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NA201812 - KIPLING, R.: Kim (Abridged)
Kim, probably Kipling’s finest novel, was first published in 1901, but
was the result of many years’ germination and grew in large part from the author’s lovingly-remembered time in India, as a boy and later as a young man beginning a career in journalism.
That first job was in Lahore, where Kipling’s father was Curator of the Museum. The young Kipling loved to explore the twilight world of the Lahore slums, absorbing the color and atmosphere, which would later inform the opening chapter of Kim with its affectionate portrayal of the teeming, noisy, exotic city.
Into Lahore comes the dejected but dignified form of the Tibetan lama
who is hoping to free himself from the Wheel of Life by finding the River of Immortality. The lama is helped by the charming, curious, lively minded figure of Kim himself, the Irish orphan boy who thinks of himself as more an Indian than a sahib. From this moment, the novel becomes a picaresque account of Kim’s wanderings across the Punjab and into the Himalayas, accompanying first the lama as his chela (disciple) and then as a servant of the British Raj, ostensibly trained as a surveyor but actually groomed for a life playing the Great Game: spying for Colonel Creighton and the Indian Secret Service.
On one level, then, Kim is an adventure story and a very enjoyable one. But the novel transcends its outward form: its two main characters are both on a quest - the lama to find his river, Kim to discover his identity and, perhaps, a parent to replace those he had hardly known. The father/son relationship which develops between Kim and the lama takes both of them by surprise: at first Kim is merely eager to explore the exciting world beyond Lahore, and acting as a chela is simply a convenient means to this end; but as the novel goes on, Kim discovers in himself the need to love and be loved, faithfully serving his master without thought for himself.
At the same time the lama’s feelings for Kim are increasingly paternal, even though such feelings interfere with his yearning for the immaterial, and there can be few more moving conclusions to a novel than the great climax where the lama relates ecstatically how he became one with the Great Soul, yet turned back to this earthly life ‘lest his chela miss the Way’. Thus the lama compromises his unearthly idealism for the sake of human love, while Kim discovers that there is more to life than the pleasurable opportunism of the moment: the Great Game, exciting as it is, is ultimately superficial.
So the novel, as well as a being a great love poem to India, embraces and celebrates life in all its diversity and warmth, abolishing distinction by color, caste or creed: Kim himself is, after all, the ‘Little Friend of all the World’.
Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865. Educated in England from 1871, he returned to India in 1882 and worked as a journalist, soon acquiring a reputation for cleverly crafted short stories and skillful verses. Hugely popular in his lifetime, he settled at Bateman’s in Sussex and produced a vast body of work, including the much-loved children’s tales, The Jungle Book and Just So Stories. He died in 1936.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Madhav Sharma, who made his professional acting debut with the Shakespeareana International Company touring such places as India, Singapore, Malaysia, Sarawak, North Borneo and Hong Kong, works extensively on stage, screen and radio in the UK where he now resides. He was recently seen in Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink.
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