Rudyard Kipling: Kim

First published: 1901

Book Review

Rudyard Kipling's Kim, innocent orphan child or devious Indian spy?

Let's say for the sake of argument that there are a number of ways of looking at this novel. Perhaps the most popular way is to look at it as Kipling's reflection of India, and in particular British India. Kipling was an imperialist and one with very firm beliefs. And although his attitudes and prejudices show themselves very clearly in his writings, Kim's story is still definitely not a work of British imperialist propaganda; on the contrary, it's a deliberately entertaining tale.

The boy, Kim, is the orphaned product of the marriage between an Irish colour-sergeant and a British military family's nursemaid. Kim's mother died from cholera and his father, who took up drinking and vagrancy, died too leaving the small boy in the care of a half-caste woman who spent her time intoxicated by opium. Consequently, speaking only a vernacular form of Punjabi, the child grows up as an orphaned urchin on the streets of Lahore. It's difficult not to think of certain elements of Kipling's own Bombay upbringing under the watchful gaze of his ayah, or nursemaid, and of his learning Hidustani as a boy when we read about how Kim came into the world. And Kim's world, as he is acutely aware, is an extremely strange one brimmed full of wonders. His playground is Lahore Museum and its sights and mysteries fill the tiny boy's mind with a combination of reverence and magic. Both of these things Kim will later find good uses for. At that time he is known throughout the city as 'the Friend to all the World.'

The boy prides himself on his knowledge of all the city's dark places, every nook, cranny, and hidden passage. It seems as though he loves them and they love him. And to earn a living each day Kim waits until after nightfall when he carries messages across the city either for certain shady people who for various nefarious reasons either can't or won't transport the messages themselves, or for fashionable young men to secluded and modest ladies. The intrigue excites him. He loves it, so he says, simply for its own sake. It doesn't take long for Kim's behaviours to come to the attention of Colonel Creighton, British India's spymaster general. After an unsuccessful attempt to have Kim educated at a military academy, the colonel sees enough promise in young Kim to ensure that he is taught the principles of the Great Game, which refers to the political rivalry between Britain and Russia for territory, influence and dominance in the Near East, especially in India and Afghanistan. In short, Kim becomes a British spy.

And yet, all throughout the story Kim searches for a curious combination of enlightenment at the hands of his beloved Tibetan lama, Teshoo, and worldly wisdom at the hands of several master spies including E23, Mahbub Ali, also known as Red Beard, and the colonel. And although Kim is already a master of disguise and secrecy long before he meets the colonel, it isn't until afterwards that he learns the harsh truth about what living as a colonial spy means. Kim learns all this from one of his Indian colleagues, codenamed E23, who is disguised as a Maharatta. E23 has escaped death many times. But his most recent brush with it has shaken him up and scarred him in the literal sense. E23, the more experienced spy, exhibits his badly cut neck to Kim and asks for some much needed healing. Kim obliges while chanting various incantations and mixing ad-hoc medicines from anything he can find. And while he doctors the sick man he learns about treachery, deceit and the often fatal risks involved in playing the Great Game. Kim asks his wounded teacher with some surprise if the government cannot intervene to protect an endangered spy and he gets told simply that in this profession, "if we die, we die and our names are blotted from the book. That is all." Kim seems to have little difficulty in accepting this somewhat fatalistic outlook. In fact he seems far more concerned about what his companions think of the new disguise that he has put the recently healed E23 into, the guise of a Hindu Saddhu. But, unfortunately, the healing, the incantations and the transformation in e23's appearance are all too much for one of Kim's simple-minded companions and the man decamps fearing that Kim might be tempted to try out some of that magic on him!

Having learned of the many dangers of spying, and witnessed both the cruelty and the treachery of the Great Game Kim is finally sent by Colonel Creighton on an important mission. The Russians have sent a group of their own spies into the Khyber Pass posing as geologists. Kim is sent to deliver a message to a British spy, Huree, who is keeping an eye on the enemy. But Kim arrives too late and Huree has already been killed. Having wormed his way into the Russian camp Kim remains there until he is detected almost by accident. Then a furious battle ensues from which Kim and his allies emerge victorious. Teshoo Lama dies though as a result of injuries sustained in the great battle and were it not so near the end of the story that we learn of the lama's death it might have enabled us to see how profound a change the loss of his spiritual guide makes on young Kim. In fact what we do is to meditate with Kim who seems unconcerned with the body of his beloved lama but is instead possessed by its soul. But we have barely two pages with Kim in this state and not nearly enough I believe to understand what the lama's death and his place in the dangerous world of the Great Game really means to him both now that he is alone, and in so many ways, now that he has become a man.

Review by Patrick Mackeown, April 2008

 

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