Page 33. " one of the locked books of the Indian Survey Department "

Although we have already read of Mahbub’s involvement in ‘some intrigue’, this is the first direction allusion to the Great Game.

The Great Game

The Great Game is the general term used for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British and Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia. The classic Great Game period ran approximately from the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, while a second, less intensive phase followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The term is believed to have been coined by a British officer fighting in the First Afghan War, and expresses the devil-may-care spirit fashionable at the time.  The founder of the modern British Secret Service, Mansfield George Smith Cumming, was later to famously boast that espionage was “a capital sport!”

Kim as myth maker

Kipling's classic has been called the first modern spy novel, and was instrumental in bringing the Great Game into mainstream consciousness. Historians have since argued that the Great Game was largely a product of fiction, and that Kipling's classic was one of the works to have built up a bank of myths with little evidence in reality. Gerald Morgan’s 1973 article “Myth and Reality in the Great Game” famously refuted the existence of any British intelligence network operating in Central Asia. More recently, Malcolm Yapp – in his 2000 lecture “The Legend of the Great Game” – argued that a Russian invasion was not a primary concern for British authorities in India.

The political cartoon shown above was published in 1878 and depicts the Afghan Emir Sher Ali flanked by his interested "friends" the Russian Bear and British Lion.


Page 34. " Therefore Mahbub had avoided halting at the insalubrious city of Peshawar. "
Peshawar Today
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePeshawar Today - Credit: Rucksackkruemel, Flickr

Peshawar is capital of the North West Frontier Province, and lies on the Khyber Pass near the Afghan border. During the Raj period, Peshawar was a major crossroads between British India and Afghanistan. Hence, the city was of strategic importance to Britain's efforts to gain greater control over Afghanistan and the Middle East.

By having Mahbub avoid 'insalubrious' Peshawar, Kipling may be dropping another clue to the reader that the horse-trader is working for the British Secret Service, and thinks it unwise to pass through a city known for intrigue and espionage.  

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Page 49. " 'The last of the Great Ones,’ the Sikh said with authority, ‘was Sikander Julkarn (Alexander the Great) "
Alexander the Great in India
Public DomainAlexander the Great in India

Alexander the Great crossed into India in 327 B.C.E.  During his time on the subcontinent, the great Macedonian king was believed to have sought out Brahmins and other spiritual persons to debate with them on philosophical matters.

After fighting a series of battles across India, Alexander and his army returned home in 325 B.C.E.  The military leader remains legendary in India as both a wise philosopher and a fearless conqueror. 

Page 50. " The boy was entirely happy to be out chewing pan "

Pan, or paan, is a South Asian and South East Asian tradition: chewing betel leaf with areca nut as a palate cleanser and breath freshener. In India it is often offered as a sign of hospitality at the beginning of social and cultural events.  Savoury paan may make use of tobacco, while sweet paan usually includes candied fruit, fennel seeds and sugar.