Kim is an orphan boy of the streets, born and raised in India in the late 1800’s. Although he is of Irish parentage (Kimball O’Hara, if you please), you wouldn’t know it due to his ability to blend in as a Hindu or a Muslim or whatever else as the situation may require. He lives by his wits; he is very happy in the chaotic, surging mix of colors and cultures that is India. Seemingly on a whim, he assists a Tibetan monk on a quest seeking a holy river. Kim’s own destiny of a “red bull on a green background”, as his father told him to seek before he died (seems to be a mystical prophecy but really the sign of his father’s military regiment), leads him to an education at a British school and recruitment as a spy of sorts due to his cleverness at blending in and knowing what to do in tight spots.
“Kim” is an interesting story with likeable characters. Kipling’s word imagery is superb, as to be expected of a Poet Laureate. The India he describes is incredibly interesting and vibrant; not so much “East meets West” as “Middle East meets Far East meets Central Asia meets West”.
Things of interest:
- The land is referred to as “Hind” – “all of Hind” consisted of the generally Hindu peoples in domains of kings and rajahs on the subcontinent. Probably that’s where “India” came from. India as it is now didn’t exist as a singular entity until half a century after the events of “Kim.” British India was a mix of provinces and native kingdoms over which Britain held sway. The underlying plot of the story, which really stays in the background and is never fully explained, involves non-British great powers trying to undermine British control by persuading rebellion in a handful of northern kingdoms.
- Knowing Kipling as a supporter of imperialism and author of “The White Man’s Burden“, I wonder if there isn’t some metaphor in the mutual help the Tibetan monk and Kim give each other. Kim = Britain, but with a deep understanding and respect for native India and the monk is “Hind”. Each has a quest, Kim to find his red bull and the monk to find his river. Neither one would have accomplished his quest without the help of his companion. Perhaps Kipling is saying how Britain and India both needed to learn from each other and work together in order to grow and prosper.
- Kind of a sidenote – my Indian geography wasn’t quite up to snuff and I couldn’t quite place a lot of the locations Kim and co. travel to in the book. I found Google Earth to be a good companion here. In particular, the Panoramio and 360Cities layers are awesome. Almost as good as being there! (Well, not really, but they help.) The pictures you can find near the Ganges River at the city of Varanasi (Benares in “Kim”) are particularly cool.
UPDATE: Over the weekend, trolling channels, what did I happen to find but the movie Kim from 1950. I only caught the last half, but I can unequivocally give it two thumbs down. All the magic, mystery, and mysticism from Kipling are removed and just the (weak) international spy story remains. The lama is a crazy buffoon, Kim is motivated by the promise of a gold watch, and Mahbub Ali’s role has been expanded to absurdity to accommodate Errol Flynn’s star power.