Saturday, October 12, 2013

Rudyard Kipling, Kim


Opening Passage:

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher—the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that 'fire-breathing dragon', hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot.

There was some justification for Kim—he had kicked Lala Dinanath's boy off the trunnions—since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white—a poor white of the very poorest. The half-caste woman who looked after him (she smoked opium, and pretended to keep a second-hand furniture shop by the square where the cheap cabs wait) told the missionaries that she was Kim's mother's sister; but his mother had been nursemaid in a Colonel's family and had married Kimball O'Hara, a young colour-sergeant of the Mavericks, an Irish regiment. He afterwards took a post on the Sind, Punjab, and Delhi Railway, and his Regiment went home without him. The wife died of cholera in Ferozepore, and O'Hara fell to drink and loafing up and down the line with the keen-eyed three-year-old baby. Societies and chaplains, anxious for the child, tried to catch him, but O'Hara drifted away, till he came across the woman who took opium and learned the taste from her, and died as poor whites die in India. His estate at death consisted of three papers—one he called his 'ne varietur' because those words were written below his signature thereon, and another his 'clearance-certificate'. The third was Kim's birth-certificate. Those things, he was used to say, in his glorious opium-hours, would yet make little Kimball a man. On no account was Kim to part with them, for they belonged to a great piece of magic—such magic as men practised over yonder behind the Museum, in the big blue-and-white Jadoo-Gher—the Magic House, as we name the Masonic Lodge. It would, he said, all come right some day, and Kim's horn would be exalted between pillars—monstrous pillars—of beauty and strength. The Colonel himself, riding on a horse, at the head of the finest Regiment in the world, would attend to Kim—little Kim that should have been better off than his father. Nine hundred first-class devils, whose God was a Red Bull on a green field, would attend to Kim, if they had not forgotten O'Hara—poor O'Hara that was gang-foreman on the Ferozepore line. Then he would weep bitterly in the broken rush chair on the veranda. So it came about after his death that the woman sewed parchment, paper, and birth-certificate into a leather amulet-case which she strung round Kim's neck.

Summary: A massive quantity of exposition right at the beginning wouldn't normally be an auspicious beginning, but we are talking about Rudyard Kipling, who makes it all count. In the end, the background really is background, and the story Kipling is telling is an Indian story about a British boy: we need a foundation to get us into that situation. Building on this foundation, the tale becomes the tale of this British boy becoming a man in an Indian way.

The basic structure of the story consists of Kim taking a twofold journey at the same time across the landscape. On one journey Kim learns what it is to be English, since he for practical purposes grows up Indian, playing with the Hindu and Muslim boys in Lahore. This involves unfolding the destiny of the Red Bull on a green field -- a regimental flag -- and that to which it opens the door: an education, and, beyond that, the Great Game by which the British Empire keeps peace in India while fending off the attempts of Russia and other great powers to break its hold. On the other, Kim becomes involved, from the beginning of the story, with the pilgrimage of a Tibetan lama who is attempting to a find the River of the Arrow. According to a story the lama has heard, the Buddha once shot an arrow, and a river sprang up from it, in which one's sins can be washed away. Our story really opens when the paths of Kim and the lama entangle and Kim becomes the lama's chela or disciple, and, as Kim loves the lama and the lama is certain that Kim is essential to his search, the quest for the River of the Arrow becomes the same as Kim's education and his participation in the Great Game.

The effectiveness of the story derives in great measure from not breaking character. While individual characters may make comments about superstitions and the like, the story itself passes no such judgment, and, indeed, Major O'Hara's comments about the Red Bull, which sound to native ears like some kind of prophecy, unfolds exactly like such a native prophecy; we see portions of the lama's journey through both believing (Buddhist) and non-believing eyes, but the latter vision doesn't banish the former, and in a story about India it could not do so. Whatever one thinks of Tibetan Buddhism, the lama in using its vocabulary to describe his journey does not describe incorrectly, or in a way inferior to anyone else's: what he says is true. The upraising of a boy is indeed about the turning of the Wheel of Life, and the merit or demerit accrued in its passage; one looses one's Acts in this realm of illusion, and their consequences must work them out.

And just is the Wheel, swerving not a hair.

Favorite Passage: This is Kim talking to one of my favorite secondary characters in the book, an old, wealthy, and powerful Buddhist woman with quite a tongue on her.

'Where is my Holy One?' he demanded.

'Hear him! Thy Holy One is well,' she snapped viciously. 'Though that is none of his merit. Knew I a charm to make him wise, I'd sell my jewels and buy it. To refuse good food that I cooked myself—and go roving into the fields for two nights on an empty belly—and to tumble into a brook at the end of it—call you that holiness? Then, when he has nearly broken what thou hast left of my heart with anxiety, he tells me that he has acquired merit. Oh, how like are all men! No, that was not it—he tells me that he is freed from all sin. I could have told him that before he wetted himself all over. He is well now—this happened a week ago—but burn me such holiness! A babe of three would do better. Do not fret thyself for the Holy One. He keeps both eyes on thee when he is not wading our brooks.'

Recommendation: A beautifully structured story with interesting and well-rounded characters. Highly recommended.


  1. Ye Olde Statistician6:20 PM

    Kipling describes Lurgan Sahib as a “healer of sick pearls” so convincingly that readers never stop to wonder what the heck that even means:

    'Oh, they are quite well, those stones. It will not hurt them to take the sun. Besides, they are cheap. But with sick stones it is very different.' He piled Kim's plate anew. 'There is no one but me can doctor a sick pearl and re-blue turquoises. I grant you opals - any fool can cure an opal - but for a sick pearl there is only me. Suppose I were to die! Then there would be no one ... Oh no! You cannot do anything with jewels. It will be quite enough if you understand a little about the Turquoise - some day.'

    I have not the faintest doubt that Kipling knew more about curing sick pearls than I do. He certainly sounds like he does. It’s the offhand dismissive reference to opals that does it.

  2. branemrys6:40 PM

    That's very true. He's quite good at this -- just that one touch that makes something strange sound like it should be there, no matter how strange or unexplained it is.

  3. Enbrethiliel3:50 AM


    I've always found Rudyard Kipling's prose, beyond the simplicity of his Just So Stories, to be difficult for me to chew, and these excerpts you've posted are similarly challenging for me. Which is a shame because your review makes Kim sound truly fascinating!

    On the other hand, I recently discovered more of Kipling's poetry (having been familiar only with If and White Man's Burden) and find myself wanting to read more.

  4. Ye Olde Statistician8:22 AM

    Sometimes people with a certain image of Kipling are startled to read "We and They"

    or "The Mother-Lodge"

    or for that matter, reading the coded message in the last lines of "White Man's Burden" as it progresses from "new-caught, sullen peoples" to "the judgment of your peers."

  5. MrsDarwin2:24 PM

    I started reading Kim aloud to the children, but alas, they didn't have the background to understand the ethnic and religious differences, and my explanations made their eyes glaze over, and eventually they would wander off and I would keep on reading for myself. Maybe in a few more years... But what a rich and poetic book.

  6. branemrys8:13 PM

    I like Kipling's poetry quite well: there's always a lot more to it than one can see at a glance.

  7. branemrys8:14 PM

    I was very impressed by Kipling's ability to be realistic and highly symbolic (I guess is the word) at the same time.

  8. ombhurbhuva2:13 AM

    Those pearls are the pearls (pustules of smallpox)of smallpox. Attendant goddess Shatila (North) Mariamma (South) Wikipedia has a note on Shatila (Pearl Mother)

  9. Kim is truely one of the most under rated novels of the 20th century and I can only surmise it's because of left leaning academics who despise Kipling. Yes there is a nationalists flavor to the novel, which centers around "the great game" or in common lingo, espionage, but the true heart of the novel is the coming of age of the young boy to realize through his relationship with the Tibetan Lama that life has a spirituality. I highly recommend it as well.


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