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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Classic Adventure In Imperial India

Kim - Rudyard Kipling

Kim, or Kimball O’ Hara, is a British boy who has grown up on the streets of Lahore at the height of British rule in India. He lives like a native Indian, speaks Hindi fluently and knows the city like the back of his hand. Immensely street-wise, he makes a living by carrying messages for all kinds of people including an Afghan horse-dealer called Mahbub Ali who is himself involved in espionage on behalf of the British government. Kim’s ability to be part of more than one community makes him a perfect choice for an agent and he is drawn into the ‘Great Game’, as it is known by its exponents, while at the same time he becomes the disciple of a Tibetan lama who is seeking enlightenment.

Kipling has been accused of being racist and it is clear that he believes implicitly that British rule is a good thing for India since ‘Orientals’ are intrinsically less rational and therefore less able to govern themselves. However, the picture is not quite that simple. He is obviously besotted with India and has nothing but scorn for British and other Europeans who fail to understand the depth and beauty of the culture. In this novel he paints a picture of a continent in which British and Indian elements have mingled to create a complex web of overlapping identities.

It’s a fascinating book, brimming-over with colour, permeated by a gentle humour and offering a fascinating perspective on Imperial India. Yes, Kipling is patronising; yes he is an apologist for imperialism; yes he believes in the superiority of the white man; but he is also respectful of what he recognises to be an ancient civilisation with much to teach his own; and a very real sense of delight in that civilisation runs through every word of this book.