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A book by Rudyard Kipling

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The India of 13-year old Kimball O'Hara, "Little Friend of All the World"

  • Feb 13, 2011
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Imagine yourself, sometime around 1880 or 1890, a 13-year old boy born in India to Kimball O'Hara an Irish Colour Sergeant and an Irish domestic servant Annie Shott. Sergeant O'Hara was one of 900 "first-class devils" of the Mavericks, a fictional Irish regiment. When their son, also Kimball -- or Kim -- O'Hara was three, Annie died of cholera at Ferozepore. Her husband had mustered out of the Mavericks and was working down the line from Lahore as a work gang supervisor on the fictional Sind, Punjab, and Delhi Railway.

Ex-Sergeant O'Hara and orphaned Kim ended up together in Lahore where Kimball senior died an opium addict in the arms of a half-caste woman who ran a furniture store. That kind-hearted woman made herself responsible for the orphan boy and insisted that Kim dress like the white Sahib he was born, in "trousers, a shirt, and a battered hat" (Ch. 1). For his part, Kim was happy to play the Sahib when it suited him to lord it over his Muslim and Hindu playmates climbing the giant cannon ZamZammah in front of the Lahore Ethnic museum (run for long years by John Kipling, the novelist's polymath father). But the boy was already a master of disguise and often dressed as a low-caste Hindu urchin. In that guise he bounded over the rooftops of Lahore carrying messages of love and fleeing from irate husbands. It was a game and the one Kim loved best until "the Great Game" came his way.

The nameless half-caste guardian had compressed Sergeant O'Hara's entirely worldly estate within an amulet pouch that Kim wore constantly around his neck. Three papers comprised all his father's worldly possessions when he had "died as poor whites die in India" (Ch. 1). Early on in the novel (Ch. 5) this "charm" is opened by the Anglican and Roman Catholic Chaplains of the Mavericks regiment when Kim, by now roaming India as the chela or disciple of a Red Lama from Tibet, blunders across those 900 first-class devils with their emblem of a Red Bull on a green background. The amulet pouch contains Sergeant O'Hara's credentials as member of a Lahore Masonic lodge and young Kim's birth/baptismal certificate, with the Sergeant's handwritten, drunken sprawl begging "Look after the boy. Please look after the boy" (Ch. 5).

At this point, many possible futures as an adult await young Kim. Despite his ten years already spent dodging Christian priests, curious Freemasons and members of the Sergeant's old regiment trying to make a proper white boy of him, he has now fallen firmly into the hands of two important, conscientious Christian chaplains of the Mavericks. The Anglican is also a Mason and the Catholic had officiated at the marriage of Kim's parents. They and the regimental colonel determine that Kim must be educated as a white man, as a future "ruler of India." The red lama will pay for the best education Kim can get in India, which is agreed will be not a school for regimental orphans, not a school for orphans of Masons, but a Catholic boarding school, St. Xavier's in Lucknow. The lama will not hear of Kim's being trained to be a bloodthirsty soldier and Kim hates that very idea. So how will he be educated? Ostensibly to be a surveyor. Kim blossoms at St Xavier's and takes a prize for mathematics.

An older friend of Kim, the Mohammedan Afghan horse trader Mahboob Ali, unbeknownst to the boy, is a spy in the employ of Colonel Creighton. He persuades Creighton that Kim possesses colossal potential talent to become a "spirited polo pony" to play in "the Great Game." That Game is the Victorian Cold War in which the Russian and British Indian empires move closer and closer together in the area of Afghanistan and the Pamirs of China and Tibet. Creighton sends Kim to 7,000 foot high Simla for training in spycraft by the mysterious non-English white man Lurgan Sahib, who owns an antiques shoppe near the mall.

The novel begins with Kim O'Hara, in poor quality western clothes, driving away two neighborhood friends, a Hindu boy and a Muslim boy, from perching upon the great cannon Zam-Zammah. Enter the ancient Red Lama in quest of a salvific river where an arrow shot by Lord Buddha fell long ago. And Kim's life is changed forever. Kim follows, serves, begs food for the lama and is exposed to "the Buddhist Way" and more detailed Buddhist teaching than most Westerners will hear or read of in a lifetime. At the same time Mahboob Ali is tempting and Lurgan Sahib is training Kim into "the Great Game" of the Raj v. the Russians.

How will Kim turn out? Poor white trash like his father in the end? A spy? A university-trained ethnologist of India? An ardent contemplative Buddhist? By novel's end nothing is decided, all options remain open. Kim will have first hand acquaintance with Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Hinduism. He will have learned something of Freemasonry but surprisingly (for a boy with three years at a Catholic prep school) little of orthodox Christianity.

A marvelous book. It bears reading and re-reading a hundred times.


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review by . December 26, 2014
I had never Kipled before now (punch line to the old joke that starts "Do you like Kipling?") and picked this up at a used book sale as a bolster to my library of reading and thought on the period between the American Civil War and World War I which I have long considered the most fertile period in recent history.  I am of course familiar with the criticism of Kipling as a defender and embodiment of the British Imperialism that took on itself the "White Man's Burden," …
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(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
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I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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One of the particular pleasures of readingKimis the full range of emotion, knowledge, and experience that Rudyard Kipling gives his complex hero. Kim O'Hara, the orphaned son of an Irish soldier stationed in India, is neither innocent nor victimized. Raised by an opium-addicted half-caste woman since his equally dissolute father's death, the boy has grown up in the streets of Lahore:
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; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white--a poor white of the very poorest.
From his father and the woman who raised him, Kim has come to believe that a great destiny awaits him. The details, however, are a bit fuzzy, consisting as they do of the woman's addled prophecies of "'a great Red Bull on a green field, and the Colonel riding on his tall horse, yes, and'--dropping into English--'nine hundred devils.'"

In the meantime, Kim amuses himself with intrigues, executing "commissions by night on the crowded housetops for sleek and shiny young men of fashion." His peculiar heritage as a white child gone native, combined with his "love of the game for its own sake," makes him uniquely suited for a bigger game. And when, at last, the long-awaited colonel comes along, Kim is recruited as a spy in Britain's struggle to maintain its colonial ...

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ISBN-10: 0140183523
ISBN-13: 978-0140183528
Author: Rudyard Kipling
Genre: Literature & Fiction, Children's Books
Publisher: Penguin Classics
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