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Kim, short for Kimball O'Hara, is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier serving in an Irish regiment in India and a nurse-maid who's either Irish or English, the information is not given. From early childhood on he's looked after by a 'half-caste woman' and grows up in the streets of Lahore. With his skin 'burned black as any native' he looks and lives like a low-caste Hindu street urchin. He speaks the vernacular and a little English but can't read or write as he successfully avoids getting near teachers or missionaries. His nickname is 'Little Friend of all the World' and rightfully so as he charms everybody and is loved by all.
One day he meets an ancient Tibetan lama who's on a Buddhist quest looking for the River of the Arrow which according to legend sprang from an arrow shot by Buddha. Bathing in this river will free him of the Wheel of Things and merge his soul with the Great Soul.
Kim is fascinated. The lama who's just lost a chela (disciple) assumes that Kim has been sent to him as his new one. The boy, who has no bonds, joins him in is journey, not only as a chela but also to follow his own quest. He remembers his father's prophecy that one day 'Nine hundred first-class devils, whose God was a Red Bull on a green field, would attend to Kim'.
His quest is soon over when he and the lama chance on his father's Irish regiment whose flag shows a Red Bull on a Green Field, but it's not the end as Kim thinks but the beginning of a new stage of his life. When his identity is established, he's taken into custody, sent to school and eventually trained as a member of the British Secret Service.
Kipling ties the unlikely characters of Kim and the lama together by similarities and contrasts. Both have no family, no place where they really belong, their quests are extraordinary, not of the kind ordinary people experience. And, what is perhaps even more important, both feel a deep love for each other.
But they also differ profoundly. Kim is at the beginning of his life, the lama knows that his end is nigh. Kim is a precocious, streetwise jack-of-all-trades, the lama is naïve and knows nothing about worldly issues. Kim is a man-child, the lama a child-man. They become interdependent, each can only reach his destination with the help of the other.
Structure-wise, Kim may look like a picaresque novel with lots of adventures put together like beads on a string, some more or fewer, it wouldn't matter. But the picaro starts as a servant and works his way up through the different strata of society, Kim, however, is his own master from the beginning. He studies at the school the Colonel of his father's regiment has sent him to, first unwillingly, later committedly, but he tells him right from the start that the holidays are his own and that he intends to accompany the lama during that time.
They get to Benares in the south and to the foot of the Himalayas in the north - these travels offer Kipling the opportunity of displaying his immense knowledge of India, her landscapes, peoples, castes, customs, creeds, he describes everything lovingly. He was born in Bombay in 1865 and lived and travelled in the country for many years. Thusly, India is a topic in its own right.
Another topic is Kim's coming of age, he meets the lama when he's 13 years old and accompanies him until he's about 17. The many adventures they live through together and the responsibilities he's got as the lama's chela as well as his contributions to the Great Game, the British Secret Service, make him a man.
A topic that should be dealt with in this context is Kim's sexuality, however, it isn't. After teaching pubescent youths for 40 years I know how hormone driven this age group is. Not so Kim. He lives a chaste life in a men's world, Mahbub Ali, the Afghan horse dealer, has cared for him since he was a child, the lama is his spiritual father, the secret agents are responsible for his intellectual training. Women feature mainly as prostitutes or providers, they're seen as dangerous distractions from higher goals. "How can a man follow the way or the Great Game when he is so always pestered by women?" It has been said that the novel has a hidden homosexual motif, the phallic image of the great cannon which Kim is sitting on in the opening scene setting the tone, but Kim isn't interested in boys, either. He comes across as a-sexual to me.
An important topic is Kim's search for identity. "Who's Kim?" "What is Kim?" he asks repeatedly. Due to his being born the son of a Sahib but raised as a Hindu, his contact with people from all walks of life and is ability to adapt to each rôle that is required of him, he's the perfect hybrid. He doesn't suffer from dislocation, he takes what is best for him from East and West and with this he's a very modern human being. Nowadays hybridity is called multicultural competence, a concept which is seen as ideal in modern (immigrant) societies.
A topic Kipling didn't recognise as worth discussing is the British rule in India. For him it was right and proper that Britain 'owned' India and ruled her people. In this respect the novel is 'a masterwork of imperialism ... a rich and absolutely fascinating, but nevertheless profoundly embarrassing novel' as one critic wrote. Of course, Kipling was a man of his time, but this does not excuse his inability or unwillingness to question the status quo. If one reads the novel attentively from the enlightened view we have today concerning one people's rule over another, one can only cringe.
Does that mean that Kim should disappear in the bin of history? No, not at all, in my opinion the novel will always remain a fascinating adventure story in a fascinating setting and then - isn't it a good feeling for a reader to realise that humankind has moved on and seen the light , at least in one respect?
For Kim, the orphaned son of an Irish soldier, India is an exotic, richly coloured, magical land with an exciting array of landscapes, people and cultures. From life as a street vagabond in Lahore, to companion and devotee of an old Tibetan lama, Kim learns to find a new vision amid the kaleidoscopic scenes before him, a vision that unites, not divides, and promotes harmony not discord. Kim is a masterly novel from an expert craftsman and presents an enduring and powerful portrait of India under the Raj. AUTHBIO: Born in Bombay in 1865, Rudyard Kipling retained a deep love for the colour and exotic richness of India throughout his life and this passion affected much of his writing. Best known for his masterpieces The Jungle Books, Kim, and Captains Courageous, Kipling also penned an extraordinary number of powerful and evocative poems and short stories including the remarkable Just So Stories. The first Englishman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kipling commands a place amongst the finest of English writers.