Rudyard Kipling’s Kim has ranked high on the list of forbidden books for more than half a century. Edward Said’s judgment – “a rich and absolutely fascinating, but nevertheless profoundly embarrassing novel” – actually tilts toward the generous side.
You can certainly see why the novel has attracted detractors. The rightness of British rule in India is taken absolutely for granted. While the white men in the novel are remote figures, each in his own way is astute, self-mastering, and absolutely admirable. (Except of course for the Church of England clergymen, always detested by Kipling.) The non-villainous Indian characters accept British rule as just, and indeed repeatedly state that justice is the sahibs’ paramount virtue. One of the novel’s most appealing characters is a Bengali intelligence officer who is represented as both passionately loyal to British rule and also absurd and comic. Again except for the clergy, no Englishman is ever represented as comic.
The indictment writes itself. And yet having emerged from the odd adventure world of Kim, I have to say the indictments strike me as both wrong and beside the point. The central figure in Kim is Kim himself, the orphaned son of an Irish soldier, growing up in the streets of Lahore, speaking Indian languages, wearing Indian clothes, focusing all his affections on two non-English surrogate fathers, first the Afghan Muslim horse dealer Mahbub Ali, then a Tibetan Buddhist monk whom he serves as a disciple.
If the British are admirable, only the Indians are realized. The British demand service from Kim; the Indians offer him life and love. And Kim, passing easily from one world to another, switching effortlessly from one language to another, preferring Indian food, clothes and customs to British, represents a curiously subversive vision of the ideal to which India’s rulers should aspire.
Only the most freakish circumstances could produce somebody like Kim, yet only somebody like Kim can make a success of the imperial project in India. And of course the very duality that makes Kim an effective servitor of British rule makes him very doubtful that he wishes to serve. He fulminates against the “sahibs,” repeatedly denies that he is a “sahib,” and invests much greater faith in the Buddhist Way than in any doctrine or belief the British have to offer.
Kim is a story written for boys that probably no boy will ever read again: the novel’s political and religious references are just too obscure – and no school will ever risk offending against Political Correctness by placing Kim on the curriculum to elucidate those obscurities. And yet one of Kim‘s great themes, biculturality, has if anything become even more interesting and more important over time. This very year, the United States may elect as president a man who has his roots in the very different cultures of East Africa and meritocratic America. Barack Obama’s own youthful autobiography offers an extended meditation on the themes of Kim. Obama’s Dreams From My Father leaves the reader uncertain whether even this highly intelligent and sensitive man, writing from diret personal experience has reached any better resolution of the problems of duality than Rudyard Kipling could devise.
All that while he felt, though he could not put it into words, that his soul was out of gear with its surroundings – a cog-wheel unconnected with any machinery, just like the idle cog-wheel of a cheap Beheea sugar-crusher laid by in a corner. The breezes fanned over him, the parrots shrieked at him, the noises of the populated house behind – squabbles, orders, and reproofs – hit on dead ears.
‘I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?’ His soul repeated it again and again.
In his great essay on Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell observed:
Kipling … is generally talking about things that are of urgent interest. It does not matter, from this point of view, that thinking and decent people generally find themselves on the other side of the fence from him.
Orwell’s certitude about what thinking and decent people feel, or ought to feel, is not the most convincing or attractive aspect of his work. But Orwell does put his finger on something important and true about Kipling. Kim is a story as iconic The Hobbit or Harry Potter or Star Wars. A mysterious boy is set on a quest with an other-worldly but supremely wise guide. First, however, the boy must be schooled, first in a conventional school to master conventional schools, then in a school of uncanny secrets. The boy insists on embarking on the quest before his teachers think him ready. He travels to remote and exotic lands (the Himalayas as it happens) and achieves his mission – nearly dying in the process, but surviving to emerge as a transformed man.
That’s a theme of almost universal reach. In Kipling’s hands, however, a story that inspired other narrators to invent alternative universes or magical boarding schools leads instead to some of the most topical issues of his century and others: the struggle of great powers, the ethics of espionage, and relations between and among the races and religions of mankind.
That’s a lot for a boy’s adventure story to address … which is why even the fiercest critics of Kipling’s imperialist politics have had to relent and acclaim Kim. Said is not wrong, in some ways Kim is embarrassing, or at least the contemporary post-imperial reader is sometimes embarrassed by it. But Said got the emphasis backwards: the embarrassment is the minor key; the richness and the fascination, the major – and the book’s themes of self-discovery, biculturality and divided loyalty, eternal.