Imperialist, racist, misogynist – Kipling has been called all of them. And there’s plenty of evidence to support these accusations in Kim, the novel that many consider to be his masterpiece. But labels oversimplify things, and Kipling’s portrayal of India under the Raj is, like the novel’s protagonist, so wonderfully fractured and complex that it defies easy condemnation.
It’s also easier to forgive an author for subscribing to the worst philosophies of their time when they produce such a fantastic adventure story, full of individual characters and dynamic descriptions.
Kim, or Kimball O’Hara, is an Irish orphan who grows up on the streets of Lahore, and knows the city and its people like the back of his hand. He is gifted in disguise and mimicry, and is known as Friend of All the World for his precocious charm.
Playing outside the Wonder House, as the Lahore Museum is known, he meets a scarlet robed Tibetan lama, a Buddhist monk who has renounced his monastery to search for a legendary river that is said to wash away all sin.
Seeing the lama’s innocence and vulnerability, and fascinated by his novelty, Kim becomes his chela (disciple). His street smarts make him singularly skilled at begging and living off the kindness of the locals.
But before Kim and the lama can set off on their spiritual quest, the boy is engaged by his friend, Mahbub Ali, an Afghan horse trader, to deliver a message of great importance to the British Empire, ensnaring Kim in the Great Game for control of the subcontinent, and establishing his dual loyalties to the lama and the Empire that he will struggle to balance throughout the novel.
Almost from the novel’s famous opening lines – “He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun of Zam-Zammah” – there are implications of a racial hierarchy, Kim having won his vantage point by besting a Hindu and a Muslim.
Time and again, Kipling shows that he believes the English were born to rule, and that the natives benefit from their guiding hand. “Madness,” is how one the characters, an old soldier, describes an uprising by the locals against their colonial masters, demonstrating the author’s blindness to the possibility that there is any injustice in the relationship.
One of the novel’s central plots has Kim becoming a secret agent for British interests, quelling rebellion against the Raj and ensuring the Russians do not gain a toehold in the country.
Kim is drawn into the Great Game partially by his hunger for adventure, but also by the primary attraction of the world of the British – power. One of his first acts after assuming the role of a Sahib (Wiki tells me this roughly translates as “Owner” or “Propreiter”, the name automatically bestowed on whites at the time) is to chastise a native driver for failing to use an appropriately respectful vernacular.
Yet apart from power and intrigue, Kipling’s portrays many aspects of the Empire as dull, lifeless and cruel compared with Indian culture. Kim’s first encounter with the British is characterised by the callous way in which a Protestant priest treats the lama, and his ignorance and disrespect towards native custom.
Kim’s three years at boarding school are oppressive and the author only deigns to recount the boy’s holidays, when he takes to the road or learns practical skills from his mentors. All his schoolmates seem to do is administer beatings, boast, or look down on the locals.
By contrast, Kipling’s India is like a continuous festival, full of adventure and rich sights and sounds. The author lovingly captures the noise and bustle of the roads and railway stations, and the quirks and dialects of the myriad of people.
The Indian characters are poor but generous; Kim is always able to beg alms for himself and the lama with a little light hearted flattery. Where there is trickery, it is easily avoided by one wise to the ways of the country, so that the attempts of a priest to drug the lama and rob him in his sleep come across as a harmless game.
But the strongest evidence that Kim is not some Imperialist pamphlet lies in the protagonist’s conflicted loyalties. For much of the story, Kim chafes to enter the Great Game and delights in the idea of killing. By the end of the novel, however, he has tired of the violence and deceit, and thinks only of serving his lama.
Their relationship is the central one of the novel. Their first separation is heartbreaking; their reunion, even more so.
Further, the lama is one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel, and Kipling demonstrates a deep understanding and respect for Buddhism, having the lama expound his philosophies and demonstrate their virtue.
Kim periodically undergoes crisis of identity as he moves between cultures. But when the lama is ailing after being injured by a Russian colonialist, Kim’s identity is completely subsumed by his role as disciple: “I am not a Sahib. I am thy chela,” he declares, and it is not a statement that is reversed.
Kipling, in his life and writing, undoubtedly subscribed to Imperialism. But in Kim, he also shows that he was conflicted about his loyalties and identity, for though he may have believed in “the White Man’s burden”, his heart remained with the country of his childhood.