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Classic Thoughts: A Sahib who also served: David Malouf on the grace and clarity of Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901)

FEW READERS of Kim can resist its freshness, the sense the writing gives of being, like its young hero, awake in a 'great, good-tempered world'. The question, given a plot so boyishly involved with the Great Game, is whether the book is more than a bright adventure story.

The plot, in fact, like so much else here, is a double one. Kim is an agent of two worlds, the one represented by the Department where he will one day have a number, the other the world of eternal forms in which even his name, Kim, Kim, Kim, is a puzzle to him. He has two modes of being: at one moment he is entirely absorbed by 'the visible effects of action', borrowing 'right and left-handedly from all the customs of the country he knew and loved', keen-eyed, like Lurgan Sahib, for 'how such and such a caste talked and walked, or coughed, or spat, or sneezed', delighting in the 'demon' that 'woke up and sang with joy as he put on the changing dresses, and changed speech and gesture therewith'.

As mimic and actor, he is the perfect agent of Kipling's own activity in the book; but Kipling also shares Kim's other, inward or 'sleeping' nature. 'Now I am alone - all alone, he thought. In all India is no one as alone as I . . . who is Kim - Kim - Kim. He squatted in a corner of the changing waiting-room, rapt from all other thoughts; hands folded in his lap and pupils contracted to pinpoints. In a minute - in another half-second - he felt he would arrive at the solution to the tremendous puzzle.'

This is the Kim who is part of an India 'full of holy men stammering gospels in strange tongues' - one of whom is the lama to whom he gives a free and unconditional love from which he never swerves, the Tibetan whose feet he kisses (even though he is a Sahib), and to whom he puts himself in service as chela.

Service is a key word. In the world of this book we can serve two masters. Kim does. But that is the peculiar grace Kipling finds for him - a capacity to connect and reconcile the two sides of his head: one might go further and say the native and British sides of India itself.

A difficult thing to do convincingly. If we believe in it, it is because Kim himself sees no difficulty - so long as his soul is in order: 'Things that rode meaninglessly on the eyeball an instant before slid into proper proportion. Roads were meant to be walked upon, houses to be lived in, cattle to be driven, fields to be tilled, and men and women talked to. They were real and true - solidly planted upon their feet - perfectly comprehensible - clay of his clay, neither more nor less.'

All this, in its delicacy, its inclusiveness, the clarity with which Kipling presents what is obscure and difficult, is like nothing else in our fiction.