Kim – an Introduction

 (by Sharad Keskar)


Kipling started work on Kim in 1892 but published in 1901. The book was serialised in America, in McClure’s Magazine, December 1900 to October 1901; in England, in Cassell’s Magazine, January to November 1901. The first book edition by Doubleday, Page & Co., New York, 1 October 1901; the First English Edition, by Macmillan & Co., London, 17 October 1901; a Second American Edition followed in the same year; American Quarto Edition, 1912; Canadian School Edition, 1936; Sun Dial Press Edition, 1939; and the Modern Library Edition, 1950. For Kipling’s own comments on Kim, see Something of Myself, Chapter 5.

Kim has never been out of print, and there are numerous editions available today, including annotated editions from Penguin and Oxford University Press.


“. . .Kim is great by any standards that ever obtained in any age of English literature.” Nirad C Chaudhuri.
“I know of no other English novel that so celebrates the human urban scene. . .” Angus Wilson.

In an extraordinary landscape and by a unique narrative, Kim’s astonishingly original characters carry the reader from one magical scene to another. Like a symphony in three movements, its 15 chapters seemingly divide, about equally, to mark a journey from discipleship to discipline to deliverance. This arrangement may not have been planned. Kipling described Kim as “nakedly picaresque and plotless” and, in fact, the book was written as by one possessed. In Something of Myself, he wrote that Kim “grew like the Djinn released from the brass bottle”; acknowledging also the useful contributions his father [Lockwood Kipling] made.

Apart from the text, Kipling offers the reader little help. On 15 January 1900, he wrote to Charles Eliot Norton, that Kim, a labour of great love, was a “long leisurely Asiatic yarn”. In an age when hype and self-promotion were sparingly used, Kipling favoured the mockingly demure understatement. We know better. The bright palette with which he painted those exotic scenes came from one who had “eaten” the Indian air. (Hawa khana, literally “eating the air”, is Hindi for “taking a constitutional”.) As soon as the reader is drawn into the heat and dust of India’s kaleidoscopic, migrant life, plot, or absence of it, is soon forgotten.

It is significant that Kim, like Kipling, was born in 1865, but to follow closely the chronology of events in a work of fiction is to clog the imagination. Literary critics tend to look for parallels. This too is unhelpful. Parallels don’t meet. To compare or contrast Kim with Cervantes’ Don Quixote or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, is to chase after rainbows. It is equally fruitless to speculate that because Kipling admired Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, he wished to emulate it. Kim stands alone. It is sublime, and its abiding facets, Kipling and India, improve with re-readings.

The list of Kim lovers grows, and the high praise it received from writers like Mark Twain, Henry James and T.S. Eliot, are echoed by others. Peter Hopkirk, who wrote The Great Game, and never without his copy of Kim, physically retraced the lama’s journey. He opens his The Quest for Kim with the story of the French officer whose copy of Kim stopped a German sniper’s bullet, and saved his life. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese dissident leader, named her second son Kim, and declared that Kim was, above all, a “love story”. Terry Waite, another victim of imprisonment, took comfort from Kim’s “inner journey”; and while M.M. Kaye sensed its “strong magic”, for the late Sir Wilfred Thesiger — who lost count of the number of times he read Kim — it is the one book of prose he felt he could open at random and read as if it were poetry.

Kim has its few detractors, among them Edmund Wilson. His pathological dislike of imperialism coloured his thinking. But he had not wandered the streets of India or closely watched the “cities” of “dreadful night”. He saw conflict where none existed, and failed to see that The Raj, despite its element of self-interest, sought genuinely to maintain an ordered society under a benevolent government. In reality, Kim enchants because Kipling understood, with canny intuition, the complexities of Indian life and Buddhist philosophy. Far from betraying the Lama — that being Wilson’s censure — Kim, the street-wise gamin, is devoted to him.

He begged in the dawn, set blankets for the lama’s meditation, held the weary head on his lap through the noonday heats, fanning away the flies till his wrists ached, begged again in the evenings, and rubbed the lama’s feet. . .

When the lama asks “hast thou never wished to leave me?” Kim’s rebuttal is firm. “I am not a dog or a snake to bite when I have learned to love.” [p.387] That question may have been rhetorical. The lama already had earned Kim’s gratitude. [p.174] “If I eat thy bread. . .how shall I ever forget thee?” In the East, ingratitude, the sin against the “salt” one has eaten, is heinous. Then there is the lama’s own loyalty to Kim. His concern for Kim’s future is pivotal. He pays for Kim’s schooling, aware of the career for which it will prepare him. His metta — Buddhist for “loving kindness” — is deeply moving; and the test of that love is knowing when to let go. When that time comes, Kim, remembering the lama’s teaching (“there is neither black nor white”), knows he is free to choose but protests when reminded that he is a sahib: “I am not a Sahib. I am thy chela.” The lama consoles him.

“. . .We reach Freedom together. Then thou and I, upon the far bank of the River, will look back upon our lives as in the Hills we saw our day’s marches laid out behind us.” [p.386]

The learning curve in Kim also applies to the lama. He has been made to see that the spiritual life is indebted for its protection to the real world. His question: “What profit to kill men?” had received a sensible, down to earth answer: “Very little — as I know; but if evil men were not now and then slain it would not be a good world for weaponless dreamers.” [p.73]

Mahbub Ali and Kim also play their part in the lama’s enlightenment — Mahbub simply by being a muslim with a general disdain for “idolaters” and “unbelievers”, although at the end he concedes that the lama personifies goodness. When the lama wishes that caring people could be freed from the “Wheel of Things” Kim disagrees: “Nay, then would only evil people be left on the earth, and who would give us meat and shelter?” [p.58], and when the lama says “this is a great and terrible world”, Kim remarks “I think it good”.[p.277] Throughout Kim there is clear evidence that in Kim the lama has won a true disciple, deeply loyal, yet one who is unafraid to speak his mind:

“I was made wise by thee, Holy One,” said Kim. . .forgetting St Xavier’s; forgetting his white blood; forgetting even the Great Game as he stooped, Mohammedan fashion, to touch his master’s feet in the dust of the Jain temple. “My teaching I owe to thee. I have eaten thy bread three years. My time is finished. I am loosed from the schools. I come to thee.” [p.271]

We may not assume that in serving Colonel Creighton Kim will forget his discipleship. He will be himself and go “where he chooses” [p.153], as Mahbub tells Creighton. He warns Mahbub that he is a free agent, a sahib when he chooses to be one, and that he must be free to go among his people. “Otherwise I die.” Asked who are his people, Kim replies “This great and beautiful land”, linking his Indian identity with his longing to be with the lama again. [p.193] Later, and again invoking his “fair land”, the Punjab in particular, Kim reminds Mahbub of his proven ability to vanish without a trace.

“Into it I will go again if Mahbub Ali or the Colonel lift hand or foot against me. Once gone, who shall find me? [pp.207-8]

We may be left guessing about Kim’s future, but we can logically speculate upon the possibility of Kim “going native”. St Xavier’s produced no sea change. Kim will still think and dream in Hindustani:

Kim yearned for the caress of soft mud squishing up between the toes, as his mouth watered for mutton stewed with butter and cabbages, for rice speckled with strong-scented cardamons, for the saffron-tinted rice, garlic and onions, and the forbidden greasy sweetmeats of the bazars. [p.178]

And on pages 206-7:

Kim will remember till he dies that long, lazy journey. . .it was all pure delight—the wandering road climbing, dipping, and sweeping about the growing spurs; the flush of the morning laid along the distant snows; the branched cacti, tier upon tier on stony hillsides; the voices of a thousand water-channels; the chatter of monkeys; the solemn deodars. . .the vista of the Plains. . .the incessant twanging of the tonga-horns. . .all these things lifted Kim’s heart to song within him.

India is in Kim, and change “of scene, service, and surroundings were the breath of his little nostrils”. [p.195] ] Taming him will take time. But I cannot see him turning out to be a hero in India’s fight for freedom, as writer T.N. Murari imagined. Kim would have been four years older than Gandhi and seventy-seven in 1942, when the struggle was at its peak. Gandhi may, at times, have reminded Kim of the lama, but he would have been too Hindu for Kim. [“I do not love Hindus.” p.213] Working for the Raj and increasingly aware of the benefits and privileges of being “white”, Kim could turn out to be a westernised, loyal, if eccentric, Government employee. (Many Indian civil servants did, not forgetting the delightful Hurree Chunder Mookerjee.)

Knowing his antecedents, something innately Western must lie dormant in Kim. Kipling underlines this in the snake incident. “No native training can quench the white man’s horror of the Serpent.” [p.61] But, like Murari, I can see in Kim a womaniser with a penchant for Indian women. Women find him physically attractive. “Thou wast born to be a breaker of hearts!” [p.180] And he had an early start. Barely fourteen and, “smiling sinfully” he “sought a certain house”, clearly a bordello. “Was I born yesterday?” Kim says when asked if he knew “what manner of women we be in this quarter?” [p.179] On page 171, the ticca-garri (hired carriage/tonga) driver growls petulantly: “Is the boy mad? Last time it was a dancing-girl. This time it is a priest.”

The references to Kim’s physical beauty are many and his encounters with women are often flirtatious. “How many maids, and whose wives, hang upon thy eyelashes?” [p.307] When Kim is seriously ill, the Sahiba scolds the lama for not keeping an eye on his chela. “He has been running among the women. Look at his eyes. . .He has been sifted out!” [p.390] When the Woman of Shamlegh, [Lispeth of the Plain Tales from the Hills] asks what reward Kim would give for her services, he pretends not to understand the sexual overtures and innuendoes she makes. Later he relents. With a hand round her waist he surprises her with a kiss.

Observers who suggest paedophilia in Kim’s relationship with the lama or Mahbub display an ignorance of the guru/chela relationships of the East. The lama is emphatic. His motives for helping Kim are pure: “ ‘not because I was led by any affection towards thee — that is no part of the Way—’ ” [p.173, my italics] Kipling underlines this, when Mahbub also tells Kim, not that he needed reminding, that the considerable money Colonel Creighton is prepared to spend is for a larger purpose and “not in any way for the love of thee.”[p.188]

On an obvious level, Kim is about a disarmingly naïve lama surrendering his welfare to a charmingly manipulative street-Arab.[‘Old priest — young tiger’ p.19] On a deeper level, their love for each other is cemented by their individual quests — Kim’s search for identity, alongside the lama’s for his ‘River that washes away all sin.’ The Wheel and the Way, the illusion and the reality, the beginning and the end, the intrigues and the visions in-between, are merely the realpolitik of their environs.

In making Kim a free spirit, Kipling came to terms with the traumas of his own childhood, without losing sight of happy and affectionate memories. His father is so obviously the ‘Keeper of the Wonder House’; and in the lama we see facets of his kindly uncle, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Burne-Jones — does Kim not marvel at the lama’s superb draughtsmanship! And so, like Kipling’s, Kim’s education is eclectic. Alongside schooling comes a variety of learning in the company of elders. The lama’s teachings contend with Mahbub’s, Colonel Creighton’s, the Rissaldar’s, Lurgan Sahib’s and that of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee. Kim’s women, certainly the Sahiba and the Woman of Shamlegh, serve no lesser experiential purpose. [By ignoring the feminine side of the book Seymour Smith’s criticism is flawed.] It is also important to note that Kim is set in India. There a peculiar sanity prevails, which is itself a liberal education. It fed Kim as it did Kipling; and, thanks to Allah, both have “two separate sides” to their heads.

In Kim’s calm Oriental setting, it is a mistake to see the lama’s search for his river as quixotic. He is no Don Quixote and Kim is no Sancho Panza, because India is not Europe. The lama’s oft repeated mantra is, “no matter” or “it matters little”. Worldly life is illusion, reality exists elsewhere. Yet a thread binds the optimism and impiety of youth with the wisdom and patience of old age. In the complex dichotomy of the book’s last few pages a strange serenity reigns — even for Mahbub, who had seen the lama’s influence on Kim as an obstacle. The import of his last conversation with the Holy Man, seeps through a cloud of unknowing, and strikes him as tolerably good sense. “He [the lama says of Kim] aided me in my Search. I aided him in his…Let him be a teacher; let him be a scribe — what matter? He will have attained Freedom at the end. The rest is illusion.” [p.407] As for Kim, with the return to physical well-being, comes enlightened maturity and realisation of good sense and purpose:

. . .with an audible click he felt the wheels of his being lock up anew on the world without. Things that rode meaningless on the eyeball an instant before slid into proper proportion. Roads were meant to be walked upon, houses to be lived in, cattle to be driven, fields to be tilled, and men and women to be talked to. They were all real and true. . .[p.403]

The thirteen year old street Arab is at seventeen wise beyond his years, and though he will join the “Great Game”, the lama has not lost him. So too, the cares of the Raj will take their “turn” on the “Wheel of Things”. The impact of their machinations are only as the click of beads in a Buddhist rosary, and the prayers which see all, forgive all. On India’s chequered board, Kim’s protagonists are pawns, and in the end their lives are games to be played out. But the River of Life, an ever flowing stream, moves on undisturbed.

Having read through to the end of the book it will pay the reader dividends to read Chapter I again. This puts all into place and prevents the mistake Wilson made. One sees at once that the relationship between Kim and the lama is not one-sided, placing Kim alone under an obligation of loyalty. His interest in the lama is at first superficial and stirred by a child’s impulsive curiosity and sense of adventure. Never before has he seen anyone like the lama. Kim tells Mahbub: [p.27] “He [the lama] is quite mad, and I am tired of Lahore city.” Yet a strange affinity is instantly forged. Kim is drawn to protect an old simpleton who cannot lie. Like Chekhov, Kipling seems to believe that lies have their use, so long as one is honest with people that matter:

Kim was the one soul in the world who had never told him [Mahbub] a lie. That would have been a fatal blot on Kim’s character if Mahbub had not known that to others, for his own ends or Mahbub’s business, Kim could lie like an Oriental. [p.33]

That is not racism. Kipling witnessed how in the East a frequent altering of facts made its “ordered chaos” function. And he marvelled at it. The lama, on his part, intends to teach Kim the “Law” on the road to Benares and in the search for his River.

“. . . Thou dost not, then know the River?
“Not I.” Kim laughed uneasily. “I go to look for — for a bull — a Red Bull on a green field. . .”[p.23]

And so, (with Kim’s “Thus we beg who know the way of it. . .”) [p.21 my italics], a journey of shared learning begins, in which the lama sees the “way” of the world as he tries gently to teach his “Way”. Towards the end that symbiosis is stressed when Kim assures the lama: “Thou leanest on me in the body, Holy One, but I lean on thee for some other things.” [p.389] Their individual quests have undergone adjustments, but they never were of equal intensity. The sight of the “Red Bull on a Green Field” which is the banner of his father’s Regiment, satisfies a child’s curiosity about his sahibdom and then seems not to trouble Kim further. But his association with the lama creates a new identity crisis. On at least four occasions, in the book’s three-part transition from Indian childhood to English manhood via Anglo-India, he wrestles with it: “Who” or “What” is Kim. But the book is too complex for anything so cut and dried. Kim’s identity crisis goes beyond the close of the book.

If, finally, there is a parting of the ways, it is Kipling’s from Kim, from the lama, and from his dream landscape, India. Within a year after Kim’s publication, Kipling moves to Bateman’s and his beloved Sussex by the Sea. The only link between the two is the vision conjured by the word “fair”: “a fair land” becomes a “fair ground”.

“It is sufficient. We are together, and all things are as they were — Friend of all the World — Friend of the Stars — my chela.”