“He sat in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammeh, on her old platform, opposite the old Ajaib gher, the Wonder House, as the natives called the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.”
The opening sentence of Rudyard’s Kipling’s great novel has the eponymous Kim poised on the brink of an adventure as full of danger and risk as “Treasure Island”, and immediately conveys the poetry and complex mixture of ingredients that energise the narrative throughout. It is the book I name without hesitation whenever I’m asked for my favourite novel.
Criticisms of Kipling’s imperialist pretensions can be safely kicked aside, for there is such love and identification with India that only the most unimaginative and soulless would fail to be moved by Kipling’s affection and insight into the country, its landscape and its people. India is the canvas on which Kipling exposed his soul and deepest imaginings. Kim, the pre-pubescent Anglo-Indian street urchin whose love and loyalty for the Lama demonstrates some of the most moving sentiments expressed in the language, uninhibited in tenderness and subtlety, has never been captured by any graphic artist. Perhaps he is impossible to get right.
Along his picaresque journey for the River, the Lama’s chela grows to young manhood, his beauty of soul and physique recognized by the Woman of Shamlegh, whose sadness, when she waves Kim goodbye, Kipling captures with such delicacy.
“I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?” His soul repeated it again and again.
A few months ago a 19th-century Wiltshire house “The Gables” that once belonged to Kipling’s parents was on the market for £950,000. Rudyard Kipling spent months staying in seclusion with his parents while he wrote Kim.
Some of my empathy and love of Kim come from familiarity with the landscapes he moves in. The dusty Punjab plains, the town of Saharunpore (Saharanpur), famed for its mangoes, the hill stations of Simla and Chini and beyond. I once thought I had found Jacob’s (aka Lurgan’s) mysterious shop full of antiques and sinister artefacts in Simla and bought an old papier maché plate, but I believe it has never been accurately identified.
The novel begins in Lahore, where I was born. It was in Lahore where my father was offered his first job, while still at University, on the Civil and Military Gazette, which had been Kipling’s newspaper. My father was the first Indian to be appointed on the staff and even though he was a staunch nationalist he was very proud that he had been specially head-hunted. Much later I wrote a regular “Oxford Diary” for the Allahabad Pioneer, where Kipling worked for two years as a reporter.
The Kipling connection even followed me to Vermont. The tiny hippie college I attended was practically next door to Rudyard Kipling’s home; and recently, when I lived in the Pyrenees, I found that he had been a regular visitor to Vernet-les-Bains, where he brought his wife Carrie in the summer to take the waters.
While I was growing up in Delhi, we frequently travelled the Grand Trunk Road, “the backbone of Hind“, eloquently described in Kim as “such a river of life, as exists nowhere else in the world.” The garrison town of Umballa (Ambala) where the master spy Colonel Creighton was stationed, just 70 miles from the Commander in Chief in Simla, was home to our family for over a year in the late fifties, when my father edited the Punjab-based newspaper, The Tribune.
Only last week I was delighted to discover Peter Hopkirk’s Quest for Kim, described as “less a travel book than a literary detective story.” It starts with the story of the French soldier during the First World War who was saved from a German sniper’s bullet, which buried itself in the translation of “Kim”, which happened to be nestling in the soldier’s breast pocket. The grateful man subsequently sent Kipling the damaged copy, along with his most treasured possession, the Croix de Guerre. Kipling insisted on returning the medal, but instead became godfather to the soldier’s new-born son, who was christened Jean, after Kipling’s only son John, who was killed in the war.
Quest for Kim is enthralling, unabashedly a labour of love, but despite my admiration for the writing and the research, there are a few points on which would beg to disagree with Peter Hopkirk. He says, “Kipling, it is well known, disliked Indian intellectuals, especially Bengali ones, as being too clever by half. Such an attitude was prevalent among Raj officials and other Europeans living in India…”
But Mr Hopkirk, many Indians also think Bengalis too clever by half. ( “it’s all that fish they eat”…). However, one must remember that a Punjabi might hold that view, while the Bengali would consider the Punjabi to be a crude, gobby, bling lover, eater of whole chickens and drinker of yards of lassi. In fact Punjabis express the most outrageous opinions on anyone not a Punjabi: for example South Indians eat their rice and sambhar in a very messy way, letting it trickle all the way up to their armpits; Gujeratis (“Gujjoos”) have the weirdest taste in food, combining salt with sweet; Maharashtrians are misers and so on. But perhaps now everyone has become politically correct over the years.
The other argument I have with Peter Hopkirk is his very casual dismissal of the Woman of Shamlegh, “a rather tragic figure on whom I shall not dwell overlong as she has little or nothing to do with the Great Game aspects of Kim.”
But the Woman of Shamlegh though a minor character, appears at a pivotal point in the story when Kim is becoming aware of himself as an adult, poised on the verge of leaving behind his boyhood. She recognizes him on the threshold of his new self-awareness and she weeps, because she will never know him as a man whose spirit she recognizes and salutes. I always have to swallow a lump in my throat at this point, because there is something so poignant, subtle and truthful in the handling of this episode, which is a perfect illustration of Kipling at his best.
Read “Kim” if you have never done so and read Peter Hopkirk’s admirable and enjoyable personal adventure with it.