. . . a master work of imperialism . . . a rich and absolutely fascinating, but nevertheless profoundly embarrassing novel.
(Edward W. Said)
Few modern English readers could enjoy Rudyard Kipling's Kim  in the way Kipling (1865-1936) intended it to be enjoyed. Kipling was an Imperialist, and Kim embodies attitudes towards British rule in India which these days are wholly unacceptable and unpalatable. Kipling believed it was right and proper for Britain to 'own' India and rule its people, and the possibility that this position might be questionable never seems to have crossed his mind. At the time he was writing there was a considerable ferment of revolt among Indians against British rule, and yet, as Said  has shown, at points in Kim when he could have acknowledged this Kipling dismisses it. This is particularly apparent when in Chapter 3 he has an old soldier comment on the Great Mutiny of 1857, dismissing it as 'madness':
Then in Chapter 4 he has a native woman assert that the British who know India are:
Said has given a clear and persuasive account of how in these and many other ways Kipling's Imperialist attitudes permeate the novel, making it, in Said's words:
Perhaps we can accept that Kim, like Kipling himself, was born in India under British rule and so, as a child, would have encountered this situation as a 'given', something which was just there, with no obvious reason why it should be questioned. But we cannot allow the adult Kipling to hide behind his child hero's viewpoint, particularly as the novel is littered with patronising comments such as: 'The Curator smiled at the mixture of old-world piety and modern progress that is the note of India today.' (Ch.1 p.59) which are clearly from his viewpoint, rather than Kim's.
Kipling makes countless other rash and biased generalisations about India and its people (for more examples see Said p.28-9) which come from the adult narrator, and not from Kim himself.
It isn't even possible to enjoy some aspects of Kim while putting Kipling's unacceptable attitudes on one side, because his attitudes are embedded in every facet of the novel.
We cannot excuse or defend Kipling's attitudes, but we can acknowledge the historical fact that they were no different to those of many of his Victorian contemporaries, and be glad that the fact is a historical one.
In spite of this the novel does not deserve to be forgotten, because as a work of fiction it does have fine literary qualities, and it and deserves its unique place in the history of English Literature.
The novel is not overt propaganda, and on the surface what comes across above all else is Kipling's tremendous insider's knowledge of India as it was in Victorian times, and his love and admiration for the country and its people. The novel embodies a panoramic celebration of India, presenting as it does, a magnificent picture of its landscapes, both urban and rural, and a fascinating array of native characters who, for the most part, are warm, generous and tolerant.
Beyond that, Kim is an adventure story of the Empire, giving it something in common with the novels of Joseph Conrad, such as Heart of Darkness (which is now also much attacked for its colonisl attitudes). The readership would have been British, and they would probably have been impressed and fascinated by Kim as a mysterious and exotic tale of adventure overseas. (For a discussion of Kim in relation to the literature of the period see Said ).
To examine the themes in the novel we should approach it as an adventure story probably aimed primarily at adolescent boys, in which Kim is seeking to find his place in the country in which he was born, while at the same time struggling to find, or create, an identity for himself. 'Who is Kim?' 'What is Kim?' Kim asks himself at several points in the novel, and although the plot has a loose picaresque structure, being held together by a journey, making it a kind of 'road novel', the theme of Kim's need to find himself seems to be the backbone of the story.
By birth Kim is a white, Irish boy, Kimball O'Hara, whose father was a soldier in an Irish regiment. But, as we see in Chapter 1, he has grown up as an orphan on the streets of Lahore, 'a poor white of the very poorest', looked after by a half-cast woman, probably a prostitute; 'she smoked opium and pretended to keep a second-hand furniture shop by the square where the cheap cabs wait'. With his skin 'burned black as any native' he looks and lives like a low-caste Hindu street-urchin, unable to read or write, or speak English very well, and known to all as 'Little Friend of all the World'. So right from the start he is neither wholly British nor wholly Indian, and his being neither wholly one nor the other, but a unique 'mixture o' things' (Ch.6 p.160) remains a constant in his quest for his identity.
The story begins when Kim teams up with a Tibetan lama, Teshoo lama, who wanders into Lahore to look at the Buddhist relics in 'The Wonder House' (Lahore museum) with the 'Keeper of the images' (the curator). From then on the plot develops two strands which run in parallel, and to a large extent overlap. One strand concerns Kim's discipleship to the lama, who is an abbot in his own country, and now, in old age, on a Buddhist quest, following 'The Way' to free himself from the 'Wheel of Things', and merge his soul with the 'Great Soul'. He is looking for the 'River of the Arrow', a river which, legend has it, sprang from an arrow shot by Buddha. Anyone who bathes in this river shall be cleansed of 'all taint and speckle of sin'. The location of this river is unknown, having never been identified by scholars of Buddhism of East or West.
Kim is fascinated by the wandering stranger, and when the lama assumes that Kim has been sent to him as his 'chela' (disciple) Kim readily accepts the role and joins him on his journey, with the intention of also following his own quest, to find the meaning of a prophecy that was made by his father, that 'Nine hundred first-class devils, whose God was a Red Bull on a green field, would attend to Kim'. This prophecy eventually gives rise to the second strand of the plot - Kim's recruitment as a spy in the British Secret Service.
Kim and the lama begin their journey together, with the cunning street-wise Kim taking on the role of the lama's protector and guide in the complicated hustle and bustle of Indian life, with which the ethereal, nave lama is unfamiliar, and it is this journey which gives structure to the story and enables Kipling to display his abundant knowledge of India. Starting at Lahore, in what is now Pakistan, they traverse the plains as far south as Benares, then in the closing chapters make a spectacular excursion into the Himalayas, to the very edge of India, where their quests reach a climax, before returning to the plains for the resolution. The journey takes about four years, taking Kim from the age of thirteen to about seventeen.
The friendship between this unlikely pair is one of the main attractions of Kim, which is a novel about male friendships, primarily between Kim and Teshoo lama, but also between Kim and Colonel Creighton and his colleagues, particularly Mahbub Ali and the Babu Hurree. (For a detailed discussion of the character of the Babu see Bhatia ).
One of the bonds uniting Kim and the lama on their respective quests is that both reject relationships with women. They both see women as dangerous distractions from their higher goal:
Kim is a male-orientated novel, as we might predict from the phallic image with which it opens - Kim sitting astride a canon - and Said comments that other critics have 'speculated on the hidden homosexual motif'. (Said p.14)
Women do play a role in the novel, but not as objects of romantic or sexual attachment. Women feature as prostitutes, or providers, though some respect is shown for the two principle women characters, the woman of Shamlegh, and the widow of Kulu, the latter taking on something of a motherly role towards the end, healing Kim when he is ill.
These two quests, the lama's for the 'Great Soul' and Kim's to play the 'Great Game' of spying, seem as different as can be. One could hardly imagine that two such contrasting ambitions could be yoked together. And yet Kipling brings them together and makes them compatible in a way which is central to the unique quality of Kim the novel, and the unique identity of Kim the character.
Kim and the lama have in common that neither has any real family ties or sense of belonging, and their quests have in common that both are esoteric, beyond the reach of ordinary people, and both require the renunciation of normal life. As a Buddhist it is central to the lama's quest that he free himself from all forms of attachment, including attachment to worldly goods, worldly ambitions, worldly relationships and even attachment to his own emotions and the idea of a self.
As a spy, Kim will also have to renounce ordinary life. He will lead a life of disguise and deception, never able to reveal his true motives to anyone. Any attachments he makes to other people will have to be subordinate to his esoteric mission, his secret commitment to an ideal. And just as the lama's mission will only be understood by a select few among Buddhist holy men, Kim's mission will only be understood by a select few among the British Secret Service.
But the two companions are in many ways very different. Kim is young, the lama is old. Kim is knowledgeable and streetwise, the lama is naive and inexperienced. The adolescent Kim is mature beyond his years, while the aged lama is childlike. And in some ways the tactics they employ to achieve their aims are opposite too. The lama adopts an attitude of honesty and openness, while Kim adopts an attitude of deception, manipulation, and lies.
And yet the two become interdependent, Kim's association with the lama providing him with an excuse to travel around India, and an ideal cover for his true role as a spy, while the lama often relies on Kim to do their begging and find them shelter, often physically leaning on Kim's shoulder as they travel. They sustain each other, the lama providing Kim with emotional and spiritual support, while sustaining himself by drawing on Kim's youthful energy.
We should ask why Kipling made Kim's spiritual mentor a Buddhist, when Buddhism is not a representative Indian religion. If Kipling really wanted to make the novel a thoroughly Indian story he should have chosen a Hindu or Moslem teacher for Kim. Perhaps Kipling didn't feel favourably enough towards those religions to use them, perhaps feeling they had too many complications, such as specific beliefs and strict moral codes, compared to the simple purity of the Buddhist 'Way', and perhaps feeling that to have allied himself with Hinduism or Islam would have suggested that he was 'going native' rather more than he wanted to. After all, 'St. Xavier's looks down on boys who 'go native all-together'.' (Ch.7 p.173)
Kipling's father was an expert on Buddhism, and no doubt this influenced his choice, and Mason ( p.183) mentions that Kipling had picked up an interest in Buddhism from his Pre-Raphaelite friends, and had read 'The Light of Asia', as well as learning about it from his father. Nevertheless, the fact that he chose a Buddhist does place a serious limitation on the extent to which Kim can be thought to be a 'portrait of India'.
While looking at Kipling's portrayal of the lama it is hard not to feel, once again, that much as he may have wanted to convey his admiration of native characters, his attempt is seriously marred by his Imperialist attitudes. He has Kim regard the lama as 'his trove', of which he 'proposed to take possession' (Ch 1. p.60), and there are other ways in which Kipling seems to deny the lama his autonomy and dignity: the lama is a holy man with the status of an abbot in his own country, but Kipling shows him in Chapter 1 learning about Buddhism at the Lahore museum, in Kim's words 'the Government's house', which is of course run by a white man. He listens 'reverently' as he learns about the 'labours of European scholars' and calls the white curator 'O Fountain of Wisdom'. He then accepts a gift of a pair of spectacles from the curator. So at every turn, even in relation to the most respected native character in the novel, Kipling presents a picture of European superiority and native dependence.
Kim defines his identity during his adventures by being open to influences; responding positively to people he can look up to, while warding off influences which he finds abrasive.
When the story opens the influences on him have been almost exclusively Indian. As previously noted, he has grown up dressing like an Indian, thinking like an Indian, his skin burned as brown as an Indian's, and feeling entirely happy and at home among the poor people of Lahore. But even at this stage he cannot think of himself as a native. He remembers his father and his prophecy, carries his identity papers in a leather amulet case around his neck, and of course his skin is white. And inwardly his attitudes are already at least partly those of a white ruler. The opening paragraph showing him sitting astride the cannon shows that he feels it natural to claim the position of power, a position he asserts with a game of 'king-of-the-castle' in which he prevents the native boys, both Moslem and Hindu, from taking his place. And, as we have seen, this inherited assumption that he is entitled to the position of power over his native peers is matched by his assumption of 'ownership' of the lama. 'The lama was his trove, and he proposed to take possession' (Ch 1. p.60).
His white skin, his identity papers, and this in-built tendency to own and rule will prove to be central to the identity he is seeking to build, but neither at the beginning nor the end does he think of himself as a 'sahib', and his encounter with the white man's world is at first a traumatic experience which he resists with all his might.
In chapter 5, when he finally finds the 'Nine hundred first-class devils, whose God was a Red Bull on a green field', (his father's old regiment - the red bull on a green field being their flag), he is captured by the soldiers and his instinct is to escape back to the lama at all costs. This is the first close encounter with a group of white men Kim has had in his life, and Kipling uses it to show a clash of native and British mentality, with Kim and the lama showing the native side, and the members of the regiment showing aspects of British mentality which Kipling holds up for criticism.
The native view of white men is shown in many ways: 'But this is sorcery!' (Ch.5 p.129) exclaims the lama seeing the tents going up in the field when the soldiers pitch camp. 'It was as he suspected. The Sahibs prayed to their God' (Ch.5 p.131) thinks Kim when he sees the soldiers in their mess tent with a model of their mascot, the bull, and later when he is introduced to Catholicism he sees it as 'an entirely new set of Gods and Godlings'. (Ch.7 p.165).
Among the white men, Kipling's targets for ridicule include Christian ministers - ministers of the 'creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title of 'heathen'.' (Ch.5 p.136). Kim is captured by The Reverend Bennett and Father Victor, who at first assume he is a native thief, then discover his identity papers, revealing that he is the son of the O'Hara of their regiment, whom they knew. But Kipling emphasises their narrow-mindedness by showing them shocked by his non-Christian appearance and manner:
And on hearing of the lama's quest, ''But this is gross blasphemy!' cried the Church of England.' (Ch.5 p.137)
Reverend Bennett in particular is shown to be an example of the worst kind of Dickensian authority figure. When Kim resists the idea of becoming a soldier,
To the ignorant white soldiers the lama is a 'street beggar', and Kim is an 'ignorant little beggar . . . brought up in the gutter . . . a wild animal', who 'talk[s] the same as a nigger' (Ch.6 p.150-153).
Kim is effectively imprisoned by the soldiers, forced to wear for the first time 'a horrible stiff suit that rasped his arms and legs' (Ch.5 p.144) and told that the bazaar is 'out o' bounds' (Ch.6 p.148). And his torments grow worse as Kipling continues to subject him to the worst that the British have to offer. The schoolmaster is a brutal insensitive man from whom Kim scents 'evil' (Ch.6 p.147), and the drummer boy who guards Kim, representing the average young British soldier, is shown as an ignorant fool who calls the natives 'niggers'.
To an extent we can applaud Kipling for exposing the ignorance and bigotry of these colonisers. He is clearly showing, as he does throughout the novel, that in many ways the natives of India were superior people to the British. But a moment's reflection shows that Kipling's championing of the natives and denigration of the British has to be turned back against himself; firstly because we can't help feeling that Kipling thought of himself as being very generous and self-effacing by praising the natives and criticising his own kind, which in itself is an arrogant and patronising attitude, and secondly because he never questioned the right of these ignorant fools to be in India in the first place.
The distinction Kipling is actually making is between those Europeans, such as Creighton, and Kim himself, who have been in India a long time and know the country well, and those 'uncurried donkeys' (Ch.5 p.136) who have recently arrived, knowing nothing about the country, bringing with them all that was worst in the British mentality.
The regimented life is intolerable to Kim, but he resigns himself to the fact that he is going to me made, at least partly into a sahib, and when in Chapter 7 he moves on to St. Xavier's school, then meets Colonel Creighton, he finds himself among white people of a better quality, whom he can admire, and he starts to accept and appreciate the white component to his identity.
In Colonel Creighton Kim finds a white man he can respect; a father-figure, a European counterpart of the lama. Creighton is wise, educated, experienced, and compassionate; the opposite end of the spectrum to Reverend Bennett, the drummer boy, and the schoolmaster. He recognises Kim's intelligence and special skills, and although he plays a small part in the story he is, as the highest-ranking representative of the British Government, and the person to whom Kim is responsible, a pillar of the whole novel and one of the most important influences on Kim in his quest to define himself. Creighton is OK, in Kipling's and Kim's eyes. Kim can look up to him, and he becomes the anchor which links Kim to the West, while the lama is the anchor which links him to the East.
Through being singled out by Creighton for recruitment into the Secret Service Kim escapes the worst of the British influence and acquires a superior position. At school he specialises in surveying and map-making, essential skills for his future role as a spy, and thereafter he is answerable only to Creighton and his agents, Mahbub Ali, Lurgan, and the Babu, who train him in the art and science of spying.
Thus, in the British context Kim takes on an esoteric and privileged position, just as, by his association with the lama, he has gained an esoteric and privileged position in the native context. So the identity he is partly finding and partly making for himself has as a central component that in relation to both East and West he adopts an esoteric and privileged position. He is not ordinary, but special, above the rest.
When his schooling is complete Kim's training as a spy under Creighton's associates continues, one of his teachers being the 'shaib' Lurgan. Lurgan, in his house adorned with ritual devil-dance masks, and his ability to heal sick jewels, seems to be a practitioner of the occult, and perhaps in creating this character Kipling was drawing on his interest in the mysticism of Madame Blavatsky and Theosophists which was popular during his youth. (see Carrington  p.362-3).
During his stay with Lurgan in Chapter 9, as well as practising the observation test now known as 'Kim's game', Kim is subjected to a psychological test in which Lurgan tries, through hypnotism, to make him believe that a broken jug has reconstituted itself. (Ch.9 p.201-2) Kim resists Lurgan's attempts to manipulate his mind by silently reciting the mathematical tables he learned at school. Lurgan is impressed, saying that Kim is the first one ever to have resisted him, and Kipling seems to be showing that much as Kim found the ordered regimented thinking of white men repellent at first, the mental discipline he has absorbed from his European schooling has given him an ability to keep control of his mind in a way that would not have been possible for a native. This ability, no doubt, would be vital if he were ever captured and interrogated by enemy spies.
The episode emphasises that in building his identity Kim has to partly adopt the white man's habits of mind, combining their strength with the strengths of his innate native mentality. Perhaps this is what Kipling was indicating when he opened Chapter 8 with a poem called 'The Two-Sided Man' which is about the wish to keep the 'two separate sides of my head'. (Ch.8 p.179)
Kim takes to the 'Great Game' of spying like a duck to water. It suits his independent, inquisitive, adventurous personality perfectly, being a natural development for the child who loved the 'game' of running secret missions across the rooftops of Lahore:
During his schooling and training Kim and the lama have to part, although Kim insists on joining the lama in his holidays, and re-joins him permanently when his schooling is complete, though now using him partly as a cover for his spying operations.
At the climax of the novel Kim is sent on a mission to intercept two foreign spies, one Russian, one French, who are operating in the Himalayas, and in spite of its being highly improbable that the 'River of the Arrow' will be found there he persuades the lama that their journey lies in that direction.
High in the Himalayas Kim and the lama reach the road's end, and even, 'the world's end' (Ch.14 p.300), and both of their journeys reach a crisis point. Kim is instrumental, along with the Babu, in thwarting the foreign spies, their mission being particularly successful because the foreign spies never realise that Kim and the Babu are secret agents - as far as they know their expedition has been wrecked by a chance encounter with a holy man and his young disciple.
The lama is involved in bringing about the climax, because it is one of the spies tearing the lama's diagram of the Buddhist universe, then striking him in the face, that provokes Kim into fighting him, which in turn leads to a mutiny of the foreign spies' coolies, which enables Kim to get hold of the spies' secret documents. This fight and Kim's triumph will be a coup for Kim which will surely secure his career as a spy.
The fight also seems to precipitate the end of the lama's quest, by making him aware of all his remaining attachments. He is dismayed to find that not only had he been motivated by pride as he climbed the mountains, but also that he reacted with rage, even a wish to see his attacker killed, during the fight. Thus at the climax Kim's first battle with the enemies of the Empire coincides with the lama's final battle with himself.
Both are weakened and suffer as a result of the battles. Kim develops a worrying cough, and the lama is so weak that he needs to be carried down the mountains on a stretcher.
Back on the plains their missions are completed. Kim passes on the secret documents, which have been weighing on his mind, to the Babu, and the lama, (in a scene (Ch.15 p.337-8) which reads very much like accounts of near-death experiences; perhaps, like Lurgan's hypnotism, drawn from Kipling's interest in mysticism mentioned by Carrington ), finds his River of the Arrow and comes face to face with the 'Great Soul'.
At this point it is worth picking up another theme which might be felt to be running under the surface of Kim - Kim's search for parents. At the beginning it is emphasised that Kim is an orphan, who never knew his mother, and that his deceased father was a drunkard. Perhaps he is looking for new parents, and finds a combined father figure in the lama, who in the closing scene calls him 'Son of my Soul' (Ch.15. p.338) and Colonel Creighton, who has been a father-figure since his time at St. Xavier's.
As a mother figure, Kim finds the woman from Kulu, who, in the final chapter of the novel, heals and restores him. 'She looks upon him as her son', says the lama (Ch.15 p.332). Kim calls her 'Mother', and tells her, 'I had no mother, my mother . . . died, they tell me, when I was young'. (Ch.15 p.326).
To her Kim and the lama are 'Children together - young and old' (Ch.15 p.322). But the mothering Kim receives in these closing scenes does not end with her. As the woman of Kulu herself acknowledges, he also needs 'Mother Earth':
This need for mothering comes to a head in the final chapter, but throughout the novel the orphan Kim has seemed to get along perfectly well without real parents, with surrogate mother and father figures being available when he needs them. The lama and Mahbub Ali comment on his seemingly natural ability to find substitute mothers:
'Hmph! Half Hind seems that way disposed.' (Ch.15 p.332)
In fact one of the remarkable aspects of Kim's personality is that he has always felt comfortable and secure. From start to finish Kim's demeanour is cheerful, confident, and resilient, like that of a well-looked-after child. One might speculate that on one level, throughout the novel as a whole, India itself has been his mother, with the backbone of British rule as his father.
The novel ends at the point where, on the brink of adulthood and secure in his career with the Secret Service, Kim no longer needs parents.
By all accounts (e.g. Mason  p.31) Kipling himself was happy growing up in India until the age of 6, then, when his family moved to England, he was sent to live with foster parents who were cruel to him and made his life a five-year-long trauma, (which Kipling recorded in his short story Baa Baa Black Sheep and alluded to in the opening of The Light That Failed). Perhaps the young Kipling was furious with his parents for abandoning him and his sister without warning in this nightmarish lodging house for five years, and perhaps the novel Kim is the adult Kipling's wish-fulfilment fantasy of how good life might have been if instead of being uprooted and subjected to this trauma he could have stayed on in India, on his own, without his parents.
In the final chapter, as well as receiving 'mothering', Kim comes as close as he ever does to feeling he has discovered his identity:
So, what is the identity which Kim has forged for himself? Who is Kim? There is no definitive statement, but at the end he seems to have arrived at a sense of self towards which he has been struggling, and which he has been defining cumulatively through his experiences. He seems to have found an adult role in which he can be true to himself as he really is, a 'mixture o' things' (Ch.6 p.160), neither wholly Indian nor wholly British, and in which he can maintain the detachment from everyday life and commitments which united him to the lama. As a secret agent his being a mixture of Indian and British will be an advantage, and he can devote his life to helping to preserve the stability of the British-Indian world he grew up in, which nurtured him like parents.
He can remain true to his emotional and spiritual roots, which are mainly native, and does not have to betray them by becoming a Sahib. 'I am not a Sahib' he insists in the final chapter (Ch.15 p.319). He has accepted and developed the European component of his character as much as he wants to, but he does not have to become a white ruler himself. There is too much of the native in him for him to do that. He refused to become a soldier (Ch.5 p.141) and it suits him to serve the sahibs discreetly, tangentially, in a way that makes use of his native instincts and experience, through his role in the Secret Service. He has found an adult role in which he is special, above the rest, and in which he can work on his own initiative, just as he did as a child on secret missions across the rooftops of Lahore.
'I am Kim' he states at the end, but there is still a question there, 'What is Kim?' There is no answer to that question, but perhaps the important thing is that he has remembered to ask it. Perhaps in his heart the Kim he has finally found is, and always had been, the Kim who remembers to ask that question, even though there is no answer.
1. KIPLING, Rudyard. Kim. Edited and with an introduction and notes by Edward W. Said. Penguin Classics. 2000. (First published Macmillan 1901)
2. SAID, Edward W. Introduction. in Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. Penguin Classics. 2000.
3. BHATIA, Nandi. Kipling's Burden: Representing Colonial Authority and Constructing the "Other" through Kimball O'Hara and Babu Hurree Chander in Kim. From SAGAR, a journal sponsored by University of Texas. Spring 1994.
4. MASON, Philip. Kipling: The glass, the shadow, and the fire. London. Jonathan Cape. 1975
5. CARRINGTON, Charles. Rudyard Kipling: His life and work. London. Macmillan. 1955.
© Ian Mackean, November 2001