by Tom Cole
It’s probably a little myopically unfair to call Rudyard Kipling’s Kim the greatest book about India. Unfair because it’s 114 years old and because its language and ostensible politics sometimes pinch the modern ear. Myopic because, after all, it’s a book about India by an non-Indian, and a guy with a reputation as a strident imperialist to boot.
For many years it was almost vanishingly rare to hear a good word about Kipling in polite literary or political circles. In the past couple of decades, though, his reputation has seen a major uptick. For one thing, you can’t read Kipling without marveling at his wonderful energy and focus and his command of expression. He was a masterful, fabulously engaging writer (and in 1907 the first English-language Nobel laureate). Henry James, not given to idle praise, once said that: “Kipling strikes me personally as the most complete man of genius (as distinct from fine intelligence) that I have ever known.”
As for Kipling’s politics: he was indeed sometimes uncomfortably bellicose, and it’s (a little too easy) to see him as what we would today call, in our guillotine fashion, racist. But a close look at his 1897 poem Recessional shows him to have been surprisingly skeptical of the British Empire’s pretensions. And after his son was killed in World War I his fascination with war and soldiery took a dark turn. Further complicating things was the inescapable fact that Kipling knew and loved India and its people deeply and well—he was born there, in Bombay, in 1865, and in his formative years was a wide-eyed lad who “thought and dreamed” in the local vernacular.
Kim tells the story of the far-flung adventures of the eponymous youth, who at book’s beginning is a resourceful street urchin in Lahore (now in Pakistan, then part of British India). Though he’s thought to be a “native,” Kim is the orphaned son of an Irish mother and father who died in poverty. I won’t outline the fascinating plot, especially since Wikipedia has done such a good job: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_(novel).
If you’re interested in India, Kim will provide you with a what the Oxford Companion to English Literature calls “a vivid picture of India, its teeming populations, religions, and superstitions, and the life of the bazaars and the road.” The India that Kipling presents in Kim is still very evident in the India of today. The lad’s travels along the Grand Trunk Road are unforgettably vibrant, and his encounters with Tibetan lamas (one of whom is a major figure in the book) and bazaar merchants, and English soldiers and Russian spies, are masterfully and accurately drawn. If you love or have a hearty affection for India and you haven’t read Kim, I envy you, because you’ve got a grand treat in store. Kipling was perhaps—no, surely—the Raj’s greatest chronicler, and on my recent Micato trip to India, I felt his presence often. His first collection of short stories, Plain Tales from the Hills is indispensable reading; and while we were looking—successfully— for tigers in Ranthambore National Park, I re-lived my experience of the thunderously marvelous Jungle Books.
(If you’re wondering about those Russian spies: Kim becomes embroiled in what was known as the Great Game, a long rivalry for dominance in Central Asia between the expansionist Russian Empire and the British, who were convinced the Russians were intent on swooping down from the north to pluck the Jewel in the Crown from them. Another of Kim’s great characters is Col. Creighton, a brainy English spy in the Himalayan uplands where the Great Game was played in earnest. Creighton is based on a real-life adventurer/soldier/spy/mystic named Francis Younghusband, the epitome of the Edwardian hero figure, the kind of fellow who would stop the music by striding in his ragged field uniform into a Viceregal ball in the hill station of Simla, walk up to the Viceroy and say, “Sir! I bring news from the frontier!”)
Looking for some other great reads on India? Check out Tom’s other blog article on the subject: 4 Great Books about India.