In January 1900, Rudyard Kipling wrote to Charles Eliot Norton, “I’ve done a long leisured Asiatic yarn in which there are hardly any Englishmen. It has been a labor of great love and I think it is a bit more temperate and wiser than much of my stuff.” This was Kim, Kipling’s most successful novel, which he had begun in the early 1890s, intending it to be an adventure story set in India. When he returned to it in the fall of 1899, he was recovering from a series of personal setbacks. In 1898, his beloved sister, Trix, had been diagnosed with mental illness. Then, in early 1899, while visiting America, Kipling had caught pneumonia, and had lain too close to death to be informed of the death of his six-year-old daughter Josephine.
However, Kipling was unlikely to let any hint of personal tragedy touch his public reputation. In 1901, when he published Kim after reworking the older material for an adventure story over a “gloomy, windy autumn,” Kipling was thirty-six years old and was beginning to be known as a literary propagandist for empire. Two years earlier, he had exhorted the United States, which was then about to invade the Philippines, to help the British carry the “White Man’s Burden” and civilize its “new-caught, sullen people, half-devil and half-child.” In 1899 he had also published a series of patriotic verses in an attempt to rally the British public against the Boers in South Africa.
For a writer he had odd friends, such as Cecil Rhodes and Theodore Roosevelt. This hobnobbing with both hardened and budding imperialists perplexed and dismayed the writers who admired him: men such as William James, who read his poem “The White Man’s Burden” with consternation, and Joseph Conrad, who thought that Kipling’s justification for the British armed intervention in South Africa—that it was promoting democracy—was enough to make one “die laughing.” Kipling’s jingoism, which made him unattractive to many later generations of readers, seemed un-British even to his British peers, such as Max Beerbohm, who mercilessly lampooned him. But then Kipling was in many ways an outsider in Britain.
Born in Bombay, Kipling, like Kim, had an idyllic early childhood, speaking Hindustani before he spoke English, indulged by his parents and native servants. As he wrote in his memoir, Something of Myself,
Give me the first six years of a child’s life and you can have the rest…. My first impression is of daybreak, light and colour and golden and purple fruits at the level of my shoulder. This would be the memory of early morning walks to the Bombay fruit mar-ket with my ayah…a Portuguese Roman Catholic who would pray—I beside her—at a wayside Cross. Meeta, my Hindu bearer, would sometimes go into little Hindu temples where, being below the age of caste, I held his hand and looked at the dimly seen, friendly Gods….
In the afternoon heats before we took our sleep, she or Meeta would tell us stories and Indian nursery songs all unforgotten, and we were sent into the dining-room after we had been dressed, with the caution “Speak English now to Papa and Mamma.” So one spoke “English,” haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in.
After these years of ease, affection, and gaiety in India, Kipling’s introduction to England at the age of five was traumatic. His parents sent him to live with strangers in Southsea—not an unusual step for English people in India wanting their children to grow up in their true “home.” Kipling’s short story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” evokes powerfully the five years of exile that he spent with what turned out to be particularly cruel guardians in England, suffering partial blindness and what seems to have been a ner-vous breakdown. Apparently, he wasn’t much happier at his minor public school at Westward Ho! Much later in his life, when, after stints in India and Vermont, Kipling had settled down in Sussex, he was convinced that, as he wrote to Cecil Rhodes, “England is a stuffy little place, mentally, morally and physically.”
Kipling never lost his nostalgia for India, to which he returned in 1882, to spend six and a half years as a journalist and aspiring writer. Arriving in Bombay, he resumed immediately his intimacy with the sights and smells that, as he wrote, “made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not…. My English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.”
T.S. Eliot shrewdly remarked on Kipling’s peculiarly Anglo-Indian sensibility, which developed as he traveled around India and began to write poems, travel and satirical essays, and the stories about British soldiers and administrators later collected in Plain Tales from the Hills (1888):
Kipling is of India in a different way from any other Englishman who has written, and in a different way from that of any particular Indian, who has a race, a creed, a local habitation and, if a Hindu, caste. He might almost be called the first citizen of India.
This unexpectedly makes Kipling appear a very early precursor of the Indian writers in English inspired by Salman Rushdie, the Western-educated midnight’s children of Nehru’s India, who in the late twentieth century began to rework creatively their mixed cultural legacy. Certainly Kipling was, in his Indian stories and in Kim, the first major writer to self-consciously present an exotic East, “the happy Asiatic disorder,” to a primarily Western audience. He was never less than aware of his privileged access to worlds of which his audience knew little. He confidently imports Hindustani words, native proverbs, and Indian fables into Kim. But he also had the ability, still not surpassed by Indian writers in English, to recreate without much artifice the lives of ordinary Indians, to give humor and character to the mass of obscure men in the bazaars, the roads, and the fields. The peculiar dialect he gave them reproduced remarkably well their speech rhythms in Hindustani. Here is Kim, for instance, imitating perfectly the young beggar’s spiel, which may still be heard today at traffic stops in Delhi or Bombay:
“Maharaj,” whined Kim, using the Hindu form of address, and thoroughly enjoying the situation; “my father is dead—my mother is dead—my stomach is empty.”
Kipling’s descriptions of bazaars, mountains, and the vast In-dian plains in Kim became justly famous for their dramatic vividness:
Then the night fell, changing the touch of the air, drawing a low, even haze, like a gossamer veil of blue, across the face of the country, and bringing out, keen and distinct, the smell of wood-smoke and cattle and the good scent of wheaten cakes cooked on ashes.
With its many settings and multicultural cast—Hindus from different castes, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, each with their own stories and perspectives—Kim reveals Kipling’s easy acceptance of India’s chaotically diverse and often troubling lifestyles and manners—what E.M. Forster called the “muddle of India”; it shows how this politically reactionary writer saw India more intimately, if less intellectually, than such visiting English liberals as Forster. As Eliot wrote,
His relation to India determines that about him which is the most important thing about a man, his religious attitude. It is an attitude of comprehensive tolerance. He is not an unbeliever—on the contrary he can accept all faiths.
At the same time, his feeling for the land of his childhood also made Kipling a fiercely possessive imperialist. There was never any question in his mind that it was India’s destiny to be subject to the British Empire. His image of India, as Francis Hutchins, Edward Said, and others have pointed out, was of a static place, immune to change. He thought of the British in India as custodians of a wonderful old culture. He could be very impatient with the British at home for failing to awaken to their imperial destiny as bringers of law and order to the rest of the world. However, he was severe with Christian missionaries whom he suspected of wanting to Westernize, and thereby deracinate, Indians. In his story “On the City Wall,” published in 1888, Kipling presciently outlined a type of modern fanatic that now seems familiar to us, a young, Western-educated Muslim who abruptly turns into a fundamentalist. He was also hostile to the middle-class Indians who claimed to represent India and who in the 1880s had begun to speak tentatively of self-rule.
At first glance, Kim, the story of an Irish orphan born in India who awakens slowly to his real identity as a white sahib, or master, seems to encapsulate perfectly Kipling’s sensuous memories of India and his faith in the mission of empire. The novel has no plot, apart from the rather thin spy story in which the thirteen-year-old Kim, the orphaned son of an Irish soldier, is spotted by British secret agents and trained by them to become a minor player in the so-called Great Game, the proxy war of espionage between the rival imperial powers of Russia and Britain.
Kim has grown up in the bazaars of Lahore and his native ways make him appear Indian. He meets a Tibetan lama who is looking for a sacred river in which to cleanse his sins and achieve salvation. Kim offers to help him and becomes his chela (disciple). While wandering across North India with the lama, Kim passes coded messages between Mahbub Ali, an Afghan horse-trader who is also a spy, and Colonel Creighton, the head of the British secret service. Creighton discovers that Kim is white, and sends him to a public school in Lucknow. Kim reluctantly goes to school but rejoins the lama’s search for the river during his vacations.
During their travels, which take them to the Himalayas, Kim meets Hurree Chunder, a Western-educated Bengali, who is part of the British attempt to thwart a Russian conspiracy. In the Himalayas, Kim manages to steal important papers from Russian spies. But the Russians assault the lama, who refuses to sell them his chart describing the Buddhist Wheel of Life. Both Kim and the lama fall ill and are nurtured back to health by Sahiba, a kind and wealthy Hindu dowager. The novel ends ambiguously, with the lama claiming to have reached salvation, and Kim returning to the Great Game.
With its philosophical and religious digressions, and a potential aimlessness always kept in check by a moral purpose, it resembles the tales from classical India that Kipling heard as a child in Bombay. But the loose, picaresque structure of Kim can be as deceptive as its exuberantly animated pictures of Indian life. Early in the novel, Kipling shows Kim faced with an existential dilemma:
“This is the great world and I am only Kim. Who is Kim?” He considered his own identity, a thing he had never done before, till his head swam.