RogerBW's Blog

Kim, Rudyard Kipling 18 December 2014

1901: an orphaned Irish boy, growing up on the streets of Lahore, puts his natural talents to better use.

This is a book that gives the reader a little bit of everything. It's a coming-of-age novel; it's a travelogue of the people and customs of British India; it's an adventurous tale of espionage; it's a parable of the search for enlightenment.

Kim encounters a wandering Tibetan lama, and attaches himself to him as his disciple, standing guard between this innocent man and the world that Kim knows all too well. They travel together, and the Pashtun horse-trader who knows Kim asks him to do him a favour by delivering a copy of the pedigree of a mareā€¦

In the end there are three great pulls on Kim: the life on the road with his lama, the pleasure of spycraft, and the pressure to accept his heritage (proved via an amulet entirely as magical as it ought to be) and become fully a Sahib. As he considers all of them, the reader is treated to picaresque incidents through India and into the Himalayas.

Some accuse Kipling of stereotyping, but I think he's more subtle than that. Yes, the Babu is every upstart Bengali who came up against the Raj, made a bid to be taken seriously by it, and failed; but he is also every smart Bengali who learned to play the role of that upstart, to put the Sahibs off their guard and bolster their sense of superiority. The Kulu woman is a chattery old thing, but also the anchor of her family who chatters because she wants to, and she's finally in control of her life having spent most of it effectively being someone else's servant. The British rule of the country is not a thing to be praised or criticised; it is simply there, and people must do what they can to live in reality. If one reads the book itself, rather than what one has been led to expect to find there, it's all rather less black-and-white than modern critics like to paint Kipling.

It's not perfect, I suppose; some modern readers may find the pace a little slow. If you object to words like "Orientals" and "Asiatics", and a feeling that for the most part they are Not Entirely Like Us, you will object to this book. But there is also a great love, sometimes tolerant, usually wholehearted, for India, the land, the cultures, and the people. Somewhere on a dusty road, I like to think, there is a boy still wandering with his lama.

Text available from Project Gutenberg among other sources.

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