Kipling’s Kim and Kipling’s India

KIM by Rudyard Kipling (1901) with an introduction and notes by Jeffrey Meyers (2002) 

I read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

Rudyard Kipling was a British imperialist.  He believed the British Empire was, for all practical purposes, permanent, and that it was a force for good.  The first belief proved wrong, and there are few who would defend the secondW.

So why read Kipling’s Kim?

Kim is an interesting story about the coming of age of a young boy and his struggle to define his identity.  Like Huckleberry Finn, Kim is often mistaken for a boy’s book because its central character is a boy, but it isn’t. 

Kim is also an idealized but fascinating portrait of the diversity of India, with its varied religions and ethnic groups.

Kim is the first, or one of the first, espionage thrillers, a new genre in which the spy is the hero and not the villain.

And finally, Kim is a work by one of the masters of the English language.

Kipling was, as we newspaper reporters used to say, a great wordsmith.  Anybody who loves writing can benefit from reading his sentences closely and noting his word choices and the rhythm of the sentence.

He is one of the few 20th century writers admired by both critics and the general public

His books of poetry were best-sellers.  Their rollicking rhythms stick in the mind, like Broadway show tunes.  He also wrote novels short stories, including the Mowgli and Just-So stories for children.  Henry James praised his prose style and T.S. Eliot edited an edition of his poetry.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.

The hero of Kim is Kimball O’Hara, the orphan son of an Irish ex-soldier and a servant woman.  We meet him at age 13.   Kim has allowed to run wild in the streets of Lahore (now part of Pakistan).  He speaks local languages better than he speaks English, and is so sunburned nobody thinks of him as white.  

He earns money by begging and carrying messages.  The closest thing he has to a mentor is Mahbub Ali, an Afghan horse trader who turns out to be an agent of British intelligence.

As the novel opens, Kim encounters a Tibetan lama and decides to follow him on his religious quest.  They have adventures as they travel along the Great Trunk Road, meeting varied people.  These passages show Kipling’s genius as a descriptive writer, both of people and of the sights and sounds of India.  

He makes contact with his father’s old regiment, which takes him in.  He attends the regimental school briefly, then a Catholic school that serves India’s native Catholics.  These include the Thomas Christians, whose ancestors were supposedly converted by the Apostle Thomas, and mixed-race descendants of Portuguese seamen and traders who came to India in the 16th century—another example of India’s diversity.

Manbub Ali and Colonel Creighton, the secret head of British intelligence in India, are impressed by Kim’s talent for languages, disguise and deception and determine to groom him for a career as an espionage agent.

Kim understands what is going on, and insists on maintaining distance and independence.  But like many another drawn into that world, he is fascinated by the idea of belong to an elite group, and by the idea of the Great Game, a war beneath the surface of events that only insiders know about.

By this time, he is 17.  He is drawn into a mission to thwart two agents, one Russian and one French, who have come to stir up trouble in the lands beyond Afghanistan, and successfully completes it, with the help of another agent, a seemingly ridiculous and stereotypical, but actually brave and shrewd, Bengali intellectual named Hurree Babu.

All this time, he has maintained his loyalty to his Tibetan lama, who in the end believes he has achieved Nirvana and dies.  The lama is elderly, but naive and child-like.  Kim is young, but cynical and worldly-wise.  Still, the lama’s saintliness seems to have given Kim some moral scruples that he lacked at the beginning of the novel.

The novel ends with Kim wondering who he is and what path he will take in life, but he is fooling himself.  Once you are drawn into the world of espionage and covert action, you can never really get out of it.  


A racist who honored diversity and multiculturalism

Most Britishers of Kipling’s day would have been horrified at a white boy “going native.”  That was why there was a strict “color bar” in Britain’s Asian, African and West Indian colonies between the white rulers and black or brown subjects.  

To Rudyard Kipling, whiteness was an irreducible essence you could never lose.  Kim may mingle freely with brown people, he may absorb their culture, he may wonder whether he is a Muslim, a Hindu or a “Sahib,” but the answer is never in doubt.

Kim is full of offhand remarks about how whites are this and “sahibs” are that, and “the Oriental” is something else, no matter what.  “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet…,” etc.  If you can’t stand this kind of language, Kim is not for you.

Kipling was a racist.  He was a racist in the true sense of the word, not in the vague, extensive way the word is used nowadays.  He believed racial differences were fundamental and real, not socially constructed.

All the same, Kipling did not hate or despise people of other races or cultures.  In fact, his Colonel Creighton character condemns derogatory racist language and attitudes.  

Kipling was interested in the different sub-cultures of India and took the trouble to learn about them. His depictions in Kim must have been accurate because there would have been too many of his readers with a personal knowledge of India to allow him to get away with mistakes.  

He understood the basics of Islam and Buddhism and respected both, although he didn’t believe in either one.  For that matter, he understood the differences between Catholicism, Anglicanism and Calvinism, and had a good word for all.  I can’t discern whether Kipling himself believed in God or merely respected religion.

But for all that he valued India’s multiculturalism and diversity, Kipling never doubted the right of the British to rule.  Kim mentions the 1857 Mutiny as simply an act of homicidal insanity that happened without a reason.


Kipling’s India and the historical record

Kipling’s novel shows late 19th century India as a kind of museum of diverse cultures and religions.  The British are like heavily-armed curators who keep the museum in order.

Most people in his novel are nice.  People of different regions, religions and ethnic groups exchange good-natured insults, but tolerate and accept each other.  

Yet 50 or so years after the events in the novel, Muslims and Hindus massacred each other as the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan.  Estimates of deaths range from 200,000 to 2 million.  Today both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, and war between them could endanger the whole world.

Did the British keep a lid on these conflicts?  Or did they encourage them in order to divide and rule?  I don’t know.  Possibly a little of both.

The people of Kipling’s India also are well-fed.  When Kim sets out on his tour with the Tibetan lama, he is confident that he can get the two of them enough to eat by begging, and his confidence is justified.  Sometimes characters in the novel get hungry, but none of them fear starvation.

But the historical record shows otherwise.  The Great Famines of 1875-1878 and 1899-1900 killed millions.   An estimated 3 million people died in the Bengal Famine of 1943.  

Commentary at the time attributed famine to overpopulation.  India’s population of 300 million to 400 million supposedly exceeded the carrying capacity of the land.  Yet independent India’s population is 1.4 billion, with another 226 million living in Pakistan, and, while there no doubt is malnutrition, there haven’t been any large-scale famines since then.

Mike Davis, in his book Late Victorian Holocausts, attributes 19th century famines to colonial rule and neoliberal capitalism.  The Mughal Empire, which governed India prior to British rule, had a system for storing up grain in good years and distributing them in bad years.  It also built and maintained an effective irrigation system, which, according to Davis, was neglected by the British.

Under British rule, Davis said, farmers were expected to put their crops on the market, and sell it for whatever price the market (or the middleman) would pay.  Instead of government storing grain, individuals were expected to prepare for bad years by storing up money.  If they couldn’t, too bad for them.

The British did contribute to modern India and Pakistan by creating the infrastructure of a modern state—paved roads, railroads, telegraph lines, accurate maps and a functioning bureaucracy.  The Indian and Pakistani armies are continuations of the old British Indian Army.  

This provided stability lacking in China after their 1949 revolution.  China had one last big famine in the late 1950s, largely because nobody had the nerve to tell Chairman Mao his agricultural policies had failed.

 India, in contrast, had a functioning democracy and a free press, also a legacy of the British, which made it hard for the government to ignore reality.  No politician could afford to allow large numbers of their constituents to starve to death.  That, too, was a British legacy.


Kimball O’Hara, secret agent: a proposed series

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim reads like the origin story for a whole series of spy novels about the grown-up Kimball O’Hara.  I couldn’t resist trying to imagine what such novels would be like.

Assuming he was 20 in 1900, Kimball O’Hara’s life could span the whole history of British rule in 20th century India.  The stories would hinge on his talent for deception and disguise, and also his superior understanding of the people of India and how he would have to find ways to work around the ignorant British bureaucracy to find ways to save the day.

He could be thwarting intriguers in the princely states, jihadist agents of the Ottoman Empire during World War One,  agents of the Comintern in the 1920s, Axis agents in the 1930s and supporters of Subhan Chandra Bose during World War Two.

Agent O’Hara could be sent to infiltrate the Indian National Congress, come to appreciate Gandhi and secretly work with him to foil Hindu and Muslim terrorists, meanwhile keeping their relationship secret and preventing the Indian government from heavy-handed, counterproductive acts of suppression.

He could be called to return to his ancestral Ireland on family matters, having no comprehension of what it is to be an Irishman, and be drawn into some Irish nationalist plot.

He could be sent undercover to Tibet, and have his life be saved by a Tibetan who may or may not be the reincarnation of his beloved lama.

The penultimate story could his failure to prevent the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1948—perhaps foiling one plot only to see another one succeed.

The last one could be him being called out of retirement in his 80s to solve a case that neither Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence directorate nor India’s Research and Analysis Wing or Intelligence Director can deal with separately. 

Added Later:  This was such an obvious idea I wondered why nobody ever tried it.  It turns out that somebody did.  An south India writer named TImeri Mureri wrote two sequels to Kim in the 1980s, The Imperial Agent and The Last Victory, both with better plot ideas than mine.


Rudyard Kipling was a good man and a good writer.  He loved England and he loved India.  His novel Kim is a good book.  I liked it, and maybe you would, too.


Rudyard Kipling by George Orwell.  An alternate link.

A  Man of Permanent Contradictions by Christopher Hitchens for The Atlantic [Added 9/27/2021]

Rudyard Kipling: Kim by Ian Mackean for the London School of Journalism.

Rudyard Kipling, India and Edward Said by Ibn Warraq for New English Review.

Free movie version of Kim.  Trailer for a higher-definition rental version.  I don’t claim this 1950 movie does justice to the novel, but I enjoyed it.

Tags: , , ,

One Response to “Kipling’s Kim and Kipling’s India”

  1. silverapplequeen Says:

    I think what you say about Kipling’s racism is important & I do believe it applies to many of us. We are all racists because we see & even applaud the differences between the races & ethnic differences of the people around us. But we do not hate these people … we want to learn more about them, we want to bring their cultures, their foods (especially), their music, their clothing, their history, into our own metier…. we do not think that our own cultural/racial/ethnic background is better than theirs.

    Kipling has always been one of my favorite authors. “Kim” is a great novel. Thank you for writing about it! I have been waiting for him to be “cancelled” by the woke younger generation but they might not have heard about him … so many of them are so very ignorant LOL


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: