DCIB Book Club: Kim! By Kipling! First 5 Chapters!

This may just be me talking to myself, but I don’t care. I love love love this book, and I know it is Orientalist, but it’s also loving and well-written and a vision of India from someone who actually lived in India, and loved India, during that time period.

Summary and reminder:

13 year old Kim lives in Lahore with a negligent foster mother after his father died of drugs. He spends his days on the street and sees a new person, a wondering Tibetan Monk, and latches on to him. The Monk is going on a pilgrimage through out India and Kim is tired of his life so impulsively decides to go along with him and see what happens. Along the way, Kim also drops off a secret message to the British given to him by a horse trader in Lahore. Kim and his Monk travel happily, until the run across a British regiment. Kim is recognized by them as a British orphan with the right to a British upbringing and education in one of their orphanages. Kim wants to run away but the Monk insists he stay and take learning. The Monk leaves him to go travel with a wealthy woman who they met on the road, and Kim is stuck with the British.

Already we have a lot of complicated things happening here. Kim is Indian, born in India, raised in India, can’t even speak English fluently. But by birth, he is British, child of two lower class Irish workers. This is the same situation Kipling was in, born and raised in India until he was a small child, then sent away and always missed it, then came back as an adult and loved it again, before having to leave because his body rebelled and made him ill. Your heart tells you you are Indian, and so does your mind. But the world says “British”. Kipling tries to make an argument that there is some essential “white” quality even in this boy that has had no “white” experiences. But it feels like just as he describes the warring qualities within Kim, Kipling is at war with himself as a writer as he tries to make this argument.

Kipling of course accepts that white people should be in charge and are better at things, that’s impossible for him to question. But his vision of the “good” white man is one who can speak the vernacular, who can interact with the great mass of humanity on their level. I guess it’s that he never has anyone attempt to change the essential nature of the people, he accepts that the essential nature of all humanity is good. The British are here to build railroads and collect taxes and protect borders, but Kipling doesn’t really argue for a “and also fundamentally change everyone into White people”, at least in this book.

In general he does of course, I mean, he wrote the poem “White Man’s Burden”, invented this whole idea of “we raise them to our level and then they rebel”. But in this book, when he is putting himself in the place of a character whose life experience is so close to his own, he can’t quite manage that leap. The vast majority of the characters are non-white, and they are happy and successful and don’t really need the British for anything. The world turns without involving these distant authorities.

I see that most clearly in the final chapter of this section. Kim, for the first time, is “caught” by white men, two chaplains of the regiment, who figure out his identity and then are determined to bring him into the white world. And these men are IDIOTS. The book clearly shows that they don’t understand Kim or what he needs from the world, that they are leaping to the worst assumptions blindly, that they are generally stupider than anyone else he has encountered so far. Even more interesting, the Church of England chaplain is way stupider than the Catholic priest. So Kipling is landing soundly on the side of lower classes, “superstition”, all the things the elite disapprove of, are actually the most Human things, the ones that will let us get along. This was a real issue with colonialism, and weirdly sometimes the Catholics were better. Not all the time obviously. They did horrible things. But the idea of conversion instead of conquering, being open to meeting people and arguing with them at their level, it could have more humane results than just “Do what I say if you want to, and if you don’t, I will conquer you”.

This is also the section where the true theme of the book fully emerges. It’s not about spying and adventures and so forth, it’s about the unexpected love between Kim and his Monk. Not unexpected because they are white and non-white, but because one is a trickster youth very much of this world, and one is an elderly man very much not of this world, remote from worldly things. And yet in this scene when, after 3 days together, Kim is threatened by being separated from him his biggest concern is that his Monk should be cared for, should be safe, should have food. And the Monk’s biggest concern is that Kim should have the best life he can, should acquire learning, should have all the opportunities open to him.

I’ve got a lot more to say about this book, and the whole idea of the “Great Game” of spying, and how this book influenced an entire genre of spy novels, but I will save that for the next section!


1 thought on “DCIB Book Club: Kim! By Kipling! First 5 Chapters!

  1. Pingback: DCIB Book Club: Kim! By Kipling! First 5 Chapters! - Zeerangi Entertainment

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