Saturday, September 19, 2009

256. Kim - Rudyard Kipling

History: It was first published serially in McClure's Magazine from December 1900 to October 1901. The novel is notable for its detailed portrait of Indian people, culture, and its varied religions. It is generally considered by critics to be Kipling's best serious long novel.
Plot: Kim (Kimball O'Hara) is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier. He earns his living by begging and running small errands on the streets of Lahore. He occasionally works for his friend, Mahbub Ali, a horse trader who is one of the native operatives of the British secret service.
One day, he befriends an aged Tibetan Lama who is on a quest to free himself from the Wheel of Things by finding the legendary 'River of the Arrow'. Kim becomes his chela, or disciple, and accompanies him on his journey. On the way, Kim incidentally learns about parts of the Great Game and is recruited by the British to carry a message to the British commander in Umballa. Kim's trip with the Lama along the Grand Trunk Road is the first great adventure in the novel.
By chance, Kim's father's regimental chaplain identifies him by his Masonic certificate, which he wears around his neck and Kim is forcibly separated from the Lama, although the Lama insists to Kim that he should comply with the chaplain's plan because he believes it is in Kim's best interest, and sent to a top English school in Lucknow. The Lama insists on funding Kim's education and Kim remains in contact with him through his years at school. Kim also stays in contact with his secret service connections and is trained in espionage while on vacation from school, by Lurgan Sahib at his jewellery shop in Simla. For example, he looks at a tray full of mixed objects and notes which have been added or taken away, a pastime still called Kim's Game.
After three years of schooling, Kim is given a government appointment so that he can begin his role in the Great Game. Before this appointment begins, however, he is granted time to take a much-deserved break. Kim rejoins the Lama and, at the behest of Kim's superior Hurree Chunder Mookherjee, they make a trip to the Himalayas. Here the espionage and spiritual threads of the story collide, with the Lama unwittingly falling into conflict with Russian intelligence agents. Kim obtains maps, papers, and other important items from the Russians -- who were working to undermine British control of the region. Mookherjee befriends the Russians under cover, acting as a guide and ensures that they do not recover the lost items. Kim, aided by some porters and villagers, help to rescue the Lama.
The Lama realizes that he has gone astray. His search for the River of the Arrow should be taking place in the plains, not the mountains, and he orders the porters to take them back. Here Kim and the Lama are nursed back to health, Kim delivers the Russian documents to Babu, a concerned Mahbub Ali comes to check on Kim, and the Lama finds his river and achieves Enlightenment. The reader is left to decide whether Kim will henceforth follow the materialistic road of the Great Game, the spiritual way of Tibetan Buddhism, or a combination of the two.
Review: The friendship between this unlikely pair is one of the main attractions of 'Kim', which is a novel about male friendships, primarily between Kim and Teshoo lama, but also between Kim and Colonel Creighton and his colleagues. It is also a coming of age story, and a story about India. According to many accounts Kipling himself was happy growing up in India until the age of 6, then, when his family moved to England, he was sent to live with foster parents who were cruel and made his life a five-year-long trauma, (which Kipling recorded in his short story 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' and alluded to in the opening of 'The Light That Failed'). Perhaps the young Kipling was furious with his parents for abandoning him and his sister without warning in this lodging house for five years, and perhaps the novel 'Kim' is the adult Kipling's wish-fulfilment fantasy of how good life might have been if instead of being uprooted he could have stayed on in India, on his own, without his parents.
Opening Line: "He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher - the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum."
Closing Line: "He crossed his hands on his lap and smiled, as a man may who has won salvation for himself, and his beloved."
Quotes: "I have seen something of this world," she said over the crowded trays, "and there are but two sorts of women in it - those who take the strength out of a man and those who put it back. Once I was that one, and now I am this."
Rating: Mediocre

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