I expected Kim by Rudyard Kipling to be a children’s story and was surprised to find this to be a very adult story of political intrigue.
The story is set in India around the late 1800s, in a world that was extremely foreign to me. I’ve read very few stories set in India previously and what I have read has been contemporary fiction.
When the story began the main character, Kim, was a young orphan living on his wits in Lahore, not quite on the streets but not particularly well cared for either by the opium-addicted woman whose duty it was to house him. Kim was known to all on the streets as the Little Friend of all the World and not long into the story he proved himself worthy of this name by showing a kindness to a Tibetan lama by escorting him to the Wonder House (the Lahore Museum).
The lama was seeking a legendary river to find redemption from the Wheel of Life and Kim became his chela, or disciple, and accompanied him on journey.
Kim had his own reasons for taking a journey with the lama, and so took them on a detour to Umballa where he delivered a message from a horse-trading spy from Lahore to a British military man. Kim, who was interested in everything and sensible enough not to talk about what he knew, secretly watched what took place after his message had been delivered and learned that a war was about to commence.
As they travelled Kim begged for his and the lama’s food and lodging, and he charmed everyone he met along the way. He had his own quest too, which was to find a red bull on a green paddock which he unexpectedly found to be a flag in a British Army camp where the men he met realised Kim was the son of an Irish soldier from their regiment. Until then, no one but the reader had known that Kim was not Indian.
To his great sorrow Kim was then parted from the lama whom he had grown to love and sent to a British school to learn to be a spy. Spying came naturally to Kim, possibly as a result of how he had previously survived on the streets as an orphan. He already knew the traits of men of various religions and was well able to disguise himself and others either for his own amusement or when taking part in The Great Game, which was the name of the conflict between British and Russia taking place at that time in India.
Once Kim left school he was given leave to take a holiday before becoming a spy. He reunited with his beloved lama, with whom he went on to have further journeys and adventures in The Great Game even though Kim’s participation in The Great Game was at odds with the lama’s own quest.
The characters in this novel included a hurly-burly of people of many religions, all of whom seemed to be able to get along even though they happily insulted each other and thought little of each others Gods, foods or ways. The Indian people generally regarded the British people amongst them as being more than a little dopey, and the British people, other than those who were involved in the intrigues, seemed not to see the Indian people in India at all. The world portrayed in this story was very male, as Kim’s mother was dead, he had no romances as he grew up and only an elderly woman or two made it into the story.
Kim’s love for his lama and for India shone through every page of the story.
Kim was an adventure story and a spy novel, but for me, most of all it was an immersion into an extraordinary time and place. I almost felt as if I had culture shock from having been dropped into this rambunctious setting. I cannot say that I loved the story as spy novels just don’t interest me, but I can certainly say I appreciated it.
Kim was book thirty in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.