Wow! I am truly at a loss for words. This book has literally
left me reeling. What an extraordinary, amazing story. And a book which called out to me, though I didn't realize it at the time. It is perfect for where I am
spiritually at this time of my life. Every free minute I had to read, this book was in my hand. Though Kipling wrote a lot of children's literature, in my
opinion this is definitely not for children, simply because of its complications. I even had difficulty keeping it all straight, and though It was
an enjoyable read, it required effort to understand it. It is set in India, and all the religions, ethnic groups, and terminology makes it a challenge. But a
great and worthwhile challenge.
Kipling was born in British India in 1865, and though he was educated in England, he returned to India for a while. Many of his works have an exotic flair, and this one certainly does. Though Kipling wrote many, many works, especially short stories and story collections, he only wrote four novels, and Kim, published in 1901, was his last. Many critics agree that it was his masterpiece, and I also agree with that. It is No. 78 in Modern Library's 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
What appealed to me about this book was, first of all, it is a great story, and what makes it great is that Kipling was able to capture the complex and varied cultures of India, at least at that time. There are the Hindus, Moslems, and British, plus all the different castes and lifestyles. Along with the religions, comes all the superstitions and lots of magic and charms. It begins in Lahore, where Kim, age 13, lives as an orphan. His full name is Kimball O'Hara, son of an Irish soldier, but locally he is known as Friend of all the World. He is being cared for by an Indian woman, but he is exceptionally wise and street-smart for his age. He speaks different languages, and seems to have forgotten that he is white. He does odd jobs to earn money, including work for a certain horse-trader named Mahbub Ali. What he doesn't know at the time is that Mahbub works for the British Secret Service. And what neither of them realize, is that Kim has begun training to be a spy, and is quite good at it.
There are two stories going on throughout the novel, the first being about the Great Game (the name for the conflicts between Britain and Russia concerning India and other countries). The second is about an old Tibetan lama, Teshoo lama, from the Such-zen monastery, who happens to visit Lahore. He wishes to see the Lahore Museum, (of which Kipling's father was actually the curator), and the curator gives him a tour. Kim, as always, hides and listens. The lama is on a spiritual quest to find the River of the Arrow, which will wash him clean of his sins, and release him from the Wheel of Things.
Kim finds that he really likes the lama, plus now, Mahbub has given him an assignment: he must deliver a message about a stallion's pedigree to a man in Umballa. Kim knows it is a lie, but does not quite know what it is about. The lama is searching throughout India to find his River. He is old and not very wise in the ways of the world. Kim decides to go with him, because, one, he needs Kim's street smarts to survive, and two, it would be less obvious that Kim is carrying a message of importance if he is traveling with a Holy Man. The lama wishes to go to Benares, and Umballa is along the way. Kim becomes his chela—his disciple or servant.
And here is where the enchantment begins. Kim soon finds he loves the lama as a father, but at this point, he is more interested in the intrigue. They meet lots of people along the way, and most are very kind, and recognize that the lama is a very Holy Man indeed. Kim makes sure they are always supplied with food, and he also makes some money. Though it is obvious that the lama is very fond of Kim, he strives to adhere to his belief in detachment, lest he lose his way and not find his River. Meanwhile, he leaves the rest of the details to Kim, for example, he does not even know how to buy a train ticket. Mostly they walk, however.
Meanwhile, Kim not only delivers the message about the horse, but he eavesdrops on the meeting and conversation that ensues. An attack is to be made. Kim uses this information wisely with certain people he meets. Without letting on how he knows, he prophesies it will happen, and when it does, he is respected for his wisdom. What is so fascinating in this part, is all the different people they meet, and Kim knows exactly how to behave with each caste, each religious group, in order to get what he and the lama need, especially food and shelter. And information. And even though Kim is filled to the brim with survival smarts, he is also an extremely good and moral person. We watch the relationship of Kim and the lama grow, and realize they make a perfect pair.
Along their way, they meet up with a wealthy old lady who desires the assistance of the Holy Man. The two end up traveling with her. The woman talks too much and annoys the lama, but he also can see that she is a virtuous and good person. He believes that each good deed accumulates merit to free each soul in their own time from the Wheel of Things. He carries his chart with the Wheel carefully drawn and meditates upon it, and also uses it to teach people he meets about the Way.
But soon after they meet the old woman, the Sahiba, Kim is caught snooping around soldiers. He is captured, and one of them recognizes the papers which Kim carries on him at all times—the only legacy left by his father. They know he is Kimball O'Hara's son, who was also a Mason. They retain him and send him to school. They will train him to be a Sahib (Master). He is devastated that he must leave his lama, and promises to escape, but it doesn't work out that way. Meanwhile, the lama comes up with money, and Kim is transferred to St. Xavier school. He is now being trained to work in the Secret Service.
While on break from August to October, he runs away, but now that he can write, he leaves a note assuring them he will return. Colonel Creighton, who is in charge of him, (and also the one whom Kim had given the message about the horse), has his doubts, but Mahbub Ali assures him. Meanwhile, Kim meets up with Mahbub, and he is delivered to a certain Lurgan Sahib, a jewel trader and Master spy. There he plays games which further hone his skills at espionage, including practice in remembering tiny details, of which he already excels. There he also meets the Bengali Master spy, Hurree Chunder Mookherjee, also called the Babu. And all the while, the lama is traveling, searching for his River, still keeping in touch with Kim.
After three years of school, it is determined that Kim is ready to begin his work. He takes time off to be with his lama, who yearns to return to the Himalayas. It so happens that the Babu must intercept two Russians out that way, because they carry important documents, so Kim readily agrees to accompany the lama towards his home. All this time, keep in mind, the lama has no idea Kim is a spy, because for one thing, he is so out of touch with the physical world.
All comes to a head, however, when traveling somewhat apart from the Babu, the Russians, with the Babu and some locals, meet up with Kim and the lama. The Russians see the lama meditating upon the chart of the Wheel, and demand it from him. When he refuses, one tears it and hits the lama. A scramble ensues, and the locals are terrified that a terrible curse will come upon the villages because someone has dared to hit a Holy Man. But the Babu's goal is met, because as he leads the Russians out of the wrath, their documents are left behind. The locals grab their food and supplies, but the important items are put in Kim's hands.
But the lama has been injured; both physically and spiritually broken down. Kim is aided by a local woman called Lispeth. In solitude, he sorts out the papers which he needs, and throws the rest into the valley, which is a chasm. The lama comes to him, and says he has strayed in his yearning to return to the mountains, because he knows now that his River is not there. Kim, now beyond weary wants to rest, but the lama insists on returning to the plains of India. Lispeth provides a litter on which some of her men carry the lama back, but Kim is now burdened with not only his injured friend, but the weight of the pile of document. They finally arrive back at the Sahiba's house, where Kim is near starving. They separate him from the lama, fill him with the best food, and massage him back to life. He sleeps for thirty-six hours, and begins to return to the land of the living. But most important, the Babu visits and relieves him of the mental burden of the documents.
I have already written more than I planned, but I will not tell you how it all ends. I will say this much more: though I am not Buddhist, there is a great deal about that philosophy with which I do resonate. That, I believe, is what absolutely captured my heart in this story. This one is highly recommended reading, and essential reading if you are a Seeker. It is a most beautiful story.
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