Growing Up in Exotic India

Indian-born British writer Rudyard Kipling is renowned the world over for his short stories. Perhaps the most famous of these bunch of short story collections is his Disney-adapted The Jungle Book, which was made into a cartoon series, an animated movie and a live action movie. Unbeknownst to some, Kipling was also an accomplished novelist, publishing four novels during the span of his storied writing career. Of the four novels that Kipling published, Kim was highly regarded by many a literary pundit as his the best of his literary repertoire. Many literary publications have hailed it as one of the best written and the best loved novels of all times.

The novel was originally published as a series in McClure’s Magazine from December 1900 to October 1901 and Cassell’s Magazine from January to November 1901. Later on, the first book form was published in 1901. The novel is set in post Second Afghan War British India and chronicles the story of the titular Kim, Kimball “Kim” O’Hara. Born in Lahore, British India, he was orphaned at a young age as his Irish parents, a former soldier and a former nanny, passed away due to poverty.

With no parents to raise him, Kim lived a vagabond existence in the streets of Lahore. For a living, he begged and ran small errands. He also occasionally works for Mahbub Ali, a Pashtun horse trader who doubles up as an operative of the British secret service. His life started to turn toward a better shape when he befriended and became the disciple of a peripatetic Tibetan Lama who was on a quest to find the legendary “River of the Arrow”.  But there is more to life than meets the eye. As he accompanies the lama in his journey, more unexpected curves inevitably alter and influence Kim’s young mind.

“He drew from under the table a sheet of strangely scented yellow-Chinese paper, the brushes, and slab of India ink. In cleanest, severest outline he had traced the Great Wheel with its six spokes, whose centre is the conjoined Hog, Snake, and Dove (Ignorance, Anger, and Lust), and whose compartments are all the heavens and hells, and all the chances of human life.” ~ Rudyard Kipling, Kim

On the surface, Kim innocently portrays itself as the quotidian story of a young man growing up in British India. However, as the story progresses, several layers of Kim’s story start to materialize. Kim’s story slowly but wonderfully unfolds with every passing chapter. One of these many layers is Kim’s own coming-of-age story. He was like Aladdin, an orphan and living like vagrant in the streets of Lahore. These experiences both made them street savvy. They would also both be transformed by individual journeys that neither expected. In Kim’s case, his journey will take him all over India.

Quite unsurprisingly, it is also Kim that is singly the novel’s best element. One of the most absorbing and most recognized characters in literature, his persona, carefully developed, propelled the plot forward and also brought the other characters to life. His wit, indomitable courage, and his street savvy made him an interesting and memorable character that illuminated in all corners of the novel. A complex character, he was treated by Kipling both as an adult and as a child who is capable of fear, boredom and loneliness. His growth and progression from childhood to adulthood was magnificently captured by Kipling’s astute writing.

Kim’s growth as an individual was complimented by an added layer of adventure. As he ventures into the unknown, the readers are transported into the heart of 19th century Indian subcontinent. Here, Kipling painted a very vivid and intricate portrait of India. His descriptive writing brought to life an exotic and colorful backdrop that is teeming with people, diverse cultures, superstitions and various religions. Kipling also made the readers walk down colorful but narrow bazaars and roads. He made India come alive before the reader’s very eyes.

Whilst Kipling’s power for description was exemplary during Kim’s adventure, it was also the adventure part that weighed down the rest of the narrative. The backdrop was splendid. The adventure itself, however, was hackneyed, predictable, and was simply drab. It was just another adventure novel that is a little underwritten. It could have thrived in the period it was written but in a period when adventure novels run aplenty, it barely scratches the surface.

“Now I see, however, that it is with them as with all men—in certain matters they are wise, and in others most foolish. Very foolish it is to use the wrong word to a stranger; for though the heart may be clean of offence, how is the stranger to know that? He is more like to search truth with a dagger.” ~ Rudyard Kipling, Kim

On top of the layers of adventure, the novel’s third layer was interjected by Kipling. Kim was trained to be a spy. This layer of espionage, unfortunately, also fell flat and barely made any deep impressions. Running through the motions, it gave an ephemeral impact. It gave the feeling that it was simply forced into the narrative rather than it naturally developing and forming a cohesive tapestry. It was bound to underline Kim’s duality and identity crisis but it came off as superficial, underwritten at best.

The philosophical side of Kim gave the novel’s landscape a distinct texture. As he was a foreigner born and raised in a city not his own, Kim experienced an identity crisis. He overcomes this crisis and the process upon which he came into terms with his duality is thought-provoking. Kim’s dynamic character is an antithesis of the Lama’s pacifist nature. He is shrouded in a vague air of mysticism that his quest can either be classified as the actual product of mysticism or the product of a lunatic. Either way, his conquest gave Kim’s story a different complexion and texture.

It was Kipling’s writing that kept the boat afloat. Their were blemishes all over but he managed to develop an interesting story and a crew of memorable characters. Kipling did a fascinating depiction of the clash between religions and cultures with his diverse characters with varying backgrounds. He did an impeccable job in capturing the switches and the transitions between the cultures and languages very well. The conversations flowed in a diaphanous manner.

Despite his blunders, Kipling did a commendable job on the other elements. Kim was a compelling character but behind him are more colorful and interesting characters who lit up the other parts of his story. Kipling developed the characters very well that readers forget that Kim is Irish. In this aspect, Kim resonated some parts of the author’s life. Kipling was born in India and, despite spending a couple of years in his native England, spent most of his tender years all over the subcontinent. Both foreignness, they melded naturally into the tapestry of the Indian subcontinent.

“The sin is mine and the punishment is mine. I made believe to myself for now I see it was but make-belief—that thou wast sent to me to aid in the Search. So my heart went out to thee for thy charity and thy courtesy and the wisdom of thy little years.” ~ Rudyard Kipling, Kim

Kim is a literary classic that transcends time. It is the coming-of-age story of a young man growing up in varying circumstances beyond his control. Kipling, despite some blunders, wrote a riveting narrative that made the Indian subcontinent come alive – its people, culture, tradition and religions. With his vivid and intricate details, he transported readers and made them experience India’s diversity and exotic beauty. In the center of all of that is a very memorable and riveting character.



Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 16%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Kim is one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It was running through this late that I came across the book and the basis of its inclusion in my TBR list. Despite being set in 19th century India, the language and the writing were both very British. Kim as a character was riveting. He alone drove the story. There were just some blemishes but they’re forgivable I guess because Kim and the Lama were both very interesting characters. Their intersection made up for an interesting read.

Book Specs

Author: Rudyard Kipling
Publisher: Barnes & Noble Classics
Publishing Date: 2003
Number of Pages: 278
Genre: Picaresque, Adventure, Spy, Coming-of-Age


Rudyard Kipling has been attached for championing British imperialism and celebrated for satirizing it. In fact, he did both. Nowhere does he express his own ambivalence more strongly than in Kim, his rousing adventure novel of a young man of many allegiances.

Kimball O’Hara grows up an orphan in the walled city of Lahore, India. Deeply devoted to an old Tibetan lama, but involved in a secret mission for the British. Kim struggles to weave the strands of his life into a single pattern. Charged with action and suspense, yet profoundly spiritual. Kim vividly expresses the sounds and smells, colors and characters, and opulence and squalor of complex, contradictory India under British rule.

About the Author

Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born on December 30, 1865 in Bombay, Bombay Presidency, British India. Kipling’s name was derived from Rudyard Lake in Rudyard, Staffordshire, England. The beauty of the area moved Kipling’s parents that they named their first born after it.

When Kipling was five-years-old, he and his younger sister were taken to the United Kingdom. For six years, they lived under the care of a couple – Captain Pryse Agar Holloway and Sarah Holloway – who boarded children of British nationals living abroad. In January 1878, Kipling was admitted to the United Services College at Westward Ho!, Devon. After completing his schooling, he sailed on September 20, 1882 back to Bombay. From 1883 to 1889, Kipling worked for local newspapers such as the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore and The Pioneer in Allahabad. Some of his earlier works were published in these publications.

Some of his earlier works published in The Gazette were later on included in his first prose collection, Plain Tales from the Hills, which was published in Calcutta in January 1888. In the same year, he published six more short story collections – Soldiers Three, The Story of the Gadsbys, In Black and White, Under the Deodars, The Phantom of the Rickshaw, and Wee Willie Winkie. In 1891, he published his very first novel, The Light That Failed. He would write and publish three more novels – The Naulakha: A Story of West and East (1892, with Wolcott Balestier), Captain Courageous (1896) and Kim (1901). He also wrote autobiographies, speeches, travel collections, and short story collections, including the Disney-adapted The Jungle Book (1894).

In 1907, Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He passed away on January 18, 1936 due to a perforated duodenal ulcer. His remains were cremated at Golders Green Crematorium in north-west London, and his ashes interred at Poets’ Corner, part of the South Transept of Westminster Abbey, next to the graves of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy