A Paper Presented

As Part of Book Night

 at the

Chicago Literary Club



February 10, 2008


Peggy Sullivan





























An adventure story more than a hundred years old is still part of a memorable, if imaginary,


passage to India  for many Americans.  I realized that again when I visited India in November,


2007, and found myself remembering scenes, attitudes, characters that I had first known in


Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. And on my return, when people said, “I have always wanted to go to


India,” the book they most often mentioned as the spark for their interest was Kim. Why would


that be? I read it again myself to try to understand more exactly why – and then I read more about


it and its author to increase that understanding.


Kimball O’Hara comes to life on the first page of the novel.  He is sitting astride a huge cannon in the center of the city of Lahore, fighting off other boys who want to topple him and take his place.  Later that same day, he almost casually starts the travels that will shape his life. 

In Kim, Kipling wrote a story about the India he had known as a child and again as a young journalist, but which he had left forever twelve years earlier. His hero was this boy, Kim, who looked and acted like a young Indian, but whose dead English father had left him notes about his identity which Kim carried always with him. It was his curiosity, perhaps, that started him on his journey. After helping an old Buddhist lama, a priest, trying to make his way through the city to the Wonder House, the museum where he would find images from the history of Buddhism, Kim stayed to help the lama on his way.  They were an odd pair, perhaps, Kim the wily, street-smart, self-reliant boy who was an outsider but a very




knowing one, and the priest whose simplicity and trust were at variance with his well-studied, deeply-felt faith and the intensity of his search for the River of the Arrow, which would mark the end of his quest. And Kim was searching, too, because his father had told him that if and when he found a red bull on a green field and a colonel riding his horse and nine hundred devils, he would be befriended by them. The boy did not realize that his father was referring to the flag of his old Irish regiment, its commanding officer, and its nine hundred men.  When Kim did find them, he became a player in what the English called the Great Game, the English Secret Service, where spying in India was essential for them to keep control of that jewel in the English crown.

Someone has said that the India that Kipling presents in this novel is full of adults who want to befriend Kim as though they were his godparents, and he is surely fortunate in many of the ones he meets, but there are hazards along his road as well.  Early in his travels, Kim spots the retinue of a wealthy elderly woman on pilgrimage, and allies himself and his lama with her.  Food and shelter along the road were their rewards, and their paths crossed several more times over the years. There were delays in the travels, as when Kim was virtually captured by his father’s old military colleagues and given the opportunity to study at St. Xavier’s, where he learned such useful skills as mapreading and mapmaking, preparing for his part in the Great Game. In the summer, he was able to elude those who would manage his life and make his way to join the lama and continue their searches together.





Mahbub Ali was another of Kim’s protectors, a villainous Afghan who played the dangerous Great Game, spying for the English while traveling through much of India trading in horses, manipulating those who represented the law when he had to.  He had used Kim in Lahore to spy on people who interested him and to carry messages, and he turned up frequently in Kim’s life later, recommending Kim to the British and often providing him with assignments.  Kim’s access to some of the medicines and technologies of the English often helped him to provide simple cures for people that amazed them, and as he traveled in trains, he was able to spin long tales about his current and his early lives. After all, he had always been god at dissembling and lying. If Kim has a counterpart in contemporary fiction, it is surely Lyra of Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS series.  She, too, was always grateful for the fact that she had learned to lie so early and so expertly that when her great adventures began among various worlds of the universe, she could lie convincingly to almost anyone who challenged her.

Kim was a master of disguise, and when he left school to travel with the lama, he took on the appearance of a young Indian, darkening his skin and wearing the loose clothing that he loved.  He sometimes became a kind of interpreter between the English and the Indians. Some of Kipling’s humor comes through as he reports on one of the train trips that Kim and the lama take:

Kim was content to be where he was, to look out upon the flat North-Western landscape, and to talk to the changing mob of fellow-passengers.  Even today, tickets and ticket-clipping are dark oppression to Indian rustics.  They do not understand why, when they







have paid for a magic piece of paper, strangers should punch great pieces out of the charm. So, long and furious are the debates between travelers and Eurasian ticket-collectors. Kim assisted at two or three [of these] with grave advice, meant to darken counsel and to show off his wisdom…. (p. 193).


It was undoubtedly this kind of comment that caused Kipling’s critics to accuse him of condescension toward the Indians. But at the same time, almost every one of them complimented him on his careful observation, a skill undoubtedly developed during his years as a journalist, and it seems likely that there were instances of such encounters in real life which he wove into his story.  As with many other comments about Kim and Kipling as a writer, there were flipsides: Kipling knew and loved India, but his view was always that of  an outsider because he was English.  Kipling focused on a Buddhist priest in a country where Buddhism is the religion of a small minority – but that may have been because he wanted not to choose between Hinduism and Islam, and, by making the choice he did, he probably made the story more universally appealing than it would otherwise have been.  I have been a fan of Kipling for a long, long time, and I tend to think he made his choices carefully and well.

 Almost all of Kipling’s colorful characters come together in the final, rousing encounter of the novel. Hurree Babu, a Bengali mistrusted even by his colleagues in the Great Game, undertakes to ingratiate himself with two men, one Russian and one French – and therefore, of course, the bad guys – who are gathering information about the northern part of India. The Babu asks Kim and the lama to follow him at a distance, but when the two groups of travelers




meet, the Russian attempts to grab a map sacred to the lama and tears it. Enraged, the lama strikes him and he falls down the side of a mountain. The Indians who have been working for the two Europeans are ready to fight because of the lama’s status as a holy man.  The lama is distraught to think he has committed so violent an act, but the Babu stays with the interlopers and endures their mistreatments.  For the purposes of the Secret Service, it is important to make it seem, at least, that things have returned to normal. Kim becomes ill and is nursed by a plain-speaking woman who lives nearby. Kim has managed to get the maps and drawings from the other two spies. Soon, Mahbub Ali arrives to congratulate the intrepid heroes for getting the valuable documents, and the garrulous Indian widow turns out to be not far away so she can assist Kim back to health and get a sense of the Great Game being played in her country.

Soon after all of this, the lama discovers the origin of the river he has been seeking.  His quest is fulfilled, and Kim has become a young man whose quest for himself and his life is well begun.  And so the story ends.

Another of Kipling’s major characters, in a sense, is the land itself. Across plains, up and down mountains, through cities with names that are rhythmic and exotic to ears accustomed to English, the action flows. And the land affects the characters deeply. The old lama seems to be fading away as they trek across the flat country, but he comes to new life when they turn toward the mountains, where Kim’s young strength is scarcely a match for his.  Kim, on the other hand, comes to life in the thronged city streets. It is surely




Kipling’s descriptions of these contrasting backgrounds that lure so many people to travel to India, either in reality or in their dreams.

Not long ago, I heard a quotation that has rung in my mind ever since: “Text without context is pretext.”  So – now for a little context.  Kipling, born in Bombay in 1865, had gone to England with his parents and a sister in 1871, but when his parents returned to India, they left him at a home where he was mistreated. When his mother learned of his mistreatment, she returned to England, but this time, enrolled him in school there. It was not until 1882 that he returned to India as a journalist. He stayed for seven years. In addition to writing and editing for newspapers, he began to write travel stories and short stories.  His two classic, imaginative Jungle Books appeared in 1894-1895, Captains Courageous two years later, and Kim in 1901. There were other books, hundreds of poems, essays and articles and an unfinished memoir, some of them coming later.  In 1907, he became the first writer in English to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He was then, and he remains, the youngest writer ever to receive that prize – at age 42.  It is just possible that some of the negative assessments of his work were stimulated by jealousy and the realization by other English authors that, in a sense, Kipling had India in his background, and there was no way they could compare with him in his cultural ownership of that appealing country.

Another kind of context is offered in a chronology featured in the Barnes and Noble Classics paperback edition of Kim. During the year of its publication, 1901, Queen Victoria died, Edward the Seventh came to the throne, and William McKinley was



assassinated and succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt. Thomas Mann published Buddenbrooks and August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death appeared.  Andre Malraux and American film producer Walt Disney were born. (pp. xi-xii)  Mentions of the British royalty call to mind the belief, shared by many, that Kipling may have been considered for a knighthood, but did not receive one.  For some years, his patriotism was questioned because he was not wholeheartedly in favor of some of the actions leading up to the First Word War. However, his eighteen-year-old son, a member of the Irish Guards, was killed in action in 1915, and Kipling wrote several books about that war, including The Irish Guards in the Great War, before his death in 1936, and he apparently redeemed himself, because his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey.

At least three editions of Kim are still in print, many more available in libraries and used book


stores.  The popularity of two films based on the book may have helped keep interest in the book alive. The first was in 1950, listing Errol Flynn as the hero. He played the somewhat disreputable Mahbub Ali, described in the book as “the big burly Afghan, his beard dyed scarlet with lime (for he was elderly and did not wish his grey hairs to show)….” (p. 21.) That does not sound much like the dashing Errol Flynn of that time, but I have not seen the movie recently, and would still consider Dean Stockwell, the Kim with the luminous brown eyes, the hero, perhaps sharing stardom with the setting in India. When a second film was made for television in 1984, the star was Peter O’Toole, who played the part of the lama.  Interesting that Hollywod can switch starring roles among characters like that, but it does suggest the richness of the story and the




strength of its characters. By the same token, Kim never became just a children’s book nor just a boy’s adventure. In fact, it has been described as “Kipling’s last and best novel.” (p. xi)

Jorge Luis Borges, the noted Argentine writer, was an admirer of Kipling.  In An Introduction to English Literature, among very brief essays highlighting very few authors, he wrote admiringly:

One might say that he [Kipling] went from geography to history, from space to time.  He felt in Europe what he had hardly felt at all in Asia, the pull of the past.    The novel Kim leaves the impression that we have known all of India and have spoken to thousands of persons.  The two protagonists, the Buddhist monk and the street boy, each seek their own salvation; the one through the meditative life, the other through action.  This very precise and lively novel is, as it were, saturated with magic. (1)


The last word can appropriately be that of an author rather unlike Kipling, in my view. After reading Kim, he wrote to Kipling to say: 

The beauty, the quantity, the prodigality, the Ganges-flood, leave me simply gaping as your procession passes. … I find the boy himself a dazzling conception, but I find the lama more yet – a thing damnably and splendidly done. … The whole idea, the great many-coloured poem of their relation and their wild Odyssey--- [is] void of a false note and swarming with felicities that you can count much better than I.  You make the general picture live and sound and shine, all by a myriad touches. (Quoted, p. xxix)


Thus wrote a generous contemporary novelist, Henry James.


(1)    Jorge Luis Borges, An Introduction to English Literature (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974) 57.


All quotations with page numbers are from: Rudyard Kipling, Kim ( New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004).

I have no source to credit for the quote, “Text without context is pretext,” but I could not resist using it.  If anyone knows the source, please let me know.  Thanks!