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Kim: Conflict Between Imperial Authority
and Colonial Struggle
by Alicia Mistry Bookmark and Share

“Like all the great imperialists, Kipling was haunted by a sense of the mortality of the empire, so that one is forced to question how essential was empire to his larger philosophy?” As the title of this essay suggests, Kipling’s burden was synonymous with the ‘white man’s burden,’ which so far as culturally patronizing imperialists of Kipling’s era were concerned, a genuine burden. Rudyard Kipling felt the impact of the British Empire and the ‘Imperial Idea’ more tangibly than any other Victorian novelist, because Kipling’s imperialism is not completely synonymous with British imperialism. This is because Kipling experienced a personal involvement with India, a far-away and unfamiliar world to many of his contemporaries. Thus, Kipling’s Kim, whilst being a tale of colonial power and native struggle, serves more as an extraordinary recognition of British imperialism at a specific moment in its history. As such, Kipling admirably tells a story that has both political and literary merit. Although, Kipling the writer is always more prominent than Kipling the political man in the text and this is what makes Kim an intriguing novel. What remains of great interest within the focus of my essay, however, is the way Kipling describes this strained “hegemonic” relationship between the British imperialists and the natives from a new, and sometimes controversial, perspective. How far does Kipling understand, and thence describe, Anglo-Indian hybridization during the Imperial milieu?

Many of Kipling’s critics like Edward Said in his article “Kim: The Pleasures of Imperialism” (1987) and Richard Cronin in his article “The Indian English novel: Kim and Midnight’s Children” (1987) have attempted to re-open the question about cultural hybridity and hegemony in Kipling’s text. This is because Kim was written at a time of rising Indian nationalism, which fuelled critical debate about the British colonization of the Indian subcontinent. But for Kipling, this epoch was a time when the relationship between the empire and the colony was a changing one, a time when British rule was being overtly questioned. Thus, through Kim, Rudyard Kipling attempts to deconstruct the transfer of power between the colonizer and the colonized. Consequently throughout the text, Kipling maintains a feeling of persistent cultural heterogeneity and a shift in focus from empire to empire building. Hence as a novelistic device, Kipling’s story unfolds on two very different levels; Firstly as a personal history of Kim and his interaction with the other characters around him, and secondly, as a representation of the collective enactment of the establishment of the British Empire in India. Essentially, Kipling uses Kim to contend that a new understanding of imperialism is the only means of ensuring the future prosperity of the British Empire. In other words, in the context of Kim, the empire is a living reality. So, to read the novel in terms of politics or history alone is highly superficial and would not transport us beyond the surface meaning of the novel. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that the feeling of imperialism of the late Victorian period went far deeper than great political discourse of the time seems to suggest. Thus, Kipling’s treatment of imperialists and imperial subjects alike becomes a contentious and fascinating topic of discussion.

What makes Kim a text of great literary merit in terms of a text of the imperialistic period, however, is Kipling’s skilful framing of two leading characters. These characters enable Kipling to explore the way colonialism defined its own social boundaries and Kipling uses this to show how native mentality and British supremacy often came into confrontation. The way he assigns Kim the protagonist and Babu Hurree Chander oppositional positions, for example, is crucial to the power relations within which the narrative operates. The relationship between the colonizers and the natives was indeed a complex one, because there was no tidy transfer of power between the two parties. What became was a complex state of cultural hybridity, where competing discourses of national identity (Irish, Indian and British) were not uncommon. Thus, Kipling’s understanding and presentation of Kim and the Babu stalls on the brink of ambivalence and is not as clearly defined as once imagined. For example in Chapter One, Kim attempts to question his identity and whether he sees himself as a true Hindu boy or not:

Oh, Mahbub Ali, but am I a Hindu?’ said Kim in English. [Chapter One, page 67]

However it is common knowledge that by birth, Kim is nothing other than a white Irish boy who has grown up on the streets of Lahore as an orphan, “a poor white of the very poorest.” (Chapter One, page 49). There are connections between the portrayal of Kim and the Babu but it becomes Kipling’s challenge to assign these two characters distinct roles in his political narrative. It is difficult to assert whether Kipling portrays native characters like the Babu as inferior individuals or as somehow equal but different. However, this literary paradox is the very essence of Kim and the source of inspiration for this essay. Though Kipling believed passionately in the British Empire and in British supremacy, he was not blind to the dangers inherent in ruling India. Hence through Kim, Kipling tried to warn the world, his world, of the burgeoning power of the Indian people, of their patience and cleverness in waiting to reclaim their country. Whether this classifies Rudyard Kipling as a potential racist is debatable, but his ambivalence towards the British Empire enables Kipling to render a vision of India unconstrained by typical limits of perspective. As such, it would be easy to ignore the traces of Kiplingian politics within the novel but in Kim, this political mode adopts a more serious role, which projects a vision of colonial India hitherto unknown.

Within Kipling’s politics, race, and in particular, racial superiority, have a crucial role to play insofar as explaining the ‘hegemonic’ relations between Britain and its colonial subject. Kipling attempts to represent this colonial relationship through his protagonist Kim and the struggles he encounters in finding or creating an identity for himself. Kim’s ‘white blood’ is referenced in a number of places, due to its significance in the context of India being a colony run by men who were essentially white:

Since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song. [Chapter One, page 49]

As the extract shows, even the opening lines of the novel identify Kim without complication as “white, a poor white of the very poorest.” This is the very essence of Kim’s personality and several of his non-Indian mannerisms and instincts can be attributed to his English heritage, despite his complete lack of white nurturing. Kim flirts with the ‘great game’ of imperialism and thus has the ability to ignore caste divisions and instead gets to experience true freedom. This is not without turmoil and strife however, because the division between white and non-white worlds in India is something that Kipling (and Kim) have to negotiate, and this notion is alluded to throughout the novel. The remaining challenge for Rudyard Kipling, however, is the way in which he is able to construct the identity of Kim with all of these constraints and constrictions in place. Essentially, the motif of Kim’s white blood delivers the unifying theme for the portrayal of India’s struggle between British imperialism and national pride. Thus, Kim opens up a path into the heart of the novel and, in this manner, he is very much aware of contemporaneous social and political baggage that accompanies this responsibility as protagonist.

Kim has to balance a very fragile role when amongst other white men in the novel. When the story opens, the influences on Kim have been almost exclusively Indian. Kim has grown up dressing like an Indian and thinking like an Indian by “yelling at a Hindu festival” or going “to eat with his native friends” [Chapter One, page 51]. However even at this stage, it is clear that Kim cannot regard himself a true native. He remembers his father and his prophecy and carries his identity papers in a leather amulet case around his neck as proof. However, Kim has white skin and his attitudes are at least partly those of a white ruler and partly those of native. On page 35 of Chapter Five for example, when he finds “nine hundred first-class devils, whose God was a Red Bull on a green field,” (the English) Kim is captured by the white soldiers. This is the first encounter Kim has with white men and Kipling uses it to hold aspects of British mentality up for criticism. For example he shows how crude and ignorant the British were when they discuss the spiritual lama and Kim: To the ignorant white soldiers, the lama is a “street beggar”, and Kim is an “ignorant little beggar…brought up in the gutter…a wild animal.” who talk(s) “the same as a nigger.” [Chapter Six, page 150-153.] However despite this criticism of the British, we should not accept Kipling’s interpretation without further scrutiny at the real motives behind the author’s criticism of the British imperialists. To some extent, we can applaud Kipling for exposing the ignorance and bigotry of the colonizers for he is clearly showing how in many ways, the natives of India were superior people of the British. But a moment’s reflection shows that Kipling’s championing of the natives and denigration of the British has to be turned back against himself; firstly because we cannot help but feel that Kipling thought of himself as being very generous and self-effacing by praising the natives, and secondly because he never questioned the right of the British being in India in the first instance.

Thus, Kipling immediately engrosses his audience with the complex characterization of Kim. Young and naïve, yet sharp and insightful, Kim embodies the absolute divisions between the white and non-white that existed in India and elsewhere at a time when colonialism was rife. It is with this social and political context in mind that exposes Kipling’s imperialist ideology as being nothing more than a narrative strategy, to represent Kim’s authority over the native inhabitants of the colony. However, Kipling was arguably an imperialist, and Kim embodies attitudes towards British rule in India, which these days are wholly unacceptable and unpalatable. Kipling believed it was right and proper for Britain to ‘own’ India and rule its people, and so the possibility that this position might indeed be questionable never seems to have crossed Kipling’s mind. However, at the time that Kipling was writing, there was considerable ferment of revolt amongst Indians against British rule but Kipling appears to dismiss this at points in the novel when he could have acknowledged it. This is particularly apparent in Chapter Three when he has an old soldier comment on the Great Mutiny of 1857, dismissing it as mere “madness”:

A madness ate into all the army, and they turned against their officers. [Chapter 3, page 100]

This quotation reveals a side to Kipling’s text that perhaps Kipling intended to avoid. As a writer of the Victorian era, he did not want to be branded with the terms ‘racist’ or ‘imperialist’ but in the words of Edward Said, Kim is “a master work of imperialism…a rich and absolutely fascinating, but nevertheless profoundly embarrassing novel.” This very word “embarrassing” reveals more about Kipling’s novel than Kipling aimed to project. Kipling never fails to make countless rash and biased generalizations about India and her people, which, interestingly, come from the adult narrator as opposed to Kim himself. In Chapter Four, for example, Kipling has a native woman assert that the British who seem to know India are:

…the sort to oversee justice. They know the land and the customs of the land. [Chapter 4, Page 124.]

This quotation has an element of sarcasm, because it comes from the voice of a native and the Indians certainly were not in favor of the British or British rule. Thus in this context, the term ‘imperialism” is a loaded one. Kipling makes his attitude towards Anglo-Indian hybridization clear, which sets up the challenge for the novel as it progresses. But can the British effectively colonize India and if so, how does Kipling communicate this to his readership?

In terms of explaining colonization and imperialism, therefore, Kim is the ideal embodiment of the conflicting Indian and English worlds. Interestingly, it appears that all of the events of the Great Victorian Empire are inbred in Kim’s own character. As the British Empire sought to discover and entrench its imperial authority in India, so too does Kim seek to find a place in the country in which he was born. Thus, Kim faces an ongoing struggle to create a new identity for himself. “Who is Kim?” “What is Kim?” are two questions that Kim asks himself as the novel progresses. For example on page 331 of Chapter 15, Kim poses exactly these questions from “his soul”:

‘I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?” His soul repeated it again and again.’ [Chapter 15, page 331]

But what is this much-discussed identity that Kim ponders about? What is Kim? As the above quotation suggests, there is no definitive assertion about who Kim precisely is, however he does arrive at a sense of self, an identity that he has been defining cumulatively through his own experiences. Kim desperately tries to be true to himself but essentially, he really is a “mixture o’ things” (Chapter Six, page 160); neither wholly Indian nor wholly British. So, in building his identity, Kim has to partly adopt the white man’s habits of mind, combining their ‘colonial’ strength, whilst facing the difficult challenge of attempting to preserve the stability of the Anglo-Indian world, which nurtured him. Everyone in Kim is, therefore, equally an outsider to other social groups as they are insiders to their own. Thus, Kipling is always trying to reach a compromise between the East and the West; between the natives and the headstrong imperialists. Despite this, Kim is always able to remain true to his emotional and spiritual roots, which are mainly native, and he does not have to betray them by becoming something he is not. For Kim has accepted and developed the European element of his character but he realizes that he does not have to become a white ruler himself. It is clear that Kim is too much of a native at heart to forget his Indian roots. For example, we might refer to the point in the novel when Kim refuses to become an English soldier, instead preferring to serve the sahibs discreetly, tangentially in a way that makes use of his native instincts and experiences. Thus Kim is a novel of struggle and racial compromise, a text in which Rudyard Kipling and his ideologies are not short of imperial references and ideas. This is best communicated through the characters that Kipling creates and the relationships that they forge with one another. These relationships are indicators of whether there can ever be cultural hybridity in the British colonies or whether cultural heterogeneity is indeed triumphant over all others.

Kipling’s portrayal of Babu Hurree Chander Mookerjee, a native employee in the British administration, is another literary device used by Kipling to depict imperial authority. Indeed for Kipling, who believed that it was India’s own destiny to be ruled by England, it was imperative to stress the superiority of the white man, whose colonial mission was to rule the dark and ‘inferior’ races. He does this by locating the educated Hurree Babu in a position that is subordinate to Kim. Thus it is important to focus my essay on the way Kipling, in his novel, projects Babu Hurree Chander with powerful ramifications about the colonial power-dynamics within a certain historical period. Thus the Babu, in terms of literary technique, is the binary narrative opposite to Kim, which enables Kipling to create an unequal dichotomy. In terms of the social hierarchy enforced by colonial order, therefore, Kim occupies the privileged position by belonging to the ‘rulers’ whilst the Babu is his insignificant ‘other’. Despite this notable fact, both characters are, undeniably, products of a colonial upbringing in a colonized society. Thus, Kim develops as a superior in his role of authority, whilst Babu Hurree Chander is his excluded opposite. In other words, the Babu is Kim’s anti-self, to whom Rudyard Kipling assigns a negative value in relation to Kim. In fact the relationship between the coloniser and the colonized is a tense one, because of the intensity of the British colonial period. This is Kipling’s major dilemma in the novel and a problem that he attempts to overcome. The characters are merely there to highlight how the British Empire affected those at grassroots level, the people most affected by colonial authority. This is also why we see so many male relationships forged throughout the novel. Colonies were essentially run by men and imperialism was driven from a predominantly male perspective.

Interestingly, Kipling’s fascination with imperialism, cultural hegemony and colonial dominance make Kim a male-orientated novel. Many of Kipling’s critics, including Edward Said, have even labelled Kim a ‘male’ novel in terms of the characters Kipling creates and the problems they deal with. In fact this male perspective seems appropriate to Kipling due to the social climate of the Victorian era that Kipling was writing in. Even George Eliot characterized Kipling’s distinctive attitude as one “of comprehensive tolerance,” after calling him a “jingoistic imperialist.” However, while this may hold some truth, it is important to understand the political complexities behind Kim, as opposed to treating the novel reductively as imperialist propaganda. What remains of great interest to me, however, is the way that Kipling tackles the topic of the British Empire and the British colonies directly. Whilst on the one hand it appears that Kipling may have wanted to convey his admiration for native characters like Babu Hurree in his novel, his attempt is seriously marred by his overtly imperialistic attitudes. For example, he has Kim regard the Lama as “his trove”, of which he “proposed to take possession” [Chapter One, page 60]. Although, there are other ways in which Kipling seems to deny the lama the dignity and authority he deserves.

At every opportunity, even in relation to the most respected native characters in the text, Kipling unfailingly presents a picture of European superiority and native dependence. This is perhaps why Kim is such a male orientated novel because Kipling presents us with a picture of male domination in a wider context of colonial repression. Thus, in terms of male representation, Kim is perhaps as sexist as it is, arguably, racist a novel. Women do play some role in the novel, but not as objects of romantic or sexual attachment. Instead, women feature as prostitutes or providers, though Kipling shows some respect for the two principle women characters, the woman of Shamlegh and the widow of Kulu. Despite this, the male/female relationships in the novel mirror the relationship between the British and the natives, in terms of representing superiority and inferiority in the text. “In Kim no one is seen who challenges British rule, and no one articulates any of the local Indian challenges that must have been greatly in evidence – even for someone as obdurate as Kipling – in the late nineteenth century.” In terms of European imperialism, therefore, Kipling makes it clear that the natives accepted colonial rule, so long as it was the right kind of rule. Whether indeed it was, is another question entirely. What is clear, however, is that it was Kipling himself who said that East is East and West is West, and Kim corroborates his faith that the distinction would always stand true.

The influence of the British Empire in Kipling’s work, as in his life, assumed a positive force in the sense that it ordered and unified his creativity. This is perhaps what is so interesting about Kim. The Great Empire had a profound effect on Rudyard Kipling’s literary creativity, especially in the creation of his characters and the distinctive lives that they lead. As in the words of Edward Said, “we have been shown two entirely different worlds existing side by side, with neither really understanding the other, and we have watched the oscillation of Kim, as he passes to and fro between them.” As such, Kipling renders a vision of India where intellectual, moral and political boundaries are less than equal. Indeed, if Kipling believed, as he well argued, that East and West can never really meet in the Indian colony, then in Kim he makes sure they do not. Instead, Kipling consolidates this ruling-class hegemonic divide by achieving an alliance, as opposed to equality among classes. All of these factors constitute the greatness of Kim as a novel and it is clear how Rudyard Kipling arrives at a sense of India, which is almost timeless. But the India he depicts is not without her problems. Indeed, whilst many Victorian writers tried to create a colonial society in which there was a fusion of culture and identity, in Kim, Kipling ensures that no such society exists. Kipling’s attitudes towards the Empire cannot necessarily be excused or defended, but we can acknowledge the historical fact that they were no different to some of his contemporaries, and be especially glad that the fact is indeed a historical one. 

More by :  Alicia Mistry
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