I chose to read Kim by Rudyard Kipling for the “Classic With a Name in the Title” category of the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. I was not (and am still not really) all that familiar with Kipling’s work. I knew, of course, that he wrote The Jungle Book (which I have not read), and that he had spent some time in India. I had also watched the movie, My Boy Jack, about the loss of Kipling’s son in WWI, mostly because that son was played by Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe.
Kimball O’Hara is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier and a maid who lived and worked in colonial-era India. After their deaths he was raised in Lahore by a local woman who sold opium. He has learned to blend in so well that with the help of a little walnut juice and a change of clothing he can pass for any one of a number of castes or religions. This ability is made use of by Mahbub Ali, an Afghan horse-trader who sometimes employs Kim as a messenger passing top secret information to his British government contacts.
Kim longs for freedom and adventure, so he jumps at the opportunity to go on a spiritual quest with a Tibetan lama. While the two are travelling south, Kim stumbles across his father’s former regiment. The two spiritual advisers of the regiment, one a Catholic priest and the other from the Church of England, insist on adopting the boy and sending him to a school for European boys in Lucknow, where he will be taught to be a “Sahib”.
This new lifestyle of regimented discipline is galling to Kim, and he accepts it only after he is sponsored by Mahbub Ali’s government handlers, and assured that when he is old enough he will be invited to play “The Great Game” for himself.
I chose to read this book because several years ago I saw a few minutes of an old movie adaption and thought it looked like it might be an interesting story. It was… eventually.
I struggled with the beginning of the book, especially with the first chapter or so where Kipling was describing Kim’s early life and his first meeting with Teshoo Lama. Perhaps I wasn’t in the right head-space to truly appreciate it, and in the back of my mind I was vaguely aware of someone once warning me off reading The Jungle Book because I would find it very different from the Disney movie.
Bearing that in mind, I found the opening of Kim a little confusing as Kipling presented a lot of backstory in a very short time. Leaping into an unfamiliar setting and introducing a number of characters in quick succession took some time and mental agility to interpret.
Once the story really got going I found it quite enjoyable, although I’m not sure where I stand on the moral implications of this, as the story is set at the height of the British “Raj”. Was I uncomfortable with the occasional racial stereotyping? Yes, but I was not surprised by it, as the book was obviously a product of its time. Could I forget that the actions of the British agents might have eventually contributed to the violence and trauma that accompanied the withdrawal of the British from India and Partition? Not entirely, although Kipling could hardly have been aware of it, since it was still almost 50 years in the future when the book was published.
Would I recommend it to others? The jury’s still out.