On Rereading Kipling

Kipling’s novel Kim has long fascinated me. Published in 1901, when the British Empire was at its zenith, it tells the story of Kim O’Hara, a poor Anglo-Irish boy who has effectively gone native, finding it easier to slip into Hindu or Mohammedan garb when engaged on certain businesses. The novel describes his travels across the Subcontinent in the company of a Tibetan lama searching for a river which brings forgiveness of sins, in the course of which he finds himself being used by the Secret Service. Kipling’s interest in the Great Game being fought against Russians and the mixed bag of characters who play it anticipates themes Le Carre would later work with; there are unexpected continuities in English fiction. We encounter good Englishmen, such as the white-bearded Curator of the Museum in Lahore, and Fr Victor, one of the military chaplains. More ambiguous is Colonel Creighton and his associates in the mysterious Indian Survey Department, the horse dealer Mahbub Ali, Lurgan Sahib, and the pompous but loveable Babu (Hurree Chunder Mookherjee). By the end of the novel its hero has moved from a boyish larrikinism to standing on the edge of manhood (the possibility of intimacy between him and the lonely Woman of Shamlegh is beautifully hinted at.) But Kipling’s chief concern is India itself, which he frequently describes in congested prose that reflects the confusing richness of the subject matter. The unnecessarily detailed and wry account of the passengers on the train to Umballa is a good example of this, but a stronger one is the delight Kim takes in the immensely variegated human life that flows along the Grand Trunk Road, which is surely that of Kipling himself.

Another of Kipling’s books takes me back further. When I turned seven my grandparents gave me a copy of The Jungle Book, and I was enthralled by the adventure of Mowgli, a boy who grows up among a pack of wolves. The characters who live in the jungle are unforgettable, and most of them sympathetic: Akela, the aging leader of the wolf pack, Baloo, the bumbling bear who is master of the Law of the Jungle, Kaa the python who is good natured despite his ability to destroy, and the dread Shere Khan the tiger. As he grows Mowgli moves to a position of leadership among the animals, but he becomes uncomfortable with his life in the jungle, and as the collection of stories closes we see him returning to life among humans.

Kim and The Jungle Book belong together. In both cases we meet a boy at an angle to the colourful environment in which he grows up and flourishes, and who is ready at the end to move on to the demands of adult life.  This is not quite straightforward in the case of Kim, whose path is not made clear, but we may assume that whichever he follows will involve a woman, just as Mowgli has become aware of a girl in a white cloth and his becoming a man and marrying is alluded to. More uncomfortably, the animals who surround Mowgli and look to him for leadership recall the Indians among whom Kim makes his way. The similarity of names between the secret agent Babu and the bear Baloo is surely not accidental. And just as Mowgli can do things the animals cannot, the English curator at Lahore passes on to the lama things not available in his own culture; despite his sympathy for that culture, his learning and command of data puts him in a position of superiority. Kim is told: ‘[T]hou art a Sahib and the son of a Sahib. Therefore do not at any time be led to contemn the black men.’  Such generosity as he exercises will be a matter of choosing not to contemn. Despite his fascination with India and immense sympathy for its people, Kipling seems unable to move beyond an attitude that reeks of Orientalism.

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