Rereads: Rudyard Kipling’s KIM

by Jennifer Stevenson

The first time my mother read Kipling’s KIM aloud to me and my brother, we were both under two years old.  We understood maybe one word in ten, even with her footnotes.  But my mother was a tremendously talented reader, very lively, and good with character voices and emotion.  She was having fun.  So we had fun.  It didn’t matter that we didn’t get it.

That experience was probably pretty typical for an early science fiction reader.  I’ve heard it said that “the golden age of science fiction is twelve.”  I think, rather, that science fiction readers start even younger.  These kids expect to be baffled by their reading matter.  They expect most of it to go over their heads.  They hope to pick up comprehension from variation and repetition, context, and the development of character and the story.  I know I did.

Kipling moreover had the ideal job for a science fiction writer.  He was brought up in an alien culture as a native, and acculturated to the planet of his birth only later, with difficulty.  Later still, after acquiring polish at a school for the sons of Anglo-Indian civil servants, he returned to the alien world and got a job writing for Anglo-Indians in India, with lots of opportunity to sell that material back Home.  He got to explain India to the English. That was the sort of job a science fiction writer would sell his soul for.

It’s not as if he were the first writer to do this.  But he did it with love and deep understanding and attention to detail.  He walked a fine line, walked it so well that the English totally believed he was on their side.

That fine line was the honest representation of his home to his aliens.  He knew just how to flatter English readers, how to make them believe he understood perfectly the correct way to feel about the behavior of these bewildering savages.  And yet he made it quite obvious to me, at least, and good gracious I was only seven when I grokked the subtext: that the Indian world he knew was undisturbed by English incursion.  While all these teachers and soldiers and policemen and Government offiicals bustled about, fixing India, India ignored them.  India was so damned big, it could absorb them the way a full-size marshmallow pyramid absorbs a few red-hot charges of buckshot.

Of course Kipling left India for good again when he was still a young man.  What he never knew, or was never able to convey, I certainly had no clue about.

But I, who had never been there, felt I had been dipped in chaos, but safely, and had been guided through the madness by someone who saw its order and beauty, a guide who loved it all.

My mother read us KIM about once a year until I was six or seven, at which point I declared I was capable of reading it to myself.  I still didn’t understand much—but in subsequent decades, as I picked it up again, I found myself grokking more, and yet stepping into a time machine.

As I reread, I am twelve again, realizing for the first time what Huneefa really did to Kim in that smoky upstairs room, I am ten, when I forgave the Hindu boy for trying to poison Kim in the house of the Healer of Sick Pearls, I am seven, when I realized that the Lama really was a powerful man back in his Himalayan home, I am six, when I could at last fully picture what Kim was peeking at through the crack under the door at the Jadoo Gher, the House of Wonders—a museum that Kipling’s real-life father designed in the northern city of Lahore, by the way.

Every time I read this book, I descend layer by layer through the years of my comprehension.  I come to accept the ignorances of my childhood.  I learn to be patient with my current thick-headedness, knowing I’ll know even more when I’m older.  I rejoice in what I finally, finally grasp today.

It pays to read books to your children that are written beyond their comprehension level.  It toughens their minds, gives them patience with a world they can’t grasp yet, teaches them to have fun while they learn.

It’s about time I reread Kim again.  This should be good.

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Jennifer Stevenson’s latest title with Book View Cafe is roller derby vampire romance A Taste of You, now available for $4.99.

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Rereads: Rudyard Kipling’s KIM — 12 Comments

  1. I’ll join you in that reread. I wasn’t introduced to it as early as you were – my father sent it to me when I was twelve-ish – but it’s been one of my favourites ever since. And you’re right, it absolutely has an SF sensibility. (Of course, Kipling did also write straight SF; not much, but “As Easy as ABC” is a classic short.)

    • I reviewed two anthologies for NYRSF jeez ten years ago? Kipling’s SF and Kipling’s Fantasy. I’d read all the fantasy stories decades before, but some of the SF was new to me.

      The interesting thing is that British socialists of his era were foreseeing with sfnal clarity and detail precisely how the tech and social revolutions of their own times would affect us today. And they were right. And we’ve been utterly unable to prevent any of the problems they foresaw.

  2. KIM remains my favorite of Kipling’s work. I last re-read it about…5 years ago, maybe? And it felt so familiar, as if the words had been imprinted in my brain from repeated re-reads.

  3. Good god! What -did- Huneefa do to Kim in the smoky upper room? (Surely it is not a spoiler at this late date.) Was there MORE than skin dye and hypnosis?

  4. You’ve put your finger on why it is a great book–the layers of comprehension that are revealed with each successive reading, over the years.

    While I think that particular aspect is the sign of a great book, this one has the added benefit, as you say, of alien paradigms–not only various Indian cultures, but the British at the end of the imperial era.

  5. I had Kim…not ruined for me, but rendered dull and lifeless by one of those teachers who was simultaneously passionate about it and utterly unable to share the passion. I felt like I was being hit about the head and shoulders with the book.

    I think I should re-read it.

  6. What is fascinating about KIM is that it is so many things: an alien adventure, of course, but also one of the first geopolitical spy novels, the precursor of LeCarre and many others. Also it is an excellent spiritual quest novel, kin to SIDDHARTHA. And someone wrote a sequel recently, which veered the entire thing off into ‘you woman, me man’ territory, with much unwinding of saris and heaving of dusky bosoms. The book’s like a diamond — you turn it and another new facet flashes into view.

  7. Mad, definitely try it again. This is without a doubt my favorite Kipling, and is truly an SF novel. I could not imagine ever having Kim’s courage, but I could go on those journeys with him and see all that he saw.

    Yet some of my characters have his courage. Who knew? And I learned the ropes from Kim. Learned a lot about writing from Kipling, I realized later.

    Time to read it again!

  8. Brenda, Huneefa hexed Kim to protect him. That was the purpose of the visit, remember? Mabhub Ali (sp?) wanted him protected.

    I always cry at the last page, the last line of Kim, where the Lama has found the river, and won redemption for himself and all those he loves.

    Kipling had the science fiction writer’s ideal job, our dream job: translating an alien world with which he is intimately familiar for the ordinary folks back home. Never mind England had been in India for what, 150, almost two hundred years in some way or another by that point. He could bring the alien-ness to life the way a science fiction writer does, humanizing the aliens and making you love their world. That long spell Kim and the Lama spend on the Grand Trunk Road … I can almost smell the cooking fires in the evening. In the space he created in my mind, I feel safe there, at home, content. If I were there in reality I’d probably have much less fun than I’m having in my head, having read his story.