Francis G. Hutchins

Where Kim Came From: How Indic Culture Shaped Rudyard Kipling’s Achievement

South Asian Review, 31:1, 80-101.

Strongly mixed feelings about Rudyard Kipling have been expressed ever since the early 1890s, when Kipling was still in his twenties. Decades after his death in 1936, little has changed. As Edward Said summed up in 1993, Kipling is critically “acknowledged but slighted” (134). Much of this controversy stems from Kipling’s often-raucous support for British imperialism. But even those looking beyond Kipling’s political views typically misjudge his literary aspirations and accomplishments. Most critics categorize Kipling as an Englishman who wrote-often offensively-about India, and miss the ironic fact that he owed much of his success as an artist to India’s own artistic traditions. Edward Said’s excellent 1993 essay on Kipling’s Kim, for example, makes comparisons to innumerable texts ranging from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, while entirely ignoring the Indic cultural traditions-for example, Buddhist Jataka tales-from which Kipling drew artistic inspiration.

Kipling’s spiritual rootedness in India’s written and oral traditions is both historically illuminating and a central reason for his renewed relevance. With so many culturally hybrid writers active today, it has finally become possible to see Kipling as an Indian-influenced innovator who shocked new life into “Literature in English” almost a century before Salman Rushdie’s hybridizing experiments gained him world-wide fame. Kipling’s obsessive imperialism and profligate productiveness led him to publish many intemperate and/or ill-considered works. But as Kim demonstrates magnificently, Kipling was capable of greatness, and great writers have a way of fascinating new generations for unpredictable reasons.

Erstwhile victims of British imperialism have been readier than Anglo-Americans in discerning Kipling’s cultural Indianness. Ashis Nandy, for example, applauded Kipling’s “sensitivity to Indian words, to India’s flora and fauna, and to the people who inhabit India’s 600,000 villages” (65). Pankaj Mishra praised the novel’s luminous, even “ecstatic” evocations of the Indian landscape (xv). Nirad Chaudhuri went even further, pronouncing Kim “the finest story about India-in English” (27). But precisely how and in what ways Kipling’s voice was shaped by Indic influences—especially India’s tradition of oral story-telling-has remained unexplored.

Kipling’s life to age twenty-three divides into four sharply delineated periods: early childhood in Bombay with his parents until age six (1865-1871); foster care in England until age twelve; then boarding school in England until age sixteen; and finally, seven years back in India (with his parents for the first five of these) finding his career as a writer (1882-89). His two periods of residence in India were characterized by T.S. Eliot as resulting in “two strata in Kipling’s appreciation of India, the stratum of the child and that of the young man” (23-4). Put differently, India was not only Kipling’s nursemaid but his university as well.

If India was Rudyard’s university, his academic tutor was undeniably his father, Lockwood Kipling, a sculptor as well as a teacher and administrator in India. Yet father and son differed more fundamentally in their relationship to India than either was willing to acknowledge. Like Sir Edwin Arnold, author of The Light of Asia, Lockwood Kipling praised an idealized, long-lost India. In his eccentric book, Beast and Man in India, Lockwood argued that the vigor evident in the early productions of artisans at ancient sites such as Sanchi had become attenuated in later centuries. But surely, he urged, this deficiency could be corrected by greater mastery of Victorian realistic techniques, which the Indian craftsmen he had trained seemed to be acquiring.

Lockwood related an anecdote in his Beast and Man about an elephant who could count, “for which I do not claim implicit belief.” Lockwood’s India-born son boldly transformed this bit of elephant stable lore into “Moti Guj—Mutineer,” in which the question of whether the story is believed is irrelevant. Analogously, Rudyard in Kim presented a richly imagined portrait of a Buddhist lama; Lockwood had dismissed Buddhism as “always vague and abstract” and fatally prone to “languid prescriptions” (248-9, 8). Lockwood Kipling was an Englishman who somewhat patronizingly admired the Indian past; his son drew real inspiration from living Indians. It can be said that Lockwood was pro-Indian, and his son part-Indian.

When his parents in typical British-Indian fashion departed to Simla for the summer, leaving Rudyard alone in Lahore, the young sahib ordered the servants to prepare “native food,” and he often stayed out till dawn, passing through “all manner of odd places—liquor-shops, gambling and opium-dens, which are not a bit mysterious.” Sated, he would return home “in some night-hawk of a hired carriage which stank of hookah-fumes, jasmine-flowers, and sandalwood; and if the driver were moved to talk, he told one a good deal” (Something of Myself 59-60).

Written near the end ofhis life, when he no longer felt any urge to dissemble, Kipling's autobiography, Something of Myself begins with these words:

Give me the first six years of a child’s life and you can have the rest.

Looking back from this my seventieth year, it seems to me that every card in my working life has been dealt me in such a manner that I had but to play it as it came. Therefore, ascribing all good fortune to Allah the Dispenser of Events, I begin:—

My first impression is of daybreak, light and colour and golden and purple fruits at the level of my shoulder. This would be the memory of early morning walks to the Bombay fruit market with my ayah . . . a Portuguese [i.e., probably Goan] Roman Catholic who would pray—I beside her—at a wayside Cross. Meeta, my Hindu bearer, would sometimes go into little Hindu temples where, being below the age of caste, I held his hand and looked at the dimly seen, friendly Gods. . . .

In the afternoon heats before [my younger sister Alice and I] took our sleep, [our ayah] or Meeta would tell us stories and Indian nursery songs all unforgotten, and we were sent into the dining-room after we had been dressed, with the caution “Speak English now to Papa and Mamma.” So one spoke “English,” haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in. (3-5)

Such were Kipling's memories at age seventy of his early childhood. Moreover, after eleven years away from India,

at sixteen years and nine months . . . I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not. . . . [M]y English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength. (45)

Kipling’s own belief, reaffirmed near the end of his life, was that his heart and soul belonged to India. Indeed, one of his first books about India to be published outside of India—Life’s Handicap—bad as its subtitle, Stories of Mine Own People. At its head, Kipling set this “Native Proverb”: “I met a hundred men on the road to Delhi and they were all my brothers.”

At age twenty, Kipling began attending meetings at the Masonic Hall in Lahore. European Freemasonry, along with its creed celebrating the equal dignity of all constructive callings, had been introduced into India independently of British Government, and the Masonic “brethren” in Lahore were predominantly members of Lahore’s small community of British “non-officials.” But semi-westernized Indians were also welcome, and as a result Kipling “met Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, members of the [reformist Hindu] Arya and Brahmo Samaj, and a Jew tyler [in Freemasonry, a doorkeeper], who was priest and butcher to his little community in the city. So yet another world opened to me which I needed” (Something of Myself 58). At Lahore’s Masonic Hall, Kipling met moderate Indian reformers who were working to purge the Hindu caste system of its discriminatory abuses and move it in a more egalitarian direction that would be compatible with India’s progressive development.

Lahore Freemasonry embraced members of religious/ethnic groups that were open to change, even as they worked to preserve long-established community traditions. Kipling saw that such groups could maintain social coherence, economic viability and dignity by finding fulfillment in trades and occupations that were routinely passed from generation to generation. By recognizing achievement and rewarding ability within a loose hereditary framework supplemented by such practices as adoption, broadly defined occupational communities could be both flexible and phenomenally durable. In “Toomai of the Elephants,” Kipling recorded an example of such adaptability, the story of an Indian boy who earns the right to be called by the honorific name of his great-grandfather after demonstrating a level of competence in his community’s characteristic occupation beyond that attained by his father and grandfather.

Kipling thought he saw signs indicating that India’s British rulers were themselves becoming accepted as an occupation-based community, and were beginning to function like a well-organized Indian community that knew how to temper heredity with skill. “Certain families serve India generation after generation as dolphins follow in line across the open sea,” Kipling proclaimed in “The Tomb of His Ancestors.” The British Chinn family, for example,

are luckier than most folk, because they know exactly what they must do. A clever Chinn passes for the Bombay Civil Service, and gets away to Central India, where everybody is glad to see him. A dull Chinn enters the Police Department or the Woods and Forests, and sooner or later, he, too, appears in Central India, and that is what gave rise to the saying ‘Central India is inhabited by Bhils, Mairs, and Chinns, all very much alike’ (The Day’s Work 109-10).

Kipling could have added, all very much alike in being heredity-based communities of specialists.

Kipling believed that the community to which the British Chinns belonged deserved to be India’s rulers primarily because of traits that were culturally, not biologically transmitted; and secondarily because of modern technical skills which were also products of training rather than genes. Kipling thought of himself in similar terms, as a member of a family dedicated to serving British interests overseas, but also more or less free within his hereditary community of servants of Empire to choose a vocation that accorded with his particular talents and inclinations. The vocation chosen by Kipling was to compose “songs” such as this:

Keep ye the Law—be swift in all obedience—
Clear the land of evil, drive the road and bridge the ford.
Make ye sure to each his own
That he reap where he hath sown;
By the peace among Our peoples let men know we serve the Lord!
(“A Song of the English” 1893)

Behind the popular sensation which these verses created lies the irony that in calling on overseas Britishers to realize their highest potential, Kipling was urging them to be more Hindu by working earnestly to realize the Bhagavad Gita’s maxim (3:35) that it is better to perform one’s own duty with modest aptitude than to excel at someone else’s destined task.

Ironically, by calling on overseas Britishers to “serve the Lord!” in this way, Kipling may be said to have been prompting them to be more Hindu. In urging Britishers to accept historically prescribed duties, Kipling was endorsing the Bhagavad Gita’s maxim (3:35) that it is better to perform with modest aptitude one’s own destined role than to excel at someone else’s.

Noel Annan noted that Kipling was “seldom interested in the individual as such,” adding that “Kipling relishes revealing the social process” because of his “assumption that morality is an entirely social product” (122-3). Annan accurately stressed how greatly these views set Kipling apart from other English writers of his day but then offered, by way of explanation, that Kipling may have been influenced by “Durkheim and Weber and the German and Italian thinkers . . . who were in revolt against mid-nineteenth-century constructs of the individual and society.” What set Kipling apart in this way was more the result of sub-continental than of continental influence, of Manu more than Durkheim; Kipling’s non-individualistic social views have strongly Hindu roots.

Kipling’s way of thinking about vocation was so thoroughly formed by traditional Hindu concepts that he contended that one could become truly alive only through work in one’s proper occupation. For Kipling, only one who performs a useful role can claim social recognition. His most schematic presentation of this idea is his often-ridiculed Vermont story, “A Walking Delegate,” in which horses speak in regional vernaculars. “Have you no respec’ whatever fer the dignity o’ our common horsehood?” demands one horse. “Nary respect onless the horse kin do something,” answers a wiser horse:

Horse, sonny, is what you start from. We know all about horse here, an’ he ain’t any high-toned, pure-souled child o’ nature. Horse, plain horse, same ez you, is chock-full o’ tricks, an’ meanness. . . .Thet’s horse, an’ thet’s about his dignity an’ the size of his soul ’fore he’s been broke an’ rawhided a piece. (A Walking Delegate 78-9)

In his autobiography, Kipling expressed pride that he too had been “broke”:

Most men properly broke to a trade pick up some sort of workshop facility which gives them an advantage over their untrained fellows. My [Lahore newspaper] office-work had taught me to think out a notion in detail, pack it away in my head, and work on it by snatches in any surroundings. (Something of Myself 98)

T.S. Eliot observed how Kipling’s conception of the writer as an unassuming wordsmith enabled him to empathize readily with all disciplined practitioners. As Eliot put it, “no writer has ever cared more for the craft of words than Kipling: a passion which gives him a prodigious respect for the artist of any art, and the craftsman of any craft and which is perhaps involved in his respect for Free Masonry” (Eliot 14). C.S. Lewis similarly remarked of Kipling that “you may say he was born a Mason” (Lewis 88). Eliot and Lewis could have added that Kipling’s Freemasonry was closely linked to Hinduism, especially the reformist Hinduism of the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj that Kipling encountered among Lahore’s Masonic brethren.

Kim is undoubtedly Kipling’s finest tribute to the Lahore-style Freemasonry. In many ways, Kim is as Masonic (and magical and musical) as Mozart’s Magic Flute. At the book’s outset, thirteen-year-old Kim narrowly escapes being sent to a Masonic orphanage. Instead by the book’s end he has been adopted into a low-paid, Masonic-style society of brothers that covertly serves rather than rules British India. Inside Lahore’s Masonic Lodge, Kipling had come to know persons of many races and religions united in voluntary, mutually respectful social service. Kipling drew on this Lahore background in delineating the brotherhood Kim ultimately joins. Colonel Creighton who heads this mysterious order is identified as a Mason. Another member, the Bengali Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, has some connection to the Arya Samaj. A third member, the Pathan Mahbub Ali, describes himself as a Sufi, the kind of Muslim who expects to find inspiration in other religious traditions as well as his own.

In addition to its resemblance to modern western Freemasonry, the secret society Kim joins also resembles Tantric orders which sought in their rituals to counter caste narrowness. Kim is told by Hurree that among their association’s code words are, “I am Son of the Charm.” Hurree then explains,

“Son of the Charm” means that you may be member of the Sat Bhai—the Seven Brothers, which is Hindi and Tantric. It is popularly supposed to be extinct society, but I have written notes to show it is still extant. (Kim 238-9)

Several everyday Indian expressions disparaging caste prejudices appear in Kim, including “Where there is no eye there is no caste” and “What is caste to a cut throat?” (Kim 256, 264). Kipling as narrator notes in addition the “beautiful impartiality” with which many Hindus and Muslims visit and pray at the shrines of the other community (Kim 81). And at the head of one chapter of Kim, he placed these lines:

My brother kneels (so saith Kabir)
To stone and brass in heathen-wise,
But in my brother's voice I hear
My own unanswered agonies.
His God is as his Fates assign—
His prayer is all the world's—and mine.
(Kim 326)

The language is Kipling’s, the sentiments authentically evocative of Kabir, a fifteenth-century advocate of Hindu-Muslim amity. Here, for example, are lines from Kabir translated in 1915 by Rabindranath Tagore:

Hari is in the East:
Allah is in the West.
Look within your heart, for there
You will find both Karim and Ram.
(Kabir LXIX)

These tolerant sentiments were reinforced by activities such as religious pilgrimages that enlarged pilgrims’ regional as well as religious perspectives. Kipling believed some of the innovations brought to India under British rule were helpfully building on this indigenous foundation. Rapid rail transit was undeniably speeding pilgrimages, and much is said in Kim about the socially broadening effect of train travel. The most noteworthy such remark is perhaps this bit of denigration uttered by a disgruntled train rider:

“I say,” began the moneylender, pursing his lips, “that there is not one rule of right living which these te-rains do not cause us to break. We sit, for example, side by side with all castes and peoples.” (Kim 37-8)

Kipling’s fundamental social views can be summed up as Freemasonry Lahore-style or, in other words, a hybrid of materially progressive British and culturally reformist Indian values.

In promulgating these views, Kipling evolved an equally hybrid voice: English, to be sure, but with strong Indian roots. Kipling’s allusion to the “heathen songs” he listened to as a child may have conjured up lurid images in the minds of Victorian readers in England, but these “heathen songs” no doubt included many improving tales told in cadenced language that evoked an Indian oral tradition sustained through several millenia. The signature Kipling style that westerners found so stimulating and strange is from an Indian viewpoint a recognizable continuation and transposition into English of the ancient practice of combining pulsing prose with gnomic verse. T.S. Eliot called Kipling’s prose-poems ballads, and explained that he was here “extending and also somewhat limiting the meaning of the word ‘ballad’” to comprehend the technical virtuosity it could sometimes achieve “in the later stages of development of classic literatures such as those of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Persian, or Chinese” (Eliot 9). But Eliot never elaborated this point, and described Kipling as “the inventor of a mixed form.” More accurately, Kipling could be called an importer and adapter of well-established Indic forms.

After Eliot’s 1941 essay appeared, several persons suggested alternative terminology. C.S. Lewis preferred to describe Kipling’s “ballads” as “versified homilies” (85) and George Orwell memorably termed Kipling a “good bad poet,” which Orwell defined as one who produces “rhyming proverbs” and “gnomic or sententious” sayings (158). But neither Lewis nor Orwell recognized that Kipling’s principal literary inspiration was the centuries-old Indic tradition of mingling versified axioms with didactic tales. Yet Kipling himself made clear his belief that he was perpetuating this Indic tradition, by, for example, inserting into one of his Just So Stories these words: “Then he recited the following Sloka, which, as you have not heard it, I will now proceed to relate . . .” (5). Neither the story (“How the Whale Got His Throat”) nor the verse, referred to by the Sanskrit term sloka, has anything to do with India. But Kipling’s narrative voice here is undisguisedly Indic.

Kipling’s 1902 Just So Stories offer perhaps the most overt link between a particular Kipling text and an Indic text, Narayana’s Hitopadesha. India’s longstanding animal fable tradition had been given a new direction in the ninth century by the Sanskrit Hitopedesha, which has remained popular ever since in multiple variants. Illustrated scrolls used by professional story-tellers—and nowadays comic books—have kept this medieval text continuously alive in popular consciousness. Readers in Europe and America are more familiar with India’s ancient Panchatantra tradition of animal fables, which embodied a fairly cynical morality that might be summed up in the phrase “a leopard can’t change its spots.” Within India, the ninth-century Hitopadesha turned the animal fable tradition in a far more uplifting direction. This Hitopadesha-propelled tradition of morally improving tales was the one to which the child Kipling was probably exposed by his Indian caregivers.

In keeping with this still-vibrant medieval tradition of animal fables, Kipling's Just So Stories are crammed with jaunty juxtapositions of comic prose and versified moral summaries. The Just So Stories offer these lines about the importance of hard work:

The Camel’s hump is an ugly lump
Which well you may see at the Zoo;
But uglier yet is the hump we get
From having too little to do. (22)

Comparable sentiments can be found in the Hitopadesha, expressed with a more explicitly Hindu slant. For example,

A cart can’t roll forward on just one wheel,
Nor is Fate fulfilled without our striving. . . .
To fail after striving is no disgrace,
But All is Fate! is a coward’s refrain.
(Narayana 23)

The moment when Kipling moved beyond his initial vocation as a modest writer of hortatory “songs” and sensed that he was equipped to become a breakthrough practitioner in English of Indic balladry seems to have come in 1893 when he glanced back over his first story about the wolf-reared boy Mowgli, “In the Rukh,” and realized that he could write more powerfully if he adopted an Indian style instead of just employing Indian subject matter. The Mowgli of “In the Rukh” is ludicrously depicted in “the very form and likeness of that Greek god who is so lavishly described in the novels.” Mowgli’s voice is termed “clear and bell-like, utterly different from the usual whine of the native.” Readers of “In the Rukh” get to know Mowgli primarily through the monocled eyes of two government officials, one possessing a silly German accent, for whom Mowgli—“Faunus himself”—is only a local curiosity. After demonstrating for these bemused onlookers his ability to communicate with various forest beasts, Mowgli is discovered one morning seated on a tree-trunk with an arm around the neck of a Muslim girl whom he has just seduced, and “playing upon a rude bamboo flute, to whose music four huge wolves danced solemnly on their hind legs.” The story ends chastely when Mowgli is employed as a “forest-guard,” which makes it possible for him to marry the Muslim girl (In the Rukh 227-8, 249, 252-3, 256).

Kipling omitted “In the Rukh” from the Jungle Books and alluded to it there dismissively. When it dawned on him that Mowgli wasn’t the Greek god Pan, Kipling found in Hindu legends a way to bring Mowgli joyously to life. Here is Kipling’s description of his new Mowgli:

He could swing by one hand from a top branch for half an hour at a time, when he had occasion to look along the tree-roads. He could stop a young buck in mid-gallop and throw him sideways by the head. He could even jerk over the big, blue wild boars that lived in the Marshes of the North. . . . And yet the look in his eyes was always gentle. (303)

In its blending of frenzy and mildness, this image is Indic, not Victorianized Greek.

In another Jungle Book story, Mowgli slays the tiger Shere Khan, removes his skin, spreads out “the striped hide” with its “huge claws dangling” and dances (Jungle Books 64). Kipling no doubt had in mind old stories he had heard about Shiva, such as this one from the thirteenth century Koyil Puranam: “A fierce tiger . . . rushed upon [Shiva]. . . ; but smiling gently, He seized it and, with the nail of His little finger, stripped off its skin, and wrapped it about Himself like a silken cloth. . . . Then he began to dance” (Coomaraswamy 68-9).

Usually discernible in the background when Mowgli appears, Shiva is explicitly praised in these lines from the first Jungle Book:

All things made he——Shiva the Preserver.
Mahadeo! Mahadeo! he made all,—
Thorn for the camel, fodder for the kine,
And mother’s heart for sleepy head, O little son of mine!

Wheat he gave to rich folk, millet to the poor,
Broken scraps for holy men that beg from door to door;
Cattle to the tiger, carrion to the kite,
And rags and bones to wicked wolves without the wall at night.
(Jungle Books 123)

By 1893 when the Jungle Book stories began appearing, Kipling had figured out how to be both a success in English and a son of India. Kipling’s novel-writing moved more slowly toward embrace of an Indic voice. Four fairly conventional Victorian novels (The Light That Failed, 1891, The Naulahka, 1892, Captains Courageous, 1896, Stalky and Co., 1899) were commercial successes, nothing more. After Captains Courageous, Kipling’s friend and admirer Henry James actually felt compelled to reconsider his earlier assessment of Kipling as “the most complete man of genius (as distinct from fine intelligence) that I have ever known” (Carrington 149). “His ballad future may still be big,” James lamented in 1897. “But,” added James, “my view of his prose future has much shrunken in the light of one’s increasingly observing how little of life he can make use of. . . Almost nothing of the complicated soul or of the female form or of any question of shades” (Carrington 267).

Kipling’s 1890s attempts at Jamesian character development were disappointments, perhaps to Kipling himself as well as to Henry James. Then in 1901 came Kim, which reached a new level by giving full rein to Kipling’s unconventional capacities. Throughout the novel, Kim asks himself, “Who is Kim?” An easy answer would seem to be that Kim is Kipling himself as a boy. But Kim’s recorded story occurs at an age when Kipling was not in India. Nor is Kim a speculation about who Kipling might have become had he been in India rather than at boarding school in England. Kim is not a “real boy” in any sense, and Kim is not a true-life adventure story. Kim is what Kipling himself termed an “asiatic yarn” (Wurgaft 104) and has more in common with Buddhist Jataka tales and Hindu epics and puranas than with standard Victorian fiction. The best answer to the question “Who is Kim?” is that he is a British Indian fantasy modeled on ancient India’s god-heroes.

Being near-perfect from the outset, Indic god-heroes typically display only subtle character development. The challenge confronting the traditional Indian narrator is to make an edifying story of virtuous action delightful and even amusing by beautifully elaborated narration. This point was well-articulated by the master storyteller R. K. Narayan.

Even in a modern reinterpretation, wrote Narayan, a traditional Indic tale

has implicit in it a philosophical or moral significance, and an understanding of the distinction between good and evil. . . . In every story, since goodness triumphs in the end, there is no tragedy in the Greek sense. . . . The sufferings of the meek and the saintly are temporary, even as the triumph of the demon is. . . . The tales have such inexhaustible vitality in them that people like to hear them narrated again and again. . . . All the tales have certain elements in common, namely: Sages spend their lives . . . seeking . . . illumination through austerity and concentrated meditations. . . . The kings ... are men of action. (4-8)

Narayan noted further that whenever a village narrator “finds his audience laughing too loudly and protractedly at his humour, he instantly quotes an epigram to show that laughter should be dignified and refreshing rather than demonstrative” (Narayan 4). In Kim, Kipling took up this well-established role, and must have found truly Indic satisfaction in having produced a deeply serious book which was also fun. The author of Kim accomplished what his birthright immersion in Indian culture enabled him to do, which was to use language musically to tell a meandering, recitative epic tale with a new-fangled point: the presumed complementarity of Indian spirituality and British practicality.

In the first sentence of Kim, the reader is invited into the space “opposite the old Ajaib-Gher—the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.” Behind the Wonder House stands “the Magic House, as we name the Masonic Lodge.” The most prominent artifact fronting Lahore’s Wonder House is Zam-zammah, an historic “green-bronze” cannon “always first of the conqueror’s loot” (Kim 3-4). In solitary glee atop Zam-Zammah sits Kim, a thirteen-year-old runaway who prides himself on being stronger than his Hindu and Muslim playfellows:

“Let me up!” cried Abdullah, climbing up Zam-Zammah’s wheel.

“Thy father was a pastry-cook, Thy mother stole the ghi,” sang Kim.

“All Mussalmans fell off Zam-Zammah long ago!”

“Let me up!” shrilled little Chota Lal in his gilt-embroidered cap. His father was worth perhaps half a million sterling, but India is the only democratic land in the world.

“The Hindus fell off Zam-Zammah too. The Mussalmans pushed them off.” (Kim 7)

In these deceptively casual lines, Kipling provides a bold statement of Indian history from the coming of the Muslims forward, as then commonly understood: Muslims conquered Hindus, Britishers conquered Muslims, and therefore ruled by force, presumably the only rationale that "democratic" India understood. Then

there shuffled round the comer . . . such a man as Kim, who thought he knew all castes, had never seen. He was nearly six feet high, dressed in fold upon fold of dingy stuff like horse-blanketing, and not one fold of it could Kim refer to any known trade or profession. (Kim 7)

This puzzling man turning his head “like an old tortoise in the sunlight” is outside Kim’s experience. So he brashly resolves to “take possession” and grandly orders a police constable to “Send him hither” (Kim 18, 8).

Kipling’s narrative voice here seems as cocky as his boastful hero. The book’s short first paragraph contains the words “defiance” and “loot,” and the second paragraph bluntly states, “the English held the Punjab and Kim was English” and again a few lines later, “Kim was white.” By the book’s end, however, Kim will have become part of a multiracial, multilingual conspiracy to drag down in disgrace white men too ignorant to distinguish a learned lama from amongst India’s variegated “holy-bolies” (Kim 270). The cannon-based version of what it means to rule by right in India undergoes similar elaboration. Though Kim at first (like the unsuspecting reader) doesn’t realize it, much more than Zam-Zammah is needed to “hold” Punjab in any but the crudest sense; and Punjab is only one of India’s regions, as Kim will soon see.

Kim leads his new “possession” into Lahore’s Wonder House. Its welcoming, white-bearded English curator, modeled on Kipling’s father who was once curator of this very museum, shows the lama a map of India’s Buddhist holy places, guides him on a gallery walk of the Museum’s many Buddhist sculptures, offers him European scholarly articles on esoteric questions pertaining to Buddhist history and gives him a superior pair of spectacles by which to take in all this intellectual fare. The lama in turn explains why he has set out in search of the River of the Arrow:

When our gracious Lord [Buddha], being as yet a youth, sought a mate, men said . . . [h]e was too tender for marriage. . . . So . . . our Lord . . . called for such a bow as none might bend. . . . And, overshooting all other marks, the arrow passed far and far beyond sight. At the last it fell; and, where it touched earth, there broke out a stream which presently became a River, whose nature, by our Lord’s beneficence, and that merit He acquired ere He freed himself, is that whoso bathes in it washes away all taint and speckle of sin. (Kim 14)

The lama has left behind a life lived almost exclusively in a remote lamasery in the Himalayas, and in tradition-sanctioned but narrow channels. And though he thinks the end of his search is to rid himself of sin, the lama too (it turns out), like the youthful Gautama when he shot his arrow, is seeking a mate.

Kim impulsively decides to accompany this holy man, sensing it may be time to begin his own search concerning a prophecy made by Kim’s father before he died, according to which Kim would someday be aided by a Colonel “riding on a horse” (Kim 4-5). Though embarked on separate searches for different goals, Kim and the lama enjoy each other’s companionship as they wander back and forth across India. Kim at first thinks the lama “quite mad” but before long is proclaiming in halting English, “we must find that River. It is so verree valuable to us” (Kim 27, 116). The lama in turn confesses with some embarrassment to Kim, “my heart went out to thee for thy charity and thy courtesy and the wisdom ofthy little years” (Kim 120).

This phase ends when Kim is “outed” as white. The lama thereupon decides Kim must be trained to be a “Sahib” at the lama’s expense. Despite a self-effacing demeanor which draws scorn from the ignorant, the lama is abbot of a large and wealthy lamasery. As he puts it with Buddhistical modesty, “In my own place I have the illusion of honour” (Kim 277).

For three years, while Kim endures schooling and learns useful skills during school vacations, the lama travels alone throughout British India, learning how the Raj has subtly transformed the vast subcontinent stretching below his beloved hills, and moving from bewildered incomprehension to a belief that British rule is potentially supportive of the traditions he has devoted his life to sustaining. The lama concludes that Kim could become a vessel through which Tibetan Buddhism is added to the vast panoply of cultures of which the British have become caretakers. Kim meanwhile has also grown in comprehension and is disposed to receive the lama’s instruction. “Oh, be silent,” Kim had once said to the lama (Kim 40); now Kim will listen.

Early in his travels, the lama gained the impression that the “talk of white men is wholly lacking in dignity” and he conveniently “forgot” Kim was white (Kim 106). “Now I look upon thee often,” the lama tells Kim, “and every time I remember that thou art a Sahib” (Kim 351). The lama sees his Irish chela as one who “must go forth as a teacher” (Kim 370). Bodhisattva-like, the lama halts in his search for release from life’s turmoil to help Kim realize his earthly destiny. The lama instructs this teacher for a new age with inspired dedication, and “Kim who had loved him without reason now loved him for fifty good reasons” (Kim 278).

When the lama finds that Kim comprehends the wondrous chart he has prepared delineating the Buddhist Wheel of Life, he ends their sojourn in the hills, and his search for the River of the Arrow returns to a middle ground. He had already realized that “if need be, the River will open at our feet” (Kim 257); and that Kim was the key: “without thee I should never find my River” (Kim 251). He knew moreover that the River began as a stream and only later became a River. Kim’s instruction is complete, the lama’s own span of years is traversed; he is altogether ready to “tumble into a brook” where he does indeed experience a vision confirming his attainment of spiritual release from the Wheel of Life. Kipling renders the lama’s achievement of release from earthly bonds in a way both true to Buddhist tradition and light-heartedly earthy: the lama is fished from the brook “sin-less, new-washed and three parts drowned to boot” (Kim 371).

As the lama, whose “mind moved all in the past” (Kim 252), achieves release from the Wheel of Life, Kim reconnects to reality. Before, his “soul was out of gear with its surroundings—a cog-wheel unconnected with any machinery” but now Kim feels “the wheels of his being lock up anew on the world without” (Kim 367). Complementarity frees Kim from incoherence; he sees now that a pen-drawn cosmographical Wheel of Life and the iron wheels of the “te-rain” may turn together. As Kipling had proclaimed succinctly at the outset, “old world piety and modern progress” can be joined (Kim 16).

Rudyard and Lockwood Kipling conferred regularly throughout the writing of Kim, and again during the labor of love that Lockwood then undertook to sculpt a series of tradition-drenched low-relief panels that were reproduced in the first edition of Kim (Carrington 244).1 Lockwood’s final image evokes the passage in which Kim is peering

at the cross-legged figure, outlined jet-black against the lemon-colored drift of light. So does the stone Bodhisat sit who looks down upon the patent self-registering turnstiles ofthe Lahore Museum. (Kim 373)

The End of the Search

Lockwood depicted the lama meditating in lotus position with his hands in a variant of the traditional bodhyagri or “wisdom fist” mudra, in which the upraised index finger of the left hand is clasped by the right hand. In Buddhist tradition, this mudra is understood to symbolize the union of the spiritual with the five gross elements of the material world. The lama is indicating that he is now at peace with the larger world that so bewildered him when he first left his secluded Himalayan lamasery.

The lama’s head is centered within the wheel of a rustic cart, which is obviously meant to evoke the Buddhist chakra or Wheel. Kim is in the foreground and, though garbed like a peasant, is seated in the posture of stately ease known as lalitasana—one leg bent at the knee, the other extended—used in ancient Indian sculpture to connote royalty. This juxtaposition of the lama and Kim recalls the traditional relationship of the Buddha, who first set in motion the Wheel of the Law, to just rulers or Wheel-Turners—Chakravartin—who epoch after epoch preserve or restore Buddhist values. Kipling in Kim immodestly proposed a new way of conceptualizing the Chakravartin as a polyglot Irish youth humbly dedicated to preserving the best of wondrous old India within the modern British Raj.

To the legend of a royal implementer of Buddhist teachings, Kipling cannily added Hindu touches. Like the epic hero Rama, Kim is born to power but through exposure to life on the Indian road ends up much better equipped to exercise power than would have been the case had his life been trouble-free. Krishna, another Hindu god-hero, was also of noble birth but spent formative years among ordinary village folk. One of Krishna’s epithets is Janardana, the Adored of Humankind. In a similar vein, the lama bestows on Kim the appellation “Friend of All the World.” Hindu tradition also posits a future avatar or descent of immortal Vishnu as a secular warrior mounted on a white stallion. The message Kim delivers for Mahbub Ali to Colonel Creighton is, “The pedigree of the white stallion is fully established” (Kim 28), which can be interpreted as meaning British rule in India is now legitimately Indic. With such evocative archaisms, Kim heralds the coming of a new day of scientific progress for richly traditional India.

The importance of an intense personal bond between an ascetic teacher and a worldly ruler has been a pervasive theme in all the major cultural traditions of South Asia; Jain, Muslim and Sikh as well as Hindu and Buddhist. The teacher/ruler relationship could even transcend religious lines. The Jain Guru Hiravijaya, for example, is believed to have deeply influenced the sixteenth century Muslim Emperor Akbar. At Hiravijaya’s urging, according to contemporary accounts, “Akbar released prisoners, renounced his beloved hunting, gave their freedom to caged birds, restricted the practice of fishing and prohibited slaughter of animals during periods covering approximately half the year” (Wellesz 16). Confidently adapting such familiar Indic traditions to his own ends, Kipling in Kim imagined a potentially transformative guru/chela relationship between an old Tibetan Buddhist lama and an Irish youth working for the British Raj.

For the time being, what this prospective Chakravartin is to do with his profound Buddhist education will be determined by the Masonic Colonel Creighton, who heads British India’s low-paid Ethnological Survey. As a probationary member, Kim is to be paid twenty rupees per month. From Kipling’s Hindu-Masonic perspective, no onerous constraint seemed inherent in Kim’s being “wafted into billets” (Kim 230) at age seventeen since only by doing a man’s work could one become a man.

Kim has learned little at his expensive boarding school paid for by the lama; St. Xavier’s was merely a three-year ordeal.But Kim’s vacation-time travels resulted in a multi-ethnic array of mentors, several of whom turn out to be paid agents of British rule. From the martial Afghan Mahbub Ali, Kim learns to defend himself. From the Eurasian curio dealer Lurgan, Kim learns that there is more than one use for the multiplication table. From the protean Bengali Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, Kim learns the quick-change magic of disguise, at which Kim had already demonstrated aptitude. Kim learns how to look like a Hindu or a Muslim or a Buddhist and to think and act like each of these, ever mindful of distinctions; never for example using “the Muhammadan terms with the Tibetan dress” (Kim 366). Kim’s childish notion that life is a game played on rooftops turns out not to be entirely wrong, only superficial. In “the Great Game” (a phrase now commonly associated with its popularizer Kipling), one must change more than one’s clothes and skin color; one must adjust one’s mentality to function effectively in varying cultural settings.

Hurree and Mahbub Ali know that playing the Great Game is hard work, made bearable with the help of soulmates pledged to help one another, as Masons do. When Hurree praises a task Kim has performed well,

Kim thrilled to the clean pride (it can be a deadly pitfall, none the less,) of Departmental praise-ensnaring praise from an equal of work appreciated by fellow-workers. Earth has nothing on the same plane to compare with it. (Kim 286)

By way of induction ceremony into the Ethnological Survey's secret brotherhood, Kim is anointed (ostensibly to darken his skin) by a blind priestess (also a Lucknow courtesan) who chants spells meant to protect him while her bangles "clish-clash" portentously (Kim 233). Mahbub Ali presents him with new clothes including slippers with "arrogantly curled tips" and a "mother-of-pearl, nickel-plated . . . revolver" (Kim 223). Kim then proceeds to trick even his beloved lama, who learns nothing of Kim's hidden revolver, or the twenty rupees per month, or why fellow-agent Hurree Chunder Mookerjee is hovering around disguised as a "quack" doctor from Dacca.

Kim’s instruction by the lama is only a convenient cover, so far as the Ethnological Survey is concerned. Hurree had encouraged the lama’s interest in visiting the hills in hopes this might benefit the Survey’s scheme to waylay Russian and French spies.The phase of the Great Game that Kim and the lama are unsuspectingly drawn into concerns whether Russia abetted by France can thwart British efforts to penetrate Central Asia.

As Hurree had anticipated, the French and Russian foreigners fall victim to their own arrogance and ignorance. They fancy that the lama is a venial fellow whose refusal to sell them his laboriously-drawn Wheel of Life is a bargaining ploy. They grab, the lama holds fast, and the precious chart is torn. The lama had presented a pen and brush case to the English curator who gave him spectacles, but now he brandishes one threateningly against the boastful interlopers who have torn the chart he had created to instruct Kim. The lama successfully controls his impulse to strike, the Russian cannot control his; and when he strikes the lama “full in the face,” this “blow . . . waked every unknown Irish devil” in the lama’s “singular, though unwashen” chela who strikes back, with results that prove fatal to the plans of the secret agents of France and Russia (Kim 311). “The Irish and the Oriental in his soul” enable Kim to serve well both the lama and the Great Game in which the lama has become an unwitting pawn (Kim 323). Kim who on occasion dreams in “Hindustanee, with never an English word” and when appropriate can exclaim “By Jove!” while “thinking hard in English” is now both morally fit to become the lama’s worldly agent and an adept at counter-espionage (Kim 252, 316).

In Kim, India is a cacophony of discordant viewpoints only on the surface. Might-makes-right imperialists, Kipling implied, were wrong to think that nothing but an iron fist could keep India’s diverse communities from each other’s throats. Although the clashing of particular perspectives would never end, they could be deftly combined into a musical “clish-clash.” For example, the Afghan Mahbub Ali (seen in the background of Lockwood Kipling’s illustration) curses the lama as an unbeliever bound for hell. The lama benignly believes these curses are prayers—and he is right, or so Kipling would have us think. After all, Mahbub Ali has made a small place in his heart for a Tibetan Buddhist, and thereby moved closer to him, albeit “one foot at a time, as the lame gelding went over the Umballa jumps” (Kim 372). None of the principals in Kim sees the whole picture: not Mahbub Ali, not Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, not the lama, not Kim—yet. But sympathy has brought them together, and harmonized their astonishingly divergent perspectives, under British rule. The French-Russian interlopers could see in the colorful panorama presented by British India only a “monstrous hybridism of East and West” (Kim 311). “Hybridism” might seem “monstrous” in Kipling’s Victorian vocabulary, but the person who wrote “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” (“The Ballad of East and West” 1889) also believed in the possibility of dynamic complementarity. Kipling presumed that East and West would never become indistinguishable, but could constructively combine their respective strengths.

Kim presents a fantasy portrait of the British Raj as a social and political system within which Mahbub Ali with his old-fashioned borderer’s approach to life, the learned Teshoo Lama from Tibet, the partially westernized Bengali Brahmin Hindu Hurree Chunder Mooketjee (and by extension all other persons in this vast land) are beneficially ruled by Britishers. But this India is ruled by foreign-born British officers who only sometimes understand the Indian past as does the curator of the Lahore Museum, or who possess the managerial and technical skills and discipline evinced by Colonel Creighton. Moreover, both these admirable Britishers remain remote figures. The hope offered by the India-born boy Kim is that he can provide the dimension of love, and thereby make an alien government more than merely tolerable.

In composing Kim, Kipling was acting as an India-born supporter of British rule, who hoped to transform that rule by helping India’s British conquerors acquire a subtler sense of those they ruled. Fundamentally, Kim is about whether a brash young British regime and lavishly variegated old India can lovingly complement each other, the alternatives being separation or continued rule by force alone. Kipling’s vision may be called either profoundly optimistic or profoundly pessimistic, since Kipling was saying in effect that only a miracle such as Kim seemed likely to move British Rule beyond cold coercion.

Kipling was mistaken in thinking that old-fashioned India could look forward only to gradual social and cultural amelioration, and could not accomplish even this without British help.ln this regard, events have left Kipling behind. Kipling’s twenty-first century relevance results not from his political opinions but from his pioneering ways of expressing these conservative views, ways which moved subversively beyond his own conscious values. Kipling applauded complementarity and tolerance, but was skeptical about cultural experimentation. Yet Kipling’s achievements as a hybridizing innovator belied his own assumptions. In the century since Kim appeared, cultural hybridity has produced revolutions beyond Kipling’s ken, even as Kipling himself can now be seen to have inadvertently helped launch these revolutions. Before Kipling, India’s vibrant narrative tradition was known to readers of English only in sedate, Edwin Arnold-style imitations. In capturing for the ftrst time in English the authentic vigor of this Indic tradition, Kipling certainly knew what he was doing, but not how to characterize it acceptably. Indeed, for Kipling, hybridity had negative connotations. Today Kipling merits recognition for accomplishments that in his own times earned scant respect.

Works Cited

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  1. "The End of the Search." Low-relief clay tablet, including the title as well as the initials "JLK." Created by J. Lockwood Kipling in consultation with his son Rudyard Kipling to illustrate the first edition of Kim (London: Macmillan, 190l). At the base of this reproduction can be seen the word "Swantype," indicating that the tablet was reproduced by an electrogravure process recently invented by the Swan Electric Engraving Company. Reproduced here by permission from a copy in the Special Collections Library of Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.