When I learned I was traveling to India, I realized that I didn’t know much about the country. And with a country as old as India with thousands of years of history, a culture of extreme pluralism and over a billion people, I felt overwhelmed with where to start.
I went the easy route and checked out my bookshelf. The only India related book I had on hand was Kim, by Rudyard Kipling.
Kim is the tale of an orphaned Irish boy living in India. The book begins with Kim, who despite being Irish is able to blend in with many of the Indian cultures, sitting in front of a museum in Lahore, India. A holy Lama from the hills of northern India approaches the museum, on a quest to find the River of the Arrow. The location of the river is the supposed landing spot of one of the god’s arrows and is supposed to bring the Lama salvation and free him from the Wheel of Things.
Kim hears the Lama discussing his journey with the museum curator and decides to become the Lama’s chela, or disciple. The Lama was quite accepting of this offer, considering his other chela had died in the previous town. And there is where the tale begins, with Kim following the Lama throughout India in search of the River of the Arrow.
‘Thy chela,’ said Kim simply, sitting on his heels. ‘I have never seen anyone like to thee in all this my life. I go with thee to Benares. And, too, I think that so old a man as thou, speaking the truth to chance-met people at dusk, is in great need of a disciple.’
Kipling’s description of early 20th century India is simply amazing. The man knew how to write. The entire book is filled with vivid descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of India. Kim travels through bazaars, rural villages and military camps, to name just a very few.
Here is Kipling’s description of the Lama’s experience in Lahore (which is now in Pakistan actually).
It was his first experience of a large manufacturing city, and the crowded tram-car with its continually squealing brakes frightened him. Half pushed, half towed, he arrived at the high gate of the Kashmir Serai: that huge open square over against the railway station, surrounded with arched cloisters, where the camel and horse caravans put up on their return from Central Asia. Here were all manner of Northern folk, tending tethered ponies and kneeling camels; loading and unloading bales and bundles; drawing water for the evening meal at the creaking well-windlasses; piling grass before the shrieking, wild-eyed stallions; cuffing the surly caravan dogs; paying off camel-drivers; taking on new grooms; swearing, shouting, arguing, and chaffering in the packed square.
Before Kim sets off on his journey, a friend of his asks him to deliver a message to a certain British colonel in one of the cities. Turns out that Kim’s horse-trading friend who gave him teh message, Mahbub Ali, is a spy in the Great Game, which was a “strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia.” Basically, the Russians were inching closer to India and the British wanted to stop them but not via full scale war. The game involves an elaborate network of spies on both sides, mapping distant northern India.
I won’t go into too much more detail except to say that the book spans about five years of Kim’s life, until the time he is an early teenager. He meets with British and Irish soldiers; Russian spies; Bengali traders; and all types of India’s brethren, giving the reader a wide view of early 20th century India.
Kipling’s book is a masterpiece in my opinion and has flamed my Indian excitement even more. The culture, the people, the history…It’s all so rich in Kim. I give it my highest recommendation.
Next up on the book reviews: Holy Cow