Friday, July 25, 2008

The Fathers in Rudyard Kipling's "Kim"

In this Bildungsroman, Kim, the orphaned son of an Irish solder in British India, finds a colorful assortment of fathers: the Tibetan lama who left his hills and monastery to find the river flowing from an arrow shot by the Buddha; the Pathan Mahbub Ali, horse-trader and British spy; Colonel Creighton, a spymaster in the guise of head of the ethnological survey; Lurgan sahib, the healer of pearls, who trains spies with his ‘magical’ powers; Hurree Babu who spies for the British but really longs to join the Royal Academy for his ethnological contributions.

Teaching Kim who he is and can be, these fathers cultivate different relationships with the boy. Colonel Creighton is only interested in Kim’s usefulness as a tool in the great game. Lurgan Sahib is proud of his most gifted protégé whose success enhances his own departmental prestige. Hurree Babu treats Kim more like a colleague than a subordinate he is supposed to supervise.

The two most significant relationships to Kim are also the two introduced from the novel’s beginning and with which the book ends. Mahbub Ali collected bazaar gossip from Kim before the street waif’s talents were recognized. Ostensibly a Muslim, the horse-trader is a man pragmatic about matters of religion, and interested in power, knowledge, and reputation. He also loves Kim. After advising Kim to be a sahib when he’s with sahibs, he is stumped for a while when Kim asks him who Kim should be when he’s with the folk of Hind, who Kim is: Mussalman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist. Mahbub Ali cystallizes his philosophy in his answer:

“Thou art beyond question an unbeliever, and therefore thou wilt be damned. So says my law—or I think it does. But thou art also my Little-Friend-of-all-the-World, and I love thee. So says my heart. This matter of creeds is like horseflesh. The wise man knows horses are good--that there is a profit to be made from all; and for myself--but that I am a good Sunni, and hate the men of Tirah--I could believe the same of all the faiths. Now manifestly a Kathiawar mare taken from the sands of her birthplace and removed to the west of Bengal founders--nor is even a Balkh stallion (and there are no better horses than those of Balkh, were they not so heavy in the shoulder) of any account in the great Northern deserts beside the snow-camels I have seen. Therefore I say in my heart the faiths are like the horses. Each has merit in its own country."


It is a great, and completely unpretentious, statement about the difference between what the law says and what the heart. Its authority is supported by Mahbub Ali's life experience, here indicated by his professional knowledge about horses, just as so much of the novel's authority comes from Kipling's knowledge of and love for India. The humility of the statement lies in qualifying what the law says with "or I think it does." This qualification, this perspectivism, is also the method of the novel. The novel gives us fully-fleshed and contradictory perspectives, while ranking them at the same time. Mahbub Ali's perspective is closer to the heart of the novel than Colonel Creighton's or Hurree Babu's. His perspective has as its great opposite Teeshoo Lama's outlook on life, its desire to be freed from the wheel of life, its criticism of the flesh, its single-minded quest for the Buddha's river.

And these mutually exclusive perspectives remain unresolved, unresolvable, in the end. The lama falls into a river, and is rescued by Hurree Bubu and Mahbub Ali. The lama thinks he found his river. He reached the great soul but returned in order to guide his disciple, Kim, whom he loves so much, along the path of salvation. Mahbub Ali thinks the lama is mad. We would, now, categorize that under the heading of near-death experience. The novel gives the lama the last words:

"So thus the search is ended. For the merit that I have acquired, the river of the arrow is here. It broke forth at our feet, as I have said. I have found it. Son of my soul, I have wrenched my soul back from the threshold of freedom to free thee from all sin--as I am free, and sinless! Just is the wheel! Certain is our deliverance! Come!"

He crossed his hands on his lap and smiled, as man may who has won salvation for himself and his beloved.


We may not have the lama's certainty. His faith may even strike us as naive, and his belief in his own sinlessness self-deluding. But we must lack imagination if we do not warm to this man in gratitude. Greater love has no man than he who lays down his life willingly for another. But what about the love of one who wrenched his soul back from the threshold of freedom?

No comments: