Monday, September 24, 2007

Kim discussion: Chapters 1 – 5

The text for Kim can be found here.

Kim is the coming of age story of a 13 year-old orphaned boy, whose father was a British soldier. Kim’s fortune was foretold by his father:

The third [document left at Kim’s father’s death] was Kim's birth-certificate. Those things, he was used to say, in his glorious opium-hours, would yet make little Kimball a man. On no account was Kim to part with them, for they belonged to a great piece of magic - such magic as men practised over yonder behind the Museum, in the big blue-and-white Jadoo-Gher - the Magic House, as we name the Masonic Lodge. It would, he said, all come right some day, and Kim's horn would be exalted between pillars - monstrous pillars - of beauty and strength. The Colonel himself, riding on a horse, at the head of the finest Regiment in the world, would attend to Kim - little Kim that should have been better off than his father. Nine hundred first-class devils, whose God was a Red Bull on a green field, would attend to Kim, if they had not forgotten O'Hara - poor O'Hara that was gang-foreman on the Ferozepore line.

Kim meets a Tibetan lama and becomes his disciple (chela). Kim combines this with an errand he agreed to perform (unbeknownst to him it involves information to a British commander concerning Russian intrigue in India). These chapters carry the lama and chela along the Grand Trunk Road, where Kim eventually meets up with his father’s regiment. Their standard is a red bull on a green field. Because of the bequeathed papers he carries, the company’s chaplain and priest take Kim in to send to a British school. The lama continues on his journey to reach enlightenment under the protection of a rich Indian lady.

The story so far reminds me of a combination of three major works, two of which are by Mark Twain. I feel I could easily describe this as the Indian Huckleberry Finn and not be far off the mark. Yet the character Kim, as much as he loves his freedom like Huck, also shows many of Tom Sawyer’s traits in dealing with authority. And while the lama echoes Jim to Kim’s Huck, he also shows a direct lineage from the title character in Don Quixote, yet taken to a spiritual plane.

The best part of the first five chapters to me was the interplay between Kim and the lama. The lama truly believes Kim was heaven-sent to help him find the “river of the arrow” and achieve enlightenment. Yet his treatment of Kim moves from disciple to that of a son. The distress the lama shows when he realizes Kim will be taken from him by the soldiers is heart-breaking, not just because he will miss him but more importantly in that the lama has forsaken his mission:

“I made believe to myself for now I see it was but make-belief - that thou wast sent to me to aid in the Search. So my heart went out to thee for thy charity and thy courtesy and the wisdom of thy little years. But those who follow the Way must permit not the fire of any desire or attachment, for that is all Illusion. As says ...” He quoted an old, old Chinese text, backed it with another, and reinforced these with a third. “I stepped aside from the Way, my chela. It was no fault of thine. I delighted in the sight of life, the new people upon the roads, and in thy joy at seeing these things. I was pleased with thee who should have considered my Search and my Search alone. Now I am sorrowful because thou art taken away and my River is far from me. It is the Law which I have broken!”

Even though the lama absolves Kim from distracting him, the lama includes a pretty damning barb at Kim’s additional tasks. An additional interesting pairing is the Catholic priest and the Church of England chaplain, one stern and authoritative while the other is much more concerned with Kim’s well-being.

The last point I’ll mention is two instances that show Kipling’s view of India and empire. At one point on their journey along the Grand Trunk Road, Kim and the lama meet a native soldier who assisted the British during the Mutiny of 1857. The character’s framing of what happened when some natives fought the British probably was not representative of the typical Indian of the day: “A madness ate into all the [native] Army, and they turned against their officers. That was the first evil, but not past remedy if they had then held their hands. But they chose to kill the Sahibs' wives and children. Then came the Sahibs from over the sea and called them to most strict account.” Obviously just speculation on my part, but it sounds rather hollow coming from a native instead of one of the British officers. The second incident happens very quickly, but underpins what I’ve seen of Kipling’s belief in England’s responsibilities when it came to India. The rich woman that Kim and the lama travel with meets a police constable, who treats the lady to high praise. The woman’s response after the constable leaves echoes Kipling’s approach in the previous short stories mentioned: “These be the sort to oversee justice. They know the land and the customs of the land. The others, all new from Europe, suckled by white women and learning our tongues from books, are worse than the pestilence. They do harm to Kings.” In other words, those that show conscientiousness first to India are living up to their moral responsibilities.

Next up—Chapters 6 through 10.

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