Re-reading Rudyard Kipling's "Kim". A Postcolonial Approach

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2015 10 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works



Kipling’s confident championing of imperialism seems to be lacking in documentation of the resistances to colonialism in India, as well as a representation of India as it was at that point of time. It has been argued here that Kipling’s India, especially in Kim is true to the spirit of the Orientalists, not India. After a symptomatic reading of this signs in Kim, the paper takes stock of the trajectory of Kim /Kipling criticism within the postcolonial field.

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936) is not generally considered to be a canonical writer in the “great tradition” of English novels, presumably due to the predominance of the adventurous and the adolescent in his works. However, it should be remembered that he was also the unofficial poet-laureate of the empire as well as the most popular writer of his times. Further, he was the first English author to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (in 1907) which had become by that time the most significant marker of literary excellence, at least in popular perception. Interestingly, he is also the first English author to have owned an automobile “which was appropriate because of his keen interest in all kinds of machinery and feats of engineering” (Abrams 1863) which marked his difference from his contemporary writers (especially the aesthetes). None of these facts are unconnected or co-incidental, and it is suggested here that Kipling’s extremely colonial and highly adventurous (the two often go together) self can be seen as accounting for these apparently unconnected issues. In fact, critics have pointed out that for almost three decades, Kipling was the “most popular” English writer in prose and verse throughout the English-speaking word. Rutherford in his introduction to the Oxford edition of Kim says:

Widely acclaimed as the greatest living English poet and story-teller, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature...he also enjoyed popular acclaim that extended far beyond academic and literary circles. (vi)

Interestingly, the greater part of his writings revive and help re-live the late nineteenth and early twentieth century high imperialism, and these two facts are more than co-incidences. It is not difficult to see that by the time Kipling started writing, India had become the most important colony for the British and the English reading population wanted to know more and more about their most precious and equally mysterious colony. Kipling, no doubt, satisfied their crave and also stood for the Raj unflinchingly, undubiously. In fact, it can be argued that the English imperialism finds its most explicit apologist in Kipling. In poems such as “The Song of the White Men” (1899), Kipling argues that the white man fights for freedom, for righting wrongs on a universal basis In “Kitchener’s School” (1898), he suggests that the English conquers in order to improve the natives, who are even made into judges and engineers. It is further interesting to note that such a staunch supporter of the queen was by birth an Indian, though by blood a British—“ Rudyard Kipling shares with an earlier Victorian, William Makepeace Thackeray, the distinction of having been born in India and, at the age of six, having been sent home to England for his education” (Abrams 1863). This ambivalence between his place of birth and blood had no impact on his writing, as he could never identify himself with India as it was. The citation from the Norton Anthology above is significant because the editors seem to contribute to the idea that in spite of being born in the colony, a sahib’s real home is England only—hence “sent home to England.” Relating to Kipling’s conflation of justice as a philosophical idea with the Queen’s rule, Elleke Boehmer observes:

Despite its minor key, ‘Recessional (1897), by Kipling is unembarrassed about calling on God—‘Beneath whose awful hand we hold Dominion over palm and pine’—to stick to the British side. British Empire to Kipling meant the world-wide reign of justice, and the ‘Queen’s Peace overall.’ (41)

The English critical tradition has traditionally ignored the political ideology of Kim, clubbing it with other woks like The Jungle Books and Just-So Stories as a wonderful tale of adventure and romance. Edmund Wilson’s essay “The Kipling that Nobody Read” (1941), stops short of discussing the politics of representation in Kim. But it is important to note that Kim appeared precisely in the moment when the British Empire was in urgent need for a justification of its imperial policies and simultaneously alongside the consolidation of its nationalist fervour. In “The White Man’s Burden: Kim,” Lynda Prescott relates the anxieties of the empire to the publication of the novel:

It appeared at a fragile moment in the history of empire, when England’s own sense national cohesiveness depended on a belief in her imperial destiny that was almost a secular religion in itself; the faith, however, was underscored by anxiety. The anxiety arose partly from the actual and feared reversals in what was seen as the onward march of civilization across the globe, and the prolonged strain of bearing ‘The White Man’s Burden’, in the words of Kipling’s poem of 1899. (67)

The novel can be seen as based on the quest motif, provided by two parallel quests: the lama’s search for enlightenment through a discovery of the “river of arrow” and Kim’s search for identity. Interestingly, both of these become part of “the great game,” espionage about the Russian interests in the British Empire. India and Indians seem to be relegated to a passive battleground over which the imperial powers struggle. It is important to note at this point that “there is no recognition in Kim of the fact that the border-disputes involving Russia, India and Afghanistan were settled by the mid-1890s, for the novel is set around the time of the second Afghan War (1878-80)” (Prescott 72). It is also interesting to note that Kipling keeps out of the novel immediate events of resistance to the empire, like the establishment of the Indian National Congress in 1885. He seems to be intent on creating image of an India that is subservient to the Raj. The challenge to the Raj is shown to be coming from Russia, an external enemy. The Sepoy Mutiny is dismissed as an eccentric aberration. It can be argued that Kipling’s narrative is an allegory of the “Orientalist” India that needs to be packaged as such for the British and the American readers.

It can be seen that the novel represents colonial knowledge as colonial power, especially through characters like Colonel Creighton and his project of the Survey of India. What is interesting is the fact that Kim is being trained to join the Survey as a chainman. This Survey is more an investment in power than in knowledge; for, it underscores the empire’s aim of charting India which would help the empire rule it better. In fact, the latter half of the nineteenth century saw a plethora of such ethnological, anthropological and religious surveys conducted under premiere British institutions like the Royal Geographic Society, the Royal Asiatic Society and the Royal Society, of which Huree Babu desires to be a member.

Several instances can be cited from the novel that implicate the narrative in empire building either by way of indirect praise of the empire or by suggesting that the India of the past is urgently in need of change. Kim’s sitting astride the gun Zam-Zammah in the opening scene of the novel, for instance, is couched in terms of victory and conquering of India. The exchanges between Kim, Abdullah and Chota Lal for possession of the gun give a playful allegorization of Hindu-Muslim conflict and legitimization of British rule. Abdullah is stopped from getting on to the gun by Kim who says “All Mussulmans fell off Zam-Zammah long ago!” (11), which signifies the defeat of the Moghuls at the hands of the English. Further, Chota Lal, who represents the Hindus, is also told by Kim that “The Hindus fell off Zam-Zammah too. The Mussulmans pushed them off” (11). As India is now under the British, who replaced the Muslims, who had replaced the Hindus, it is only Kim, the Indian-born Irish who can sit astride Zam-Zammah, which is a potent symbol of power. Further, as Sara Suleri has suggested, the cannon can be seen as a phallic symbol, which can be seen as signifying the colonial rule as a transaction between men.

In the narrative, Kipling always seems to be emphasizing the difference between the methodical, scientific western civilization and the immensely instinctive, peripatetic Orient. India is a country where the British or European sense of hierarchy and aristocracy is not to be seen. Therefore, the fact that the son of a rich man like Chota Lal could mix freely with other boys of the street invokes ironic appraisals from the author: “‘Let me up!’ shrilled little Chota Lal in his gilt embroidered cap. His father worth perhaps half a million sterling, but India is the only democratic land in the world” (11). The Orientals are also seen to be efficient liars in general, a habit that Kim has picked up through his close association with them: “That would have been a fatal blot on Kim’s character if Mahbub had not known that to others, for his own end or Mahbub’s business, Kim could lie like an Oriental” (36).

Orientalist thought believes that the people of the Orient may be spiritually advanced, but they are often ignorant and regressive in material terms. The lama’s first acquaintance with the railways brings out words like “This is the work of devils,” which helps intensify the imagining of the Orientals as passive entities. The train compartment is too crowded, Indians are cramped inside like animals and Kipling also points out their inability to pronounce “train,” which is replaced by “te-rain”. The narrative brings in the Indian’s lack of understanding regarding the value and use of time, India as an Oriental land is slow, lazy, and unpunctual: “All hours of the twenty-four are alike to the Orientals, and their passenger traffic is regulated accordingly” (40). Further, India is a country of “holy men”—“dreamers, babblers, visionaries”—who always tend to profess their faiths to a gentle, passive, folk:

He began in Urdu the tale of the Lord Buddha, but, borne by his own thoughts, slid into the Tibetan and long-droned texts from a Chinese book of the Buddha’s life. The gentle, tolerant folk looked on reverently. All India is full of holy men stammering gospels in strange tongues; shaken and consumed in the fire of their own zeal; dreamers, babblers, visionaries: as it has been from the beginning and will continue to the end. (48)

Such representations, evidently, work both ways. While they make a case for the “tolerant” Indian/Oriental/Hindu, they also construct the tolerant as a passive, almost non-sentient race inferior to the interrogative European. In fact, the two characters—the lama and Kim—can be seen as representatives of the old, lazy, passive Orient on the one hand, and a vibrant, active Europe respectively, on the other.

Indian men and women have been represented in the novel in stereotypes. Huree Babu is a typical Bengali babu. Mahbub Ali has all the attributes of a typical Pathan. The rich old ladies as well as the women of “ill repute” hardly show any individuality. Following closely the metropolitan concern with the status of women in the colony, the novel also highlights the women as a marginalised gender in India, with statements like “None but a grandmother should ever oversee a child. Mothers are only fit for bearing” (287), spoken by the narrator.

However, Kipling shows greater familiarity with the cultural practices of India, which indicates his closer observation of the land than a general Orientalist outlook would permit. Thus, in spite of the fact that the European historians always construe Jainism as opposing Hinduism, Kipling finds that such binaries do not practically exist:

Now the Jains officially recognize all the gods of the Hindu creed, as well as the Lingam and the Snake. They wear the Brahminical thread; they adhere to every claim of Hindu caste-law. (260).

Huree Babu is presented as a typical Bengali babu, with an exaggerated sense of self-importance like a Dickensian character. In the delineation of this character, there are signs of the amused derision with which the British viewed the babus. Interestingly, Huree Babu’s lecture on the prospects of Kim’s education serves as an introduction to the then English education given by Calcutta University. It shows how the English canon was used to reform or restore the natives:

After a huge meal at Kalka, he spoke uninterruptedly. Was Kim going to school? Then he, an MA of Calcutta University, would explain the advantages of education. There were marks to be gained by due attention to Latin and Wordsworth’s Excursion (all this was Greek to Kim). French, too, was vital, and the best was to be picked up in Chandernagore, a few miles from Calcutta. Also, a man might go far, as he himself has done, by strict attention to plays called Lear and Julius Caesar, both much in demand by examiners. Lear was not so full of historical allusions as Julius Caesar; the book cost four annas, but could be brought second-hand at Bow Bazar for two. (217)

Lear and Julius Caesar, one might observe, are still much in demand with the Indian curricular system. During the time that the novel was written, English was not quite in the canon of British Universities, which preferred classical languages. Indians, it appears from Huree Babu’s words, had to bear the burden of both Latin and English, and French was thought to be an added advantage. But Kipling does not seem to be quite happy with the native babu’s approximation of English, who can have access to Lear at two annas from Bow Bazar. He is implicitly suggesting the difference between the Lear of England and the Lear of Bow Bazar. The irony lies in the reversal of roles: the native Huree babu, in this case, is seen teaching the virtues of the English canon to the white man.

Thus, in spite of the familiarity with Indian communities and cultures, Kim offers only stereotypical representations. Further, the fact of the possession of India by the British is taken for granted. The novel does not seem to recognize the existence or emergence of resistance to the raj. Kim, the son of an Irishmen, is allowed to freely be a part of native India only till his identity is known, after which he is sent for “schooling” and prepared for entry into the great game—the services of the empire. The novel, thus, provides enough evidence on the basis of which it can be said that for Kipling, India’s best destiny definitely was to be ruled by the British.

It has to be mentioned at this point the above reading of Kim is in sync with the trajectory of Kipling-criticism set in by Edward Said in the main. In his Culture and Imperialism (1993) Said offers quite interesting readings on KIM unmasking the imperialist in Kipling, his mask being that of a writer of adventures and boy’s story. Comparing Kim with contemporary novels set in England or Europe, Said finds that whereas the latter types are marked by disillusion and disenchantment, Kim is full of positive energy. The protagonists of such nineteenth century English novels like Jude the Obscure (1894), and one may add, Great Expectations, come to a realization that life will not ordinarily allow them to fulfil their ambitions to be great, rich or distinguished. Consequently, these novels seem to see the world as a dark design, as an unsuccessful dream. But Kim is free from such disillusionment because its geography—the colonial space—enables it to contain and control time in its favour: “Because he gets beyond this paralyzing, dispiriting impasse, Kim O’ Hara is so remarkably optimistic a character .Like those other heroes of Imperial fiction, his action result in victories, not defeats” (190).

Further, as has been said above in my analysis, Kim betrays its Orientalist outlook in its stereotypical ideas regarding the East, the Orient and the Orientals. The Orient and the Oriental exist as types without any variation or differentiation, in the representation of the Indians, individuality is something mostly done away with .Said cites statements like “Kim would lie like an Oriental”, “all hours of the twenty four are alike to the Orientals,” or “the Oriental’s indifference to mere noise” as instances of stereotypical images and ideas upheld by Kim. Of course, as Said observes, such representations and formations are not unique to Kim or Kipling, but form part of the general attitude of the Westerner towards the Orient. Such information and observations on the Orient were used by the authorities to rule the Oriental colonies as their rightful domain, such discursive formations also upheld the attributed inherent superiority of the European:

Yet no one with any power to influence public discussion or policy demurred as to the basic superiority of the white European male who should always retain the upper hand. Statements like ‘The Hindu is inherently untruthful and lack moral courage’ were expressions of wisdom from which very few, least of all the Governors of Bengal, dissented … (182)

In the final analysis, Said finds Kipling to have been completely unperturbed by the ethical questions related to imperialism. The possibility of a dilemma arising in the plot between Kim’s service and his nationalist sentiments is nullified as Kipling does not see them as contradictory. Service to India in this scenario means service to colonial India. As Said puts it:

The conflict between Kim’s colonial service and loyalty to his Indian companions is unresolved not because Kipling could not face it, but because for Kipling, there was no conflict; one purpose of the novel is in fact to show the absence of doubt once Kim is cured of his doubts, the Lama of his longing for the River, and India of a few upstarts and foreign agents. There might have been a conflict had Kipling considered India as unhappily subservient to imperialism, we can have no doubt, but he did not: for him it was India’s best destiny to be ruled by England. (176)

Interestingly, Benita Parry’s arguments also seem to modify Said’s contentions about the imperial investment of novel. Whereas Said does not always foreground nuances in the representation of the empire on the part of individual authors, Parry speaks of Kipling as the novelist who more directly engages with the representation of the empire than his predecessors and contemporaries: “Kipling’s writings moved the empire from the margins of English fiction to its centre” (Parry121). Parry attempts to mediate between the traditional celebration of Kipling by “royalists” like Eliot, vilification of his works during anti-colonial times and a rehabilitation of him consequent on decolonization which enabled critiques to see ambivalences in Kipling’s attitude to the empire. Interestingly, those who argued for the canonization of Kipling focused on issues like morality and universality, so significant for the Leavisite canon, in Kipling. As Parry sees it:

[T]hose who argued for his recognition as a major artist—although he had long since achieved popular acclaim as a ‘classic’, he had not been admitted into the canon—did so by pronouncing his social and political ideas irrelevant to evaluating his complex techniques and explorations of ‘permanent human and moral themes.’ (119)

Though recognized as a “classic” writer, Kipling has never been quite taken into the “canon.” However, Parry counters the attribution of uncritical universal moral themes to Kipling, and re-reads him in the context of imperialism which thoroughly informs his work. Further, it appears that she is arguing for a more ambivalent Kipling who cannot be seen as an unproblematic ally of imperialism, given the imperatives of representing other people and culture:

Kipling’s India raises the problem posed by Edward Said in Orientalism as to ‘how one can study other cultures and peoples from a libertarian, or a non-repressive and non-manipulative perspective’. More specific questions are: can a writer immersed in and owing allegiance to a master culture construe the radical difference of another and subordinated culture as yet another conceptual order within a multiverse of diverse meanings? (124)

Kipling’s representation of India, thus, seems to be bound by the necessities and restrictions of the colonial imagination.

Sara Suleri’s “Adolescence of Kim” seeks to coalesce Kim’s adolescence and immaturity with the adolescence of colonialism where “Kipling supplies a narrative means to read the implications of imperial time.” Said argues that the imperial time always wants to fossilize the colony’s time, rendering it into an unchanging continuum of fantasy to be grabbed for rule This leads Suleri to argue that Kipling’s orientalist representation of India is influenced by issues beyond his control. Her contention that imperial history has always been evasive actually consolidates Said’s vision of Kipling:

While Said’s rereading of Kim helpfully questions the ostensible changelessness of Kipling’s India by examining it as a necessary evasion of history, his argument could be extended to suggest how effectively Kipling collapses both categories into a narration of imperial time. In other words, the history of empire is in itself evasive, and a postcolonial readership cannot confine such a strategy of storytelling to the narrator’s political and moral relations to his times. (Suleri114)

Kipling’s representation of India, Suleri seems to suggest, form an integral part of the politics of representation of colonialism which is more interested in evasion than engagement. In fact, Suleri’s reading looks at Kim more as a record of the problems of the empire’s lack of maturity in controlling its affairs than as an embodiment of an aggressive colonial desire, which can be said to have supplemented Said’s reading dialogically

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th edition. Vol2. New York: Norton, 2000.

Allen, Richard and Harish Trivedi, ed. Literature and Nation: Britain and India 1800-1990. London: Routledge, 2000.

Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial literatures: Migrant Metaphors. Oxford: OUP, 1995.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. 1901. London: Penguin, 1994.

Parry, Benita. Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique. London: Routledge, 2004.

Prescott, Lynda. “The White Man’s Burden: Kim”. Allen and Trivedi 67-77.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.


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Title: Re-reading Rudyard Kipling's "Kim". A Postcolonial Approach