British Empire Books


AuthorRudyard Kipling
Originally Published1900
Serialized inMcClure's Magazine
This Edition1987
This PublisherOxford World Classics
ISBN No.0192816519

"'This is the great world, and I am only Kim.
Who is Kim?'He considered his own identity,
a thing he had nver done before, till his head swam.
He was one insignificant person in all this roaring
whirl of India, going southward to he knew not what fate."

This novel is regarded by many as the quintessential imperial novel. The settings, the characters, the author and the ideologies all simply ooze in imperial references and ideas. The story is all about a streetwise, young, and most importantly of all, a white orphan living in Lahore in the middle of the Imperial Raj. The boy befriends a buddhist lama and together they wander the highways and byways of India looking for the objects of their respective quests. They meet people from every walk, race and creed of life. Indeed, one of the most important aspects to come out of this book is the sheer size and diversity of what was Imperial India. Landscapes, castes, professions, religions are all described in both abundance and in detail. Kipling makes the reader want to visit this exotic and fascinating land and experience the sights, sounds and tastes that his characters live through.

"Let us take the fire-carriage. My son is best in his mother's arms. The government has brought on us many taxes, but it gives one good thing - the te-rain that joins friends and unites the anxious. A wonderful matter is the te-rain."
It would be hard to recommend a book with a better description of rail travel in Imperial India. His description of third class travel is full of the life and character of Indian peoples going about their lives and businesses, whereas his description of the Europeans in the first class carriages shows how lonely, aloof and cut off they had made themselves from the general populace. It is also interesting when one of his characters explains why the Grand Trunk Road that straddled India had fallen into disuse as far as the whites were concerned. They obviously were taking the trains at this point leaving the road to traders, locals and the army. It's asides like this that make this book an invaluable one for the imperial historian.

The book is divided into two distinct sections. Kim as a young vagabond travelling around India with his lama mentor and Kim all grown up and playing The Great Game on behalf of the British government. The book has been criticised by many people for its unsubtle message of the Sahib finding his rightful place in the grand scheme of things and rising to the top of the natural order. There is a certain amount of truth in this idea, however, Kipling's message is probably more steeped in the Indian culture than even he would like to admit. His ideas are bound very closely to the idea of caste rather than a social order or heirarchy. And in the idea of caste, no person is greater or lesser than anyone else, they all have their roles, virtues and vices. Kipling makes asides such as "The white man is very wise in some matters and very foolish in others" or when Kim reminds the Lama that he is "neither black nor white". If anything, Kipling advances some very progressive ideas for the time. The book is basically saying that those whites who do give their heart and soul for India and try to gain an understanding would be much better at running and ruling the country. He pokes fun at those who cannot speak any of the Indian languages or are just doing their jobs before going back to England (uncurried donkeys is one such memorable name that he gives to these kind of whites).

The weakest part of the book is the section on The Great Game. It does seem as if Kim grows up too quickly and as a result he loses some of his charm and character for the reader. In many ways, playing the part of the imperial equivalent an undercover ranger is in keeping with Kim's character, it's just that the book moves to this new life too quickly and a little abstractly. One good thing is that he still maintains a touching relationship with his lama mentor and still travels the world eager to learn however he does begin to realise that the world is not without limits and that things tend to happen for a reason.

There is no build up to an exciting climax, rather the book ends much like it starts with questions unanswered, jobs undone and places yet to visit. It is a kind of buddhist ending to what is a very eastern piece of literature. Growing up in the Orient shaped Kipling as much as it did his characters. Needless to say this book should be considered essential reading.

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by Stephen Luscombe