by Steve High
As Nat Crawford observed in last month’s newsletter, characters in literary works remain with us after plots are forgotten. One reads great books, eager to reach the end—and then regrets the disappearance of a character who out of necessity disappears with the conclusion of the story.
In his 1901 coming-of-age novel Kim, Rudyard Kipling created a character who walks off the page, leaving us to wonder where he has gone and what has become of him. As observed above, readers want to reach the end of Kim, yet they don’t want the story to end.
Kimball O’Hara begins adolescence as “the little friend of all the world” and arrives at manhood as—what? An ordained Buddhist monk? An agent and professional liar for the British Indian Secret Service? Or something else?
Throughout the book, Kim follows the dangerous path of “The Great Game,” from India to points north to frustrate, through espionage, Russian designs on British India. At the same time, he walks as the chela (disciple) of Teshoo Lama, a mendicant Buddhist holy man. Even at the very end of the book, it’s not at all obvious how Kim resolves the personal conflict that these worldly and spiritual preoccupations must create.
In Kipling’s original manuscript, Teshoo Lama crosses his hands “as a man may who has gone through the Valley of the Shadow and knows what is beyond.”
But in a brilliant revision, which you can see in Kipling’s handwriting if you visit the British Library, Teshoo Lama smiles “as a man may who has won salvation for himself and his beloved.”
This deliberately ambiguous final sentence has set generations of readers to wondering what becomes of Kim.
My own feeling, which I offer only tentatively, is that Kim would not make a very good teacher of Buddhism. At seventeen, Kim is too young to become a Buddhist priest, but as the lama thinks that Kim is already saved, he is too old to become a novice. It is possible that Kim could without ordination become a lay follower (Upāsaka). To do this, he would have to keep the following vows:
- I will not take the life of a sentient being;
- I will not take what has not been given to me;
- I will refrain from sexual misconduct;
- I will refrain from false speech; and
- I will refrain from becoming intoxicated.
From what Kipling shows us of Kim, its hard to believe that he would not find all but the last of these commitments too difficult. He feels no regret for maiming the Russian spy with a groin kick except for wishing that he had not killed him. Nor does he regret having “swiped the whole bag of tricks—locks, stocks, and barrels,” as his colleague Hurree Babu describes Kims theft of the oppositions papers. And although Kim rejects the advances of the “foul-faced woman of Shamlegh, all of his previous behavior suggests that this handsome young man will have his “pickin o sweetearts and continue to take his fun as he finds it.
Finally, Kim’s job as a spy depends upon his ability to lie and deceive. And even when it is not part of his job, he delights in making up stories for his traveling companions just to pass the time. Mahbub Ali, the redoubtable Pushtoon who is Kim’s surrogate father, tells the lama in his oblique way that he has not found “a Red Hat’s charm for making him overly truthful.”
Although he is only seventeen at the end of the novel, it is impossible to regard Kim as other than an adult. Like a teenage combat veteran, Kim has seen more than enough of the world and its ways.
Indeed, the orphaned Kim as a child has seen much of what parents usually shield their children from: opium sellers, such as his stepmother; “young men of fashion,” for whom he carries illicit messages; and “frivolous ladies at upper windows in a certain street,” with whom by age thirteen he has “acquitted himself well.”
Despite the accident of his white skin, Kim has nothing whatsoever of the innocence of an English or Anglo-Indian schoolboy. He was “born in the land,” as Mahbub Ali says. Kim’s childhood is more like Mahbub’s than that of a European child; by age fifteen, Mahbub says he “had shot my man and begot my man.”
Mahbub observes ruefully that the Woman of Kulu, the Sahiba, also regards Kim as a son: “Half Hind seems that way disposed,” he says. It seems unlikely that Kim would reject his first genuine father’s advice as to his ultimate career.
Although jealous of the bond between the lama and Kim, Mahbub can “see holiness beyond the legs of a horse. A devout Muslim after his own fashion, Mahbub nevertheless concedes that the lama is an indisputably “very good man.” When he learns that, as far as the lama is concerned, Kim “can yet enter government service”—for he needs him in six months north of Afghanistan in the middle of Great Game territory—he is content to leave Kim with the lama.
The book’s last sentence shows that the lama has no doubt that Kim will follow him in the path of The Way. And yet Kim himself seems as little moved by the lama’s description of his religious vision as he is by Father Victor’s talk of the Virgin Mary. She is to Kim only one of the many gods and goddesses of whom he has heard, and he sees no difference between the Christian saint and Bibi Miriam, by which name Mary is also respected in Islamic belief.
The lama is fulsome in his description of the paradise he has won for himself and Kim, but Kim expresses no concern for the lama’s soulonly for the “silly body” of the living, breathing Teshoo Lama. True, Kim has said that the Great Game can play itself out for all he cares, but this probably means no more than Hurree Babu’s claim that he will only study ethnology henceforth. It’s impossible to believe that this “fearful man” will not continue to find himself in more “dam’ tight places,” and that “Mr. O’Hara” and Mahbub Ali will be alongside.
Kim is not the only character about whose future one may wonder: Mahbub and Hurree, of course, but also the sensitive and wise curator of the Lahore Museum; Colonel Creighton, the singularly intellectual army man; and Lurgan Sahib, the mysterious trainer of agents—all are characters who live outside the confines of Kipling’s plot.
Kipling himself wrote no sequel. T. J. Murari’s The Imperial Agent follows Kim into the struggle for Indian independence. Once extremely hard to find, an inexpensive reprint of the book is now available on the used book market. Kim itself is right here on our site. Use it to improve your critical reading skills; you’ll find 787 “SAT words” identified in our edition. But above all, read to form a lifelong acquaintance with the “little friend of all the world.”
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