Revisiting Kipling’s Kim

By Jeremy Wikeley

Over the summer I read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim for the first time. I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting to. Kim tells the story of an Irish orphan who, growing up in India, has a series of adventures, first as the protégé of an elderly Buddhist monk and later as an agent in ‘the Great Game’. Kim enjoys the excitement of espionage but he misses the freedom of life on the road. Kim is a ‘boys own’ tale, but the verve and colour of Kipling’s descriptions of India and its diversity of peoples and cultures give the novel a wider appeal, as does the theme: everyone’s torn between what’s expected of us and what we really want to do.

Politics and Fiction

Yet Rudyard Kipling is a controversial figure in literary history. He was confident that the British Empire in India was a good thing and inevitably these ideas are reflected in Kim. Kipling portrays the way in which the British policed the Raj as an adventure for boy scouts, and the British as uniformly decent. He also dreams up a number of Indian characters, from Mahbub Ali the Pashtun horse trader to the Falstaffian agent Hurree Babu, working tirelessly for the British, along with a Sikh cavalry officer who had been loyal during the Mutiny of 1857. Such unity and harmony invite scrutiny.

Nevertheless, Kim is not a particularly political novel. It is ‘first and foremost, a plotless, picaresque novel about India and, secondly, a study of the rival attractions of the life of adventure and the life of reflection,’ of watching the world go by with his Lama, or taking part in the ‘Great Game’.[1] If there is any political message in the book, over and above the biases already mentioned, it has to be cryptic. As such, critics who are keen to underscore Kipling’s ideological commitments have argued that this very absence of politics proves that there is something rotten right at the heart of the book itself.

Patrick Bratlinger, for example, attributes the lack of political dissent in Kim to Kipling’s faith in the ‘happy endlessness of the British Raj’ (despite the fact that the book opens with a comment on the transience of empire), while Zohreh T. Sullivan argues that Kipling suffered from a ‘pathology of Empire’.[2] Both claim that the contradictions of ‘imperialism’ meant that Kipling couldn’t write honestly: Kim is a sort of deception. The paradox of fiction is that we come to it expecting an honest lie: to accuse a book of being dishonest is to question whether it’s literature at all.

Reading the Great Game

The case against Kipling rests on a misreading of both text and history. The ‘Great Game’ is commonly understood as a contest between Russia and the British Empire for master of Central Asia. In Kim, the ‘Great Game’ involves spying and delivering secret messages from the northern frontiers of British India. But we shouldn’t read Kim as a novel about international espionage. Recent studies of British strategy and activity in Central Asia have shown that their main concern was their hold over India, not competing with Russia. The British believed that the security of their rule rested on ‘reputation’; they were constantly concerned that the activity of neighbouring powers – Indian princes, Asian states, or European empires –would encourage rebellion in India. [3]

The ‘Great Game’ that plays such a central role in the novel was part of a broader story of how the British attempted to maintain their control over the Indian people: precisely the issue which Bratlinger and Sullivan claim is missing from the book. In Kim, Kipling makes it clear that in both of the ‘conspiracies’ that Kim has a hand in uncovering among Indian monarchs and foreign agents in the Himalayas , what was at stake was not the risk of an invasion of British India but the possibility that a show of strength by Russia, or another Indian power, might encourage local unrest.

Like the trick that a British agent plays on Kim, using light and mirrors to suggest that a water jug has been shattered into pieces, the trick to politics in Kim is that there’s no trick at all. Kipling openly documents the extent to which the British were worried about the fragility of their Indian empire. Although there’s a tension between these fears and the fondness with which Kipling writes about India, there’s no ideological conspiracy lurking beneath the text. In fact, the tension was a productive one: Kim remains some of the best prose written about India in English.

Jeremy Wikeley recently completed an MPhil in Historical Studies at the University of Cambridge.

[1] Malcolm Yapp, Elie Kedourie Lecture, ‘The Legend of the Great Game’, Read at the RA 16 May 2000.

[2] Patrick Bratlinger, ‘Kim’, in The Cambridge Companion to Rudyard Kipling (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 138; Zohreh T. Sullivan, Narratives of Empire (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[3] The best accounts are Malcolm Yapp’s Strategies of British India as well as Edward Ingram’s various studies. Ingram’s work, which is indispensable as far as the history of British strategy goes and also very suggestive in other areas, seems to have suffered the same fate as Kipling’s.

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