Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Title: Kim
Author: Rudyard Kipling
ISBN-13: 9780140183528

Publisher: Penguin Group/338pages
First Published: 1901

Kim is a story about a British orphan about thirteen years of age who has been raised on the streets of Lahore, now in Pakistan. He speaks fluent Hindi, understands assorted dialects and, is well versed in whirl of religions and cultures. He takes to the road as a disciple of a wandering Tibetan priest in search of a mythical holy river with healing powers. Along the way, he has a chance meeting with his deceased father's old army regiment and his identity is revealed to him. The army sends him to an English language Catholic school in the south, but his underlying value, because of his knowledge of local language and understanding of culture, is quickly made use by a member of the British secret service.

Kim is not a children’s book. A child may be the main character, but the book is too philosophical and filled with complex human behaviour to be of much interest to children. The main thrush of the book is the relationship between Kim and the Red Lama, the basic story of two people, one an orphan boy and the other an elderly mystic, finding many of the things they are seeking in caring for and looking after one another.

In Kim, Kipling characterizes all the good of India while playing down the contrasts. He shows us what India would have been like in an ideal situation of mutual tolerance. Kipling’s observations are remarkable and one realizes from time to time that it is not the writer’s imagination about a period long gone but that he was in fact a part of that period. The sights, sounds, phrases, references, and personalities are entirely authentic. Kipling captures the sound, smell, and colour of India in the early part of the 20th century like no one else. He was a writer gifted with an acute sense of observation and a keen eye for details.

Another angle on the story is what is says about modern human intelligence operations. The leading British intelligent agent recognizes that Kim has language and culture skills that cannot be taught in any academy.

The story takes place after the Indian mutiny of 1857when many families were divided by violence. That period was a time of immense upheaval in India. It went from being a country made up of many native princely states with Englishmen as merchants to one unified under the flag of England. There was tension between the English in India and the Indians. There was also a staunch love of India by those same ruling Englishmen and women. Even Kipling did not envisage that the mutiny of 1858 was a step in the fight for India's independence. He was convinced that what England was doing was right despite his love for India. There in lies the irony.

At places, one has to plod through despite the poetic language. Still this is well worth the read. It does give a good glimpse of British rule in India.