling calls ‘the great game’ played between two great imperial powers: Britain and Russia, the latter mistakenly believed at the time to have designs on India, the ‘jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown.’ All of Kim’s past experience qualifies him as the master spy he becomes, and, in the end, he rejoins the lama to share in his rejoicing at a personal discovery.
How relevant is Kipling’s story today? This is a fair question, and one which cannot be dismissed merely by an appeal to the authority of the past. It is a canonical work nevertheless, and a reward, as most classics are, to those with the persistence and imaginative wisdom to see it as more than a product of the past, as Shakespeare’s works are, but also as a novel blessed by a great all-embracing romantic sweep containing the majesty of deeply poetic language. The sympathetic reader can recognize Kim as a love letter to India, and a tribute to the industriousness, respect for learning, family and the elderly, to the persistence, the stoicism born of a trusting fatalism, and the deep faith and vitality of the Indian people themselves, in all of their magnificent variety.
“Native police,” says Kipling in Kim, “mean extortion to the native all India over.” A devout Hindu guide I spoke to in Delhi, told me recently, “Centuries of oppression by Moghul invaders are not as bad as the 70 years of corruption done by our corrupt politicians since independence.” Minutes later, a policeman stopped the vehicle in which we were travelling. The policeman, whose colleague wore a bandanna across her face to protect her identity, gave our driver a ticket, which my wife photographed. The driver’s offences are alleged to have been “1. Without rear reflector” and “2. Without Knowledge of Traffic Rule.” No specific details are given. The reflectors were intact. No traffic rules were broken. The fine is 500 rupees. There is no appeal. Our careful driver shrugged philosophically. It has happened to him several times. What can you do but pay? What, indeed?