Tammy Marshall, "Novel Thoughts"

Rudyard Kipling was born in India to English parents as was Kim O’Hara, the impish protagonist of Kipling’s final novel, “Kim.” Kipling’s personal experience and knowledge of India brings the country and its people to life in the story.

Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, six years after “Kim” was first published. My small Dell Laurel-Leaf Library edition was printed in 1967, over a hundred years after Kipling was born in 1865 in Bombay. He lived much of his life in England, but his heart was in India. Surprisingly, he also lived for four years in Vermont and married a woman from there.

Nowadays, many people shy away from reading Kipling and other writers like him who used terminology that has become unacceptable. However, I think that when reading someone like Kipling, we need to consider and accept the times in which they lived and wrote as well as the cultures in which they were formed. There is much reference to castes in “Kim,” and that system is simply a long-standing deeply seated part of the country. He didn’t create it; he just used it to set up some of the characters that populate his works.

Kim is an orphan, passing himself off as a native and begging off the streets where he is known as the “Little Friend of all the World.” It is also known, though, that his parents were English, but since he is an orphan, he is seen as “a poor white of the very poorest.” His father, for whom he is named, was a member of an Irish regiment.

Kim becomes a “chela” or a disciple to a wandering lama who is searching for the River of the Arrow. In their travels, they come upon the regiment of his deceased father, and the leaders of it take him on to be educated as a Sahib should be. He maintains his connection with the lama during his years of schooling and eventually returns to serve the holy man in his continued quest for the holy river.

Kim also becomes a spy, and his early years living on the streets taught him many tricks that he uses to help himself survive. One of his best tricks comes from being a White boy living in the colonial era of India and speaking both Hindi and English. Hindi is his native language since he grew up learning it, and he has to learn to read and write English, but he can switch back and forth adeptly, using whichever language is most needed at the time or playing ignorant while understanding what others are saying. He also uses his bilingual abilities to lie when needed by translating things incorrectly for those who don’t know any better. Being bilingual myself, I got a kick out of his use of this skill.

Also, being a word lover, I enjoyed that I had to look up words that were relevant to India and necessary for this story. The spelling of some of the words have changed over the years. A faquir, or fakir, is a mendicant monk. A madrissah, or madrasah, is a school that is normally attached to a mosque. A Babu is a Hindu title of respect. Kismet is a divinely ordained fate.

Kim’s kismet leads him on a rousing journey that makes for an interesting read, even more than a hundred years after it was written.

Contact Marshall at tamreader@gmail.com. Next month’s reading selection is “The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish.


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