Classic Thoughts: A Sahib who also served: David Malouf on the grace and clarity of Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901)
Saturday 19 June 1993
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.
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 2 'Fire at every person you see': Israeli soldiers reveal they were ordered to shoot to kill in Gaza – even if the targets may have been civilians
- 3 Italian police 'reveal' what Jesus looked like as a young boy
- 4 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
- 5 YouTube social experiment shows just how easy it is to kidnap a child
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
In defence of liberal democracy
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils