Published in 1901, Kim is generally regarded as Kipling’s masterpiece and the novel was undoubtedly instrumental in gaining its author the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) remains a controversial figure but even decades of political correctness have failed to put a serious dent in his literary reputation. Despite his stature as the pre-eminent imperialist writer he remains immensely popular in India.
Kim can be read as a tale of adventure but it is in fact a complex multi-layered novel. Kipling was a complex man and this is an ambitious novel.
The background to the novel is the Great Game, the struggle or power and influence in central Asia between the British and the Russians. While the British were obsessed by the supposed threat to India the Russians were probably more interested in Persia. the problem was that both powers saw control of Afghanistan as crucial. The struggle was conducted through a mixture of espionage, bluff and attempts to gain influence over the various native rulers.
Kim is caught between two worlds, in more ways than one. The son of an Irish soldier, he grew up on the streets of Lahore believing himself to be Indian. He not only thinks in Hindustani, he dreams in that language. When he discovers the true circumstances of his birth he adapts to being white without in any way rejecting his sense of being Indian. He is capable of thinking of himself as being wholly white and wholly Indian. He is also caught between the worlds of the flesh and the spirit. He becomes an adept at the Great Game, playing the game of political intrigue and espionage with great skill. At the same time he is a devoted disciple of his lama and is drawn to the pursuit of spiritual perfection and rejection of the world.
It is no accident that Kipling chooses to make his hero an espionage agent. It is a useful metaphor. A spy is after all someone with a dual existence, a dual personality.
The India of the Raj was itself caught between two worlds. Almost everything in this novel is concerned with themes of duality. Even Kim’s lama displays this quality. He seeks to reject the world but is drawn back to it by his affection for Kim.
Kipling sees no particular need to resolve these oppositions. The world of action is as valid as the world of the spirit.
The novel can be seen as a tale of adventure, a coming-of-age story, a spiritual quest and a very affectionate portrait of India. Kipling was born in India and his love for the country was sincere and passionate. Anyone expecting that a novel by such a renowned enthusiast for imperialism can be dismissed as racist will be sorely perplexed by Kim. Kipling’s view of imperialism was much too complex and subtle to be dismissed so glibly. The hero remains, throughout his adventures, as much Indian as British. Kipling of course saw no conflict between the two.
Kipling’s answer to the various opposing dichotomies facing his characters seems to be to embrace such oppositions rather than to try to resolve them.
Most of the non-white characters in the novel see no particular conflict of identity. The Afghan Moslem Mahbub Ali and the Bengali Hurree Babu serve the British with courage and enthusiasm, not because they are traitors to the own nations but because they believe they are serving the interests of both their own people and the British. Of course the possibility that Indians may have been strong supporters of British rule and may have been prepared to give their lives for it will not please modern readers brought up to believe in the Cult of Gandhi. The fact that the ethnic cleansing that followed the partition of India after independence cost a million lives illustrates the reasons so many Indians supported the Raj.
Kipling was not just a highly skilled but also an innovative and daring story-teller. Kim is a fascinatingly complex novel. Highly recommended.