Rollicking! That’s a word that’s sadly underused.
Almost onomatopoeiac, don’t you think? Along with its brethren: swashbuckling, boisterous, romping. Cavorting, sprightly, jovial. Full of beans! Devil-may-care!
Underused, underused. And for why? There’re so joyful! But yes, they reek of a particular class and a particular point in history. Which makes them exactly the words to use in discussion of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. It’s been a good eleven books since I last read an Indian novel, so if you’ve been paying attention you knew this was coming.
Kim is the tale of a youth (an Irish boy who can handily pass himself off as a “native”) who goes on an adventure. He crosses paths with a Tibetan lama on a pilgrimage and appoints himself his “chela” (disciple), and they embark across India to find an elusive holy river which will cleanse all sins. This quest narrative is broken up with Kim’s British education and growing involvement in The Great Game, but while these elements keep the story fresh, it’s the Kim/Lama relationship that forms the emotional heart of the book. Kim is a lovable rogue – at one point he ‘beam[s] with delight‘ at finding ‘a man after his own heart – a tortuous and indirect person playing a hidden game‘ but the lama brings out his finest and most caring qualities.
There’s plenty of potential to object to the novel – it never questions the role of the British in India, and women are a rare and invariably unwelcome presence in the story. But when a book demonstrates such heart as Kim – with its rich depictions of Indian, Brit and Tibetan alike and an unrivalled joy in the richness of Indian life – why quibble. Rudyard’s depiction of Kim’s enjoyment of the Grand Trunk Road is sheer joy to read.
“See, Holy One – the Great Road which is the backbone of all Hind … Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers barbers and bunnias, pilgrims and potters – all the world going and coming. It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood.’
‘And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles – such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world. They look at the green-arched, shade-flecked length of it, the white breadth speckled with slow-pacing folk…”
Having said all of this, the book does drag at times despite the rich seams of adventure packed into it. The dialogue is archaic and slows the pace. But it’s a better adventure story than The 39 Steps by far and it drums a tangible, sniffable, clamorous world into being. It won’t open your eyes to deeper human truths, but sometimes that’s profoundly comforting. All in all, it’s a rollicking, frolicking, rambunctious read peopled by wise monks, mischievous, streetwise boys and shady horse-dealers for whom coded messages, secret maps and disguise are all in a day’s work. Jai Hind!