Read an Excerpt
From Jeffrey Meyers's Introduction to Kim
In Kim, Kipling creates an exotic atmosphere, full of vivid characters and incidents, and immediately draws the reader into his strange world. The novel concerns a religious quest and a quest for identity, and includes both enlightenment and espionage, tranquillity and violence. It combines social, cultural, and political history with the hardships and goal of a travel book. Like Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha (1922), Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge (l944), and Iris Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea (1978), it is one of the rare European novels with a Buddhist theme. Kim and the lama, Dharma Bums on the Road, foreshadow the sprawling works of Jack Kerouac. Maugham, a great admirer of Kipling, wrote that he gives you "the tang of the East, the smell of the bazaars, the torpor of the rains, the heat of the sun-scorched earth, the rough life of the barracks."10
Kipling achieved his brilliant effects by combining his two great themes, childhood and India, and by creating a bountiful array of characters, subtle modulations of style and speech, and a carefully wrought structure that controls the series of fortuitous encounters and picaresque adventures. Kim, the orphaned son of a drunken Irish sergeant and a nursemaid mother, has been brought up by a Eurasian opium eater, given free run of the narrow streets and back alleys of Lahore, and become completely assimilated to Indian life. The rainbow coalition of indigenous teachers, who lead him to his true identity and real vocation, are increasingly Europeanized; his English teachers, who train him as a spy, are increasingly sophisticated and significant.
The Tibetan Buddhist lama rejects the world and searches for salvation. Mahbub Ali, the Afghan Muslim horse trader, works with the English but retains his traditional customs. Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, the Hindu Bengali and "semi-anglicized product of our Indian colleges,"11 tries to adopt British behavior and speech. The Protestant and Catholic clergymen, Mr. Bennett and Father Victor, try to co-opt Kim into their religions. Lurgan, English but born in India, tests Kim and trains him for the Great Game of espionage. Colonel Creighton, a secret agent masquerading as an ethnologist (Kim, an expert on castes and keen on mimicry, is himself an amateur ethnologist), recognizes Kim's unique potential and exploits his rare talents. Kim asks: "'What am I? Mussalman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist?'" and is none of the above. But in a brief, touching scene he combines the British, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jain elements in his character and culture and forgets "even the Great Game as he stooped, Mohammedan fashion, to touch his master's feet in the dust of the Jain temple".
Kim and each of his native mentors have a different and quite idiosyncratic way of speaking. Kipling vividly conveys the flavor of vernacular speech and the formulaic repetitions of unlettered folk by using traditional proverbs and archaic diction from the seventeenth-century English of the King James Bible and Shakespeare. The lama keeps repeating the same solemn banalities in a singsong cadence: "'They are all bound upon the Wheel. . . . Bound from life after life. To none of these has the Way been shown'". Mahbub Ali's declamatory phrases express his hearty ruffianism: "'God's curse on all unbelievers! Beg from those of my tail who are of thy faith.'" The babu Hurree, pompous and slightly absurd, drops his definite articles, mispronounces long words, and misuses English idioms: "'I am of opeenion that it is most extraordinary and effeecient performance. Except that you had told me I should have opined that—that—that you were pulling my legs.'" The seductive Woman of Shamlegh speaks with languid insinuations: "'I do not love Sahibs, but thou wilt make us a charm in return for it. We do not wish little Shamlegh to get a bad name.'" Kim shifts from stilted English before his formal education: "'Every month I become a year more old,'" to old-fashioned schoolboy slang after he's been to St. Xavier's: "'By Jove! . . . This is a dam'-tight place.'" T. S. Eliot observed the contrast between Kipling's portrayal of native characters in the early stories and in Kim:
There are two strata in Kipling's appreciation of India, the stratum of the child and that of the young man. It was the latter who observed the British in India and wrote the rather cocky and rather acid tales of Delhi and Simla, but it was the former who loved the country and its people. . . . The Indian characters have the greater reality because they are treated with the understanding of love. . . . It is the four great Indian characters in Kim who are real: the Lama [not Indian], Mahbub Ali, Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, and the wealthy widow from the North.