Kim (Kipling’s masterpiece) came as a very pleasant surprise to those who came new to Kipling. It was a subtle, engaging, comic and moving tale of a young man’s development, set against a gorgeous backdrop of the teeming subcontinent. The novel showed great insight into India and its people, and contrary to reputation displayed no unpleasant imperialism.
The proposer (with many family connections with India, including being conceived in Calcutta!) felt Kim was a magnificent introduction to India. The book was poetic in its evocation of India. Kim was also about love – not just the love between Kim and his lama, but about a love of India. He felt that Kipling’s biography shed interesting light on the novel, which was started in 1892 and finally published in book form in 1901. Kipling had been born in Bombay in 1865, and sent to school in England aged 5. He had not returned to India – to Lahore – until he was 16. He had then spent 8 years as a journalist in India, before marrying and moving to the USA and later England. He was the first English writer to gain the Nobel prize for literature.
Kipling’s absence from his parents for 11 formative years must have given the novel much of its artistic energy. This absence shed light on his portrayal of Kim as a streetwise orphan meeting a series of father figures. Kipling must have had to re-create his relationship with his father, Lockwood Kipling, and his father, who was a curator in a museum, was no doubt the model for the curator in Chapter One. It was intriguing that his father had provided the illustrations for the early editions of Kim. Kipling’s dual Indian/English upbringing was surely reflected in Kim’s ambivalence between the Indian and English worlds, and his endless questioning of his identity.
We all agreed that Kim, with its characteristic image of the roads streaming with humanity, provided a gloriously colourful picture of India. Against this vast, multi-coloured canvas was contrasted the detailed development of one individual soul, taking you right into the heart of a being. Kim’s search for identity in the foreign world of the English Sahib was reminiscent of Tom’s experience of an alien world in Jenkins’ “The Changeling”. The novel was multi-layered, mingling the picaresque, the pilgrimage, and the spy adventure, and creating a range of comic characters, such as the lama with his all too human foibles. We felt the prose was superb, although its fluency for the reader was reduced by the use of Indian dialect words and the archaic “thou” form. We compared “Kim” with Forster’s “A Passage to India”: whereas Forster took an outsider’s view of India and its mysteries, Kipling was much more of an insider, getting under the skin of India. Some of us felt that Kipling was in a number of respects more effective in conveying a sense of India.
We found nothing of the tub-thumping imperialist we had expected. He showed deep insight into and sympathy for a whole range of Indians, while often satirising white people. Indians were not shown to be inferior, or the “white man’s burden”. While he did not challenge the political objectives of the spies (dealing with a serious Russian threat to British India), he did contrast their world with the spiritual life. At most he made a few affectionate, arch generalisations about Indians which might run foul of the politically correct brigade a century later, but there was no justification for the overblown comments on imperialism from critics we had come across. If this was imperialism, it was of a very benign nature. It was interesting to hear that an Indian had said that, although Kipling was no longer taught in Indian schools, every educated Indian would have a couple of books by Kipling in his or her house.
We discussed, but did not reach consensus, on the significance of the plot structure of “Kim”. For some, the parallel stories of spy adventure and spiritual quest were not sufficiently integrated. Others felt that these were just two of the elements of Kim’s development, or that the plot structure was subordinate to the picaresque nature of the whole. A late Victorian audience would have a lot of interest in religious issues. Others felt that there was a deliberate tension between the spiritual and spy worlds. We did not agree with the view of one critic that the novel left open whether Kim would choose the spiritual or spy path. We felt that the father figure Kim would follow was definitely the spy Mahbub, not the spiritual lama. Perhaps the novel subtly portrayed a young man’s experience of a life option he was not yet ready to follow. Nor did we agree with the view of another critic that Kim had to experience Buddhist rejection of the world to be able to leave his childhood behind. We concluded that, like most works of art, the novel was capable of multiple interpretations.
Thereafter the discussion ranged more widely as the evening wore on and the refreshments wore in. Points of note included that the British nowadays were more interested in India than the Indians in Britain. It often took an outsider to capture accurately a society, and Kipling, the great chronicler of Empire, had an Irish background, as had Kim. Other than in exceptional times the British controlled their Indian Empire with only 40,000 people. The Indian army in the Second World War – a volunteer army – was no less than two and a half million strong. And finally we noted that the English language was one of the main British legacies to India, and the richness of Kipling’s prose must have influenced the modern generation of Indian novelists writing in English.