A Pukka Sahib: Kim, Rudyard Kipling (1901)

It’s been many years since I have read any Kipling, and even then, I don’t know that I ever read very much more than The Jungle Book. But I recently came across a reading list of books read by a WW1 soldier that he had put at the end of his diary, and while Kim wasn’t on the list, a number of books by authors that I have been reading such as Ian Hay, John Buchan and Gene Stratton-Porter are, along with Jack London, and , Rider Haggard. Since a couple of books by Jack London are currently somewhere in Mount TBR, I thought it might be an idea to focus a bit more on literature read in the trenches. As well as all the other books I’m focussed on.

I enjoyed Kim. The streetwise urchin is a common enough archetype, although Kim is light years away from the treacly sentiment of Michael O’Halloran, for example. We are not left at the end of Kim wondering how a child brought up on his wits has managed to learn that lying and stealing are wrong – Kim unrepentantly does both, and is no paragon, but is nevertheless most engaging.

In terms of plot, the novel takes the form of a coming of age tale, largely picaresque in nature, as Kim allies himself to a wandering Tibetan Lama’s search for enlightenment, and seeks the answer to the question of who he is. It is significant for its large cast of Indian characters who are largely sympathetic and well drawn, unlike similar characters in contemporary novels, and it probably does give a fairly accurate picture (if one bears the obvious biases in mind) of life in India at that time.

Kimball O’Hara, the orphan son of an Irish soldier of the Raj, is raising himself on the streets of Lahore, more at home in Punjabi than English, and terrified of being carted off to an orphanage. One day his path crosses that of Teshoo lama, and Kim finds himself swept up in the quest for enlightenment, acting as the lama’s chela or disciple, although in reality protecting the naïve Tibetan from the ravages of Indian opportunism. Along the way Kim runs into his father’s old regiment, which leads eventually to Kim’s recruitment as an intelligence agent. This part of the plot is very boy’s own, and of less interest, for me it was the journey through India that made the novel so good.

The only thing about it that really irritated me was the way Kipling chose to represent characters speaking Indian languages by the use of overtly archaic English forms – ‘thou art a wastrel’ and so forth. I’m not sure but that it was a convention of the time to do that, but it’s still unnecessary, and gets in the way of the story.

Other discussions of Kim

Kim, a master work of imperialism
Kim, conflict between imperial authority and colonial struggle
Kim, a book it’s wrong to love

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7 responses to “A Pukka Sahib: Kim, Rudyard Kipling (1901)

  1. I’m sorry to say I’ve never read any Kipling, although he strikes me as one of the literary milestones that ought to be reached. I’m just not sure that I would either enjoy him enough to justify the reading or find enough in the novels to spark thoughts and insights. But this is a great review and makes me feel I should reconsider my prejudice.

  2. There’s certainly a lot that’s objectionable in the novel, and I was talking to a friend the other day about it and we agreed that Kipling could only get away with having Kim ‘pass’ as a native because he was really Irish rather than properly British. However, as I say I did enjoy the story once I had put my abhorrence of Kipling’s prejudices away for the duration.

  3. metallumai

    Thanks for a thoughtful review– these are hard to come by if one likes Kipling! It is rare that anyone in this day and age can read his work without talking about the differences between his values and the ones considered acceptable today. I only have one minor quibble with the reviewer’s summary.

    I have read quite a bit of Kipling; I always took his rendering of the Indian languages as an honest attempt to differentiate grammatical forms. Kipling’s first language was Hindi; his first job was as a reporter on an anglo-Indian newspaper. These are languages he was familiar with. The “thou” and the archaic forms of speech tend to appear, in many languages; we are all familiar with it in languages such as French and Spanish, which have two forms of direct address. Giving a hint of the flavour of a particular foreign language is difficult at best. I’m happy with Kipling’s rendering of Indian languages because it give us that moment of having to translate, not the words themselves, but the thoughts behind them. In one of Kipling’s Strickland stories, a little boy is playng with a calf, which he calls a “cow’s child”. That little difference in usages gives us a very realistic moment of listening to a non-English speaker.

    Kim, in the beginning of the story, casually insults a passer-by by calling him “be-shakl, be-ukl, be-ankh” which Kipling then translates as “ugly, stupid, eyeless”. The linguist in me was happy to see the two together; it was clear that the “be-” prefix was a negative: “no beauty, no brains, no eyes.” It only took a second, and it was a second of fun. I like authors who just in passing share some bit of knowledge.

  4. Another thing that really irritates me is modern writers trying to impose their own values on the past, particularly when writing historical fiction. 🙂 Kipling was a man of his time and his writing should be assessed in that light.

    I understand why he used the archaic second person singular, my comment was simply that it really didn’t work for me, and got in the way of the story.

  5. Federica

    Dante thought all non-catholics should go to hell, Shakespeare had antisemitic feelings, and Kipling was a English Imperialist of the Victorian Age. So what? All three are wonderful writers, and should be taken as men of their times. Not to read them because of our prejudices means to miss out. Kim is a masterpiece of a novel.

  6. Syler Womack

    Anyone who thinks Kipling was “prejudiced” should volunteer for the armed services and serve a stint in Afghanistan. India may have made great strides, but, if you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains and the women come out to cut up what remains, just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains and go to your Gawd as a soldier! Those people have not changed in the last thousand, much less the last hundred, years.
    Kipling wrote what he saw and experienced. He “prejudged” nothing. He may have been opinionated, and certainly his opinions were in no way politically correct for the 21st century, but they were honestly come by. Kipling’s heart ought not to be judged before reading his “Hymn Before Action”. You may not like his portrayals of the native people he encountered, but they were accurate and anyone condemning Kipling as prejudiced should examine his own motives. Put simply: It is extremely prejudiced to accuse someone else of prejudice when that person is infinitely more experienced in that realm than you are.

  7. Richard Cowmeadow

    Having been born in India (1933),and grown up to the tender age of 13 or so, before leaving that country, and having been brought up with a biased view of the “Raj”. I feel that Kipling as any author would do, wrote to and for his public. Most of the so called prejudices were simply a view from the other side as Kipling saw it.

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