A whirlwind hybrid of boy’s adventure story, travelogue and spiritual quest, Kim explodes with demonic energy onto the page, throwing traditional notions of plot to the warm, Eastern wind. Like the central character Kimball O’Hara, the reader must prepare themselves for all eventualities, as Kipling leads us from the smoke-filled corners of a Kashmiri brothel to a college for 'gentlemen’s boys' and up into the ascetic heights of the Himalayas. Kipling wrote in his autobiography that Kim "grew like the Djinn [demon] released from the brass bottle". There may not be a puff of smoke when you open the pages of Kim, but you’re certainly in for a larger-than-life adventure.
For many, Kim can be read simply as an enjoyable epic travelogue and exercise in the art of the picaresque. Travellers to India down the ages have packed Kipling’s classic along with their guidebooks and maps as a playful, gratifying account of the geography of India and the rambunctious cast of characters that are her children. If you’re heading to the north-west of the country, chances are your destination will make an appearance in this quintessential novel of the Raj.
Yet it would be a shame to simply indulge in the delightful sensory feast on offer. As Teshoo lama, Kim’s spiritual teacher, would remind us, the physical trip around India is only the shadow of the book’s inner journey. Kim and the lama are brought together by their separate quests for self-knowledge and religious enlightenment, and it is the unlikely bond forged between the orphaned white boy and the old Tibetan that has ensured Kim’s iconic status since its publication in 1901.
Why is it, then, that readers will often tell you Kim is their favourite book with more than a hint of embarrassment? The controversy around Kipling has led Salman Rushdie to refer to him as "a writer with a storm inside ... and he creates a mirror-storm of contradictory responses". As modern readers, we are apparently supposed to find the novel distasteful, if not downright immoral. Ever since Kipling was branded a ‘prophet of British imperialism’ by George Orwell in 1942, his works have increasingly come under fire as unquestioningly patriotic at best; at worst, blatant vehicles of racist propaganda. Kim, with its apparent celebration of the Great Game and 'ends–justify–means' imperialist expansion, has proved juicy material for Kipling detractors.
Post-colonialists may argue that the ‘Djinn released from the brass bottle’ is a demon that the modern literary world should banish to whence it came. Such an argument is weakened, however, by the simple fact that readers today don’t generally pick Kim from the shelves expecting to access the 'real India'. Instead, Kipling’s classic can be treated as a unique insight into the British-Indian colonial perspective – and enjoyed immensely along the way.
Interpreting the novel is as difficult a task as pinning down its young namesake. Both are hybrid, chameleon creatures: as Kimball O’Hara changes disguises, the book shifts genre with similar ease. While adventure-book espionage keeps us glued to the pages, we relish what is perhaps the most exotic road trip in literature. Finally, it is in the book’s spiritual incarnation that this product of the Raj is carried beyond the cultural mores of its time. While we may wince a little at Kipling’s Asiatic ‘types’, his novel’s ultimate vision of spiritual unity and love beyond race boundaries lifts Kim above its critics into the rare arena of a timeless classic.