I am pretty sure I didn’t understand this book, but I still enjoyed it.
I enjoyed the journey on foot and by rail through India, a country I find intriguing but way too scary to actually visit. And anyway, I won’t ever be able to visit this particular India since this one existed what, 150 years ago or so?
I enjoyed the interactions of the many different cultures in the book. Multiple religions and ethnic backgrounds and languages all met at different points along the road, and Kipling really made these differences come alive in a way that allowed me to see the individuals underneath. Kipling lets us see inside the characters through direct access to their thoughts and through often hilarious asides and sarcastic remarks in other languages. I never really had a sense for how mixed the population of India is (or perhaps just was? I don’t know how different Kipling’s India is from India of the 21st century).
I especially enjoyed the developing relationship between Kim and the lama as the orphan boy grows to trust and to love the holy man. This development seems to mirror the way that going through the outward motions of a spiritual practice eventually leads to internal change. Their relationship develops alongside the spiritual journey, and both involve themes of sacrifice and of bearing burdens for the sake of love.
There is in this novel an element of trust that I also find in narratives of long foot journeys set in the United States, like those along the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. No matter where they went, Kim and the lama trusted that what they needed would be provided, and it was, if not always in the way they originally expected. I find the freedom in that perspective compelling.
One of my favorite passages:
“And so [the lama] petted and comforted Kim with wise saws and grave texts on that little understood beast, our body, who, being but a delusion, insists on posing as the soul, to the darkening of the Way, and the immense multiplication of unnecessary evils.” (p 334)
Kim can blend in, chameleon-like, in almost any situation. He studies others closely and is a natural at trying on different personalities, classes, and ethnicities. This opens up some interesting career options, but it also highlights this idea of the body being an illusion. The lama fasts and meditates in an attempt to liberate himself from his body in the traditional Buddhist way, but Kim dips in and out of different identities, and in this way frees himself from his body and finds his soul.
My nine-year-old and I read this book aloud together, and I think it was a combination of her persistent nature and the interesting and amusing little bits Kipling works into the novel that enabled her to stick with it chapter by chapter each evening. (She also enjoyed trying to trace Kim and the lama’s travels in our atlas, which was difficult at times because the spellings of the city names in the atlas were often different from those in the novel.) Accepting that we didn’t understand what was going on sometimes and just trusting that something resembling understanding would come eventually, we trucked along. We both got something different out of this book, but I think we both enjoyed it.
It did confuse my five-year-old, though. “I know about lamas, Mommy!” he broke in while I was reading one of the early chapters. “They’re related to camels!” I need to introduce him to the Ogden Nash poem about one-L lamas and two-L llamas.
I read this for my Cavalcade of Classics. Click the link to see more books—both read and yet un-read—from my challenge list.