“Here begins the Great Game.”
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was the first British author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and to this day, he remains the youngest winner of the award. In his citation for the prize, Kipling was praised as much for what he represented as for what he actually wrote. The committee said he was “a writer who belongs to Great Britain. For centuries past the literature of England has flourished and blossomed with marvellous luxuriance.”
Praised then as a representative of Britain, his reputation subsequently plummeted during the twentieth century. People turned away from the Jingoistic imperialism that Kipling’s work supposedly celebrated.
Now as we enter a post-imperial epoch, it is time to reappraise the talents of this brilliant and controversial man. As an author, his creations have never been more popular. There are two new movie adaptations of The Jungle Book in production now. Like Shakespeare, Kipling’s imaginary creations have the richness to be reinvented time and time again.
Great as the Disney animated movie is, it is still not as good as the original collections of short stories: The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book. I would go so far as to say that Kaa’s Hunting in The Jungle Book remains the most exciting thing that I have ever read. Mowgli is captured by a horde of monkeys so that his friends the bear Baloo, the python Kaa and the panther Bagheera must fight for his life in a ruined temple deep in the jungle.
Born in Mumbai, Kipling loved India and its people, and this fizzes away in the pages of Kim, widely considered to be his greatest novel. In fact, at times Kim is rather a turgid tale and very slow by modern standards. It’s effectively a road trip across the Raj, seen through the eyes of a white orphan who aids a Tibetan monk on an impossible quest.
Kimball O’Hara (Kim) is one of the great creations of his age. Left abandoned by a drunken soldier father, Kim grows up in the backstreets of Lahore, surviving on his wits, cared for only by a penniless woman who can do little more than provide a roof over his head.
Fluent in many languages as well as English, and able to appear as Hindu, Muslim, or British at will, Kim can move through the different worlds of nineteenth-century India as invisibly as a ghost. Once he stumbles upon his father’s old regiment, powerful men realise that Kim is perfect spy material and they think nothing of risking his life in pressing him into their service. For the British are playing the Great Game, battling Russia for influence in Afghanistan and its neighbours, and espionage is one of their most powerful weapons.
As these geopolitical events are played out in the background, Kim must struggle with his identity, while different adults try to push him one way or the other. Despite his puzzlement at this pressure, Kim is one of the lucky ones. This is a world where people rarely move from their status at birth, and one where racism is rife, such as when Kim is forced to study at a military college, under the constant watch of an ignorant, bullying classmate:
all he heard from his companion were the few useless words which seemed to make two-thirds of the white man’s abuse … yet servants and sweepers called him [the bully] abominable names to his face, and misled by their deferential attitude, he never understood. This somewhat consoled Kim for the beatings.
Kipling’s real art in Kim is to show all of India, for his characters travel through dry country, on roads crammed with traffic, and over vast empty, mountain chains:
He pointed through the window —opening into space that was filled with moonlight reflected from the snow —and threw out an empty whisky-bottle.
“No need to listen for the fall. This is the world’s end,” he said, and went out. The lama looked forth … From the enormous pit before him white peaks lifted themselves yearning to the moonlight. The rest was as the darkness of interstellar space.
The effect is epic in scope, although deeply human too. Kim struggles with school work one minute whilst saving the life of a spy on the run in the next. As a novel, it’s a crafty study of an India which is delightful, dangerous, perplexing and vibrantly alive.