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.

Kipling, who mentions but does not dramatize Kim’s predicament, which he himself, like all children of mixed cultures, had to deal with, was never much inclined to explore the inner life of his characters. In fact, as Noel Annan once pointed out, he was unique among English writers of his time in that he was “seldom interested in the individual as such” and assumed “that morality is an entirely social product.” Kipling’s own morality consisted of following what he called, somewhat nebulously, the “Law,” and as he wrote in “The Law of the Jungle,” “the head and the hoof of the Law and the haunch and the hump is—Obey!”

In many of his writings Kipling upheld the values of social conformity. He seems to have been influenced by the Indian ethic of karma, which in its crudest form calls upon individuals wishing to improve their prospects in the next life to perform correctly the caste roles assigned to them at birth in this life.1 This idea of karma is closer than anything in Christianity to Kipling’s moral worldview in which men embrace unquestioningly their racial and national destiny and work hard, in the “unforgiving minute,” to acquire merit.

It seems to have helped Kipling arrive at some moral and spiritual certainties in his life. As his writings reveal, he tried to see himself as a member of a master race, fulfilling a stern, if necessary, duty to uncivilized peoples in many remote and inhospitable corners of the world. But he couldn’t disown entirely the carefree and joyous childhood he had spent with the same uncivilized peoples in India. In Kim, Kipling seems to have burdened the white Indianized boy with his own seemingly incompatible selves. He also seems to have attempted to reconcile them, or at least to justify his own political choices.

Kim may feel that he is a “tortuous and indirect person playing a hidden game.” But early in the novel the British men he has managed to avoid all his life find out that what they take to be a bazaar urchin has white skin. He realizes then that “no man can escape his kismet [fate].” He was born a sahib, and a sahib he will be. He will have to grow up and, just as Kipling once had, embrace his responsibilities, however dreary, in the world ruled by white men like himself.

Kipling seems to have known from the beginning how and where Kim will end up: as a servant of the imperial cause. What he seems to be working out in the rest of the novel is how Kim will come into his true racial inheritance, with what degree of discomfort and anguish.

During his journey to adulthood, Kim is drawn strongly to an unworldly Tibetan lama, who enters the novel in the very first pages, wishing, like all Buddhist monks, to free himself from desire and striving, in what he calls “the great and terrible world,” to attain enlightenment.

The bond between the Irish orphan and his Buddhist guru is one of the unlikeliest and happiest cross-cultural relationships Kipling devised in his fiction, where British and Indian individuals, if they meet at all, tend to have brief, tragically fraught encounters.2 The lama is convinced that “the talk of white men is wholly lacking in dignity” but he doesn’t see Kim as white and feels for him a strong paternal love. In turn, Kim admires him initially for his equanimity, his ability to walk past a cobra without fear (“Never have I seen,” he admits, “such a man as thou art”), and is happy to become his chela. Later, he comes to appreciate him for his Buddhistic wisdom: “Kim, who had loved him without reason, now loved him for fifty good reasons.”

It is not clear how and where Kipling could have come across a character like the lama. Tibetan Buddhists in the late nineteenth century were as rarely encountered in real life as in literature. Henry James was one of the novel’s early readers to be enchanted by the Buddhist character. “I find the boy himself a dazzling conception,” he wrote to Kipling, “but I find the Lama more yet—a thing damnably and splendidly done.” James went on to exhort Kipling to “chuck public affairs which are an ignoble scene, and stick to your canvas and your paint-box. There are as good colours in the tubes as ever were laid on, and there is the only truth. The rest is base humbug. Ask the lama.”

Kipling ignored James’s advice. In the years leading up to the First World War, he seemed to turn his art almost wholly into a mouthpiece for his imperialist politics. But while writing Kim, he seems to have found it as hard as his hero to tear himself from the Buddhist lama, “the old man, wise and temperate, illuminating knowledge with brilliant insight.” Kipling gives him plenty of opportunities for discourse in the last third of the book, where the lama emerges, as he travels the hills with Kim, as the real hero. Kipling’s respectful and extended attention to him in the novel is intriguing partly because the lama stands opposed to everything his creator wishes to uphold.

The lama condemns violence and describes the kind of masculine strength that Kipling so admired as “weakness.” He speaks of self-delusion: of taking the body as one’s soul. He declares to Kim that “to abstain from action is well—except to acquire merit.” When Kim says that “to abstain from action was unbefitting a Sahib,” he is told that “there is neither black nor white” for Buddhists and that we, being bound to the “illusion of Time and Space,” are “all souls seeking escape.” He warns Kim soon after the latter has performed his first major task as a spy for the British Empire that he has “loosed an Act upon the world, and as a stone thrown into a pool so spread the consequences thou canst not tell how far.”

Kipling may have first known about Buddhism through his father, Lockwood Kipling, who was the curator of the Indian museum in Lahore, which has many images of the Buddha, and where, in the opening scene of Kim, the Irish orphan boy first meets the Tibetan lama. He may have learned more from the writings of the seventh- century Chinese pilgrim Huan Tsang, whose translations he mentions in Kim, or from the best-selling verse biography of the Buddha, Light of Asia, which was published in 1879 by Edwin Arnold, then editor of The Daily Telegraph. Some of the details of the Buddha’s life in Kim come from a highly fanciful first-century biography, the Lalitavistara. Kipling’s knowledge of the Buddha’s worldview is not perfect—or, at least, he seems willing to take liberties with it before his not very well informed Western audience. The lama appears more Hindu than Buddhist when he travels around India, looking for a sacred river apparently created by the young Buddha. But Kipling does get the broad details right of what the Buddha taught: the distrust of worldly ambition and individualism, the impermanence of things, the unreality of the self, and the emphasis on individually achieved—as opposed to collectively organized—redemption.

Kipling assigned the lama the primary task of acting as a spiritual guardian of the young and impetuous white boy until he is ready to assume his responsibilities as a sahib. Although he is heartbroken to be separated from him, the lama pays for Kim’s education at a Christian-run school. Kim, however, is a reluctant sahib. Still craving the warmth and freedom of his native childhood, he returns after his schooling to the wandering life with the lama. In one of the most beautiful parts of the book, Kipling describes how

each long, perfect day rose behind Kim for a barrier to cut him off from his race and his mother-tongue. He slipped back to thinking and dreaming in the vernacular, and mechanically following the ceremonial observances at eating, drinking, and the like…. They enjoyed themselves in high felicity, abstaining, as the Rule demands, from evil words, covetous desires; not over-eating, not lying on high beds, nor wearing rich clothes. Their stomachs told them the time, and the people brought them their food….

Struck by their spiritual intimacy, the lama wonders, “Perhaps I was once a Sahib.” Kim reminds him, “Thou has said there is neither black nor white…. I am not a Sahib. I am thy chela….” Kim travels with the lama to the hills, where Kipling’s prose grows more ecstatic:

Except the grey eagle and an occasional far-seen bear grubbing and rooting on the hillside; a vision of a furious painted leopard met at dawn in a still valley devouring a goat; and now and again a bright-coloured bird, they were alone with the winds and the grass singing under the wind.

But Kim by now is well on his way to becoming a nameless functionary in the Great Game. He is actually in the hills to carry out a mission on behalf of British intelligence. Things go badly wrong when a Russian agent assaults the lama and, in response, an enraged Kim almost murders him. Both Kim and the lama are profoundly shaken by this experience. The great and terrible world has intruded, as it always threatened to, upon their idyll.

As the novel nears the end, you sense that Kipling was in a hurry to achieve resolution for both Kim and the lama. Kim raises the old question: “I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?” As Kipling describes it, Kim moves abruptly from feeling his soul “out of gear with its surroundings” to a feeling of the solidity of the world, and the tasks that await him in it:

And with an almost audible click he felt the wheels of his being lock up anew on the world without…. Roads were meant to be walked upon, houses to be lived in, cattle to be driven, fields to be tilled, and men and women to be talked to.

Thus, Kipling brings Kim down to solid ground: to the world shaped by men of action. But what can he do with the otherworldly lama? He shows the Buddhist meditating and then emerging from his trance convinced that, as the last words of the novel put it, he has “won salvation for himself and his beloved.”

This salvation strikes us as slightly contrived. It may be that the lama has achieved it, but is it really possible that, as the sardonic Muslim Mahbub Ali has it, “the boy, sure of paradise, can yet enter government service,” and that Kim could be a factotum of empire after having attained freedom from attachment?

From the beginning, the lama has defined his own quest for wisdom and salvation in opposition to the ways of modern imperialists who wish to know not themselves but the world in order to control it. In the opening scene of the novel, the lama had admired, but was ultimately skeptical about, the value of British scholarship on display at Lahore’s museum: “I know nothing—nothing do I know—but I go to free myself from the Wheel of Things by a broad and open road.”

Amplifying the lama’s Buddhist ideas in the last third of the novel, Kipling did not seem to notice how they were incompatible with the imperial vocation he was leading Kim toward. The novel appears to end tamely because the conflict we expect never arises—and this is a potentially more profound conflict than the one a contemporary reader might expect between Kim’s Indian and British selves. It is as if Kipling, reaching the end of his book, which had begun life as an adventure story, suddenly no longer knows what to do with the lama’s profounder ideas. He can only show the lama carrying out his original task: of helping Kim embrace his karma, his duty in the larger, impersonal world—a world which in the case of the author as well as his character is all about empire.

Writing Kim at a time when he was the best-known writer in the English-speaking world, courted by powerful politicians and a growing public, Kipling was clearly fired up by his ascetic sense of the white man’s mission. But while Kim is still redolent of India and of Kipling’s imperial fantasies, it also carries a strikingly large trace of a fascination with Buddhism—an ethic of renunciation that Kipling could not finally absorb into the overall design of his novel.

As it turns out, this failure has preserved, rather than diminished, Kim’s—and Kipling’s—rich ambivalences for a new generation of readers. To read the novel now, particularly its last third, is to notice the melancholy wisdom that accompanies the native boy’s journey through a broad and open road to the narrow duties of the white man’s world: how the deeper Buddhist idea of the illusion of the self, of time and space, makes bearable for Kim the anguish of abandoning his childhood.

Kipling himself had known this anguish when he was torn away from India and sent to England. It was, as Edmund Wilson first pointed out in a brilliantly perceptive essay, the central experience of his life.3 His fiction never ceased to convey his early intimation of a cruel, inhospitable world, which darkened, after the death of his teenage son in the First World War, into an apparently immovable conviction that life was mostly suffering. His later short stories, which were collected in Debits and Credits (1926) and Limits and Renewals (1932), largely describe how isolated and lonely men and women cope with their grief.

It was during another time of pain, “in a gloomy, windy autumn,” that Kipling wrote Kim, the book he described as a “bit more temperate and wiser than much of my stuff.” He had then just lost his young daughter and his sister had gone mad. But he was also then at the height of his reputation, and he tried to use his novel to reaffirm his loyalty to the empire. This loudly and frequently asserted faith seems to have given meaning and shape to his strangely fractured and tormented life and kept him, as Edmund Wilson suggested, from confronting himself. Nevertheless, looking at the Buddhist parts of Kim, one can’t help but wonder whether Kipling, while roving imaginatively across the sunlit landscape of his Indian past, had strayed into a deeper part of himself—the place where he did confront, without the big, obscuring talk of duty to empire, his tortuous and indirect personality, and felt, just as the lama had, that there is neither black nor white but that we are all souls seeking escape from illusion.

This Issue

March 25, 2004