MY TOP SHELF – 36 – Kim

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

36

Kim

Rudyard Kipling (1900)

Easton Press, Collector’s library of Famous Editions, 1962; illustrations by Robin Jacques; introduction by C E Carrington; fully bound in blue leather; embossed in gold with Indian motifs and title; humped spine; gold edged paper; pearl moiré endpapers and ribbon.

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zan-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives called the Lahore Museum.

To paraphrase the start of Billy Budd, if you walk down the boulevards of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, you will marvel at the range of skin colours and tones on display among what must be the most racially interwoven people on earth.  You do not get the same effect walking down a boulevard in Mumbai, but if you spend any time in India you will see that it has the greatest mixture of faiths and creeds and peoples and tribes and classes and castes on earth.  There are now many more Muslims in India than in Pakistan, but although there was mayhem at the partition of the two countries, these teeming millions more or less manage to get by most of the time without cutting each other’s throats.  India has its share of religious freaks and fanatics but, with England, it is entitled to be regarded as one of the most tolerant nations on earth.  The conjunction of England and India is not accidental – and Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim, is testament to the tolerance of both.

The notion of empire is very much on the nose, and Kipling was an Englishman, writing about India when it was the subject of an English Queen Empress – the Raj – and Kipling was seen as the great apologist for the Empire.  The novel Kim will therefore look not just out of date, but out of taste.  But an uncommitted reader coming for the first time to Kim – which was said to be the favourite novel of the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Nehru, and which Nirad Chaudhuri said was the very best picture of India written by an English author – will see that it could only have been written by someone who had two qualities: the capacity to deliver engrossing narrative; and a complete affection for and knowledge of the various peoples of India.  And, you might add, the capacity to take relaxed pot-shots from time to time at the affectations of the British in India.

And if Kipling had views that no longer commend themselves to us, so what?  Mozart had an appalling lavatory humour; Beethoven was rude and difficult to deal with; and Wagner was a rolled-gold, five-star jerk.  Do these disabilities stop us listening to their music?  Why let political prissiness stand between you and a good read?  But if you would rather read about India by an Indian, read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.  It is badly written and venomous toward India, but it won the Man Booker Prize, and is prescribed reading by Cambridge University for those who are literarily challenged and who can only take their literature tossed with ideology.  Mr Adiga could be India’s answer to Quentin Tarantino – the taste quotients appear to be identical, and the outcome in each case is both shocking and inane.

The second misconception of Kim is that it is a children’s story.  Its hero is a boy who has qualities and experiences that most boys would die to have.  But those experiences are divided equally between two worlds – the spiritual world, and the world of espionage.  Kim becomes the disciple of a Lama, a holy man.  He also becomes involved in the Great Game in what we now call Pakistan and Afghanistan.  (We are still playing games up there, but we are not doing so well.)  The espionage side of the tale is terrific for children – but the nature of the bond between the Lama and his disciple (chela) may be above the level of most children, at least most white children, and will be the more engrossing of the two tales for boys and girls who have well and truly grown up.

The novel starts like the Iliad and Paradise Lostin medias res (in the middle of the action) with lines quoted in the novel (and film) The English Patient set out at the head of this note.  When Kim gets a ticket for the train – ‘the work of the devils’ or ‘the fire carriages’ – he returns with the money ‘keeping only one anna in each rupee of the price of the Umballa ticket as his commission – the immemorial commission of Asia’.

The Lama is in search of the river where the arrow of the Lord Buddha came to earth.  Kim is in search of a Red Bull on a green field – the emblem of the Mavericks, the Regiment of his father.  When Kim is taken in by the Mavericks and a priest, the priest ‘looked at him with the triple-ringed uninterest of the creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title of ‘heathen’.’

Kim is introduced to the Great Game by Mahbub Ali and by Creighton Sahib:

The dealers call him the father of fools, because he is so easily cheated about a horse.  Mahbub Ali says he is madder than all other Sahibs.

Kim survives the orphanage and the school of St. Xavier’s in Partibus, and then he goes up to Simla to be educated in espionage by Lurgan Sahib.  While the Sahibs are trying to reclaim Kim as one of their own and use him for their purposes, Kim longs to return to the Lama as his chela.  The two stories merge when Kim and his Lama end up tracking Russians near the Khyber Pass.

The Lama has a confrontation with Mahbub Ali and asks Mahbub why he does not follow the way himself and take Kim as his chela.

Mahbub stared stupefied at the magnificent insolence of the demand, which across the Border he would have paid with more than a blow.  Then the humour of it touched his worldly soul.

In the end, the Lama gains Knowledge and release.  He has a view of the River of the Arrow at his feet.  The book ends with these lines:

So thus the Search is ended.  For the merit that I have acquired, the River of the Arrow is here.  It broke forth at our feet, as I have said.  I have found it.  Son of my Soul, I have wrenched my Soul back from the threshold of Freedom to free thee from all sin – as I am free, and sinless.  Just is the Wheel!  Certain is our deliverance.  Come!

He crossed his hands on his lap and smiled, as any man who has won Salvation for himself and his beloved.

In the 1950s MGM film, Errol Flynn played Mahbub Ali.  But the story of the Lama is played with surprising effect and taste with Paul Lucas in that role.  In the 1984 film production, the Lama is wonderfully played by Peter O’Toole, in a manner that we would see him use as Priam in that awful film called Troy.

It is hard to imagine a story better calculated to hold the interest of boys and girls of all ages.  Children may be captivated by the Great Game – especially those scenes where Lurgan Sahib is teaching the young apprentice the mind games that will become his stock in trade – but the older readers and audiences will have at least as much time for the story of the Lama and his chela.  The two stories touch when the Holy Man tells Kim:

I have known many men in my long life, and disciples not a few.  But to none among men, if so be thou art woman born, has my heart gone out as it has to thee – thoughtful, wise and courteous, but something of a small imp.

The love between an old man and a much younger one has been much touched on, at least since the Dialogues of Plato.  Although Kim was strikingly good looking and attractive to women, and doubtless some men, there is no possibility of a sexual undertone here.  This is the love between two males – one supremely and disconcertingly unworldly, and the other entirely and thrillingly worldly.  It is not like Prospero and Aerial (or Caliban), but it is not silly to compare the relationship to that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  (In his book on Kipling, Angus Wilson thought that Kipling may also have recalled Pickwick and Sam Weller, and Fagin and the Dodger.)  Sancho is as worldly as Kim, but in a more earthy, folksy and matter of fact way.  While the Lama’s unworldliness derives from his holiness, the Don’s derives from his madness.  But in the result, the dialogues between both pairs are illuminated by a harmony that has endured and enthralled all kinds of readers.

The Lama is far from being mad or idiotic – he has no trouble in rustling up the money to pay St. Xavier’s.  But when the Lama in his simplicity thinks that a hooker is a nun, we are reminded of the time when the town wenches burst out laughing when the Don referred to them as virgins, and the affronted Don said:

Give me leave to tell ye, ladies, that modesty and civility are very becoming to the fair sex; whereas laughter without ground is the highest degree of indiscretion.  However, I do not presume to say this to offend you, or incur your displeasure; no, ladies, I assure you that I have no other design but to do you service. 

While Sancho forever ruminates on his master’s madness, Kim is forever astounded at his master’s holiness.  In each case, the chemistry comes about from the mixing of the elements.

The aim of art is to offer a lyrical reflection on the human condition.  Very few novels have achieved that aim like the novels Don Quixote and Kim.  Both have that quality that is so rare.  It is the quality that children feel for a book they have loved.  They are sorry when they come to the end of the book because when they put the book down, they will have to leave a world that has given them so much and which looks to them so much more lively than their own.

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