|Frederick Andrew Lerner, D.L.S.|
|Library and Information Science|
The Life and Loves of Kimball O’Haraby Fred Lerner
It may seem surprising that Kim is highly regarded by many Indian readers. Westerners acknowledge it to be the finest novel of India in English; but those in Europe and America who know Kipling as the Bard of Empire might wonder at an Indian’s appreciation of his writing. These skeptics forget that when Kipling was born in Bombay, “India” was still primarily a geographical expression. There was little consciousness of a national identity; caste and creed and tongue were the elements of one’s sense of self. The idea of India was essentially a British idea, and when Indian nationalism developed it did so under the influence of British moral and political concepts.
So I was doubly astonished to learn of The Imperial Agent and The Last Victory. That someone would have the temerity to attempt a sequel to Kim was surprising enough. That it would be an Indian novelist truly amazed me. I can’t say that I approached these books with optimistic expectations; and soon after opening The Imperial Agent I nearly threw the volume down in disgust. Timeri Murari’s prose is no match for Rudyard Kipling’s, and there are places where he doesn’t seem to understand Kim as well as I think I do. But I persevered, and I’m glad I did.
The imperial agent of the title is Kimball O’Hara, of course. I’m sure that many a reader of Kim has wondered what became of him after he and his beloved lama found the River of the Arrow, the river that brings salvation. Did Kim renounce the world and become a sunyassi, leading others to the river of redemption? Did he continue as a player of the Great Game, helping to safeguard the Indian Empire from Russian subversion? Did he (as I once suggested) travel to London to take service with Sherlock Holmes? The essential question is this: did he follow the path of nature or of nurture? Did Kim grow up to be British or Indian?
It would have sounded more elegant to ask, “Did Kim grow up an Englishman or an Indian?” But Kimball O’Hara was never English. His parents — whom he never knew — were Irish Catholics, and at St Xavier’s in Lucknow he received a Eurasian’s education, not an Englishman’s. (Which is just as well. Kim at a public school would be the ultimate mismatch. Kim at Westward Ho!... Now there’s something to contemplate.) So his role as an agent of Empire was doubly ambiguous.
Murari would have it that Kim could not deny that ambiguity for long. Continuing in the service of Colonel Creighton, whose “Ethnographic Survey” is now acknowledged as the “Political and Secret Department” of the Indian government, Kim comes to realise that the Great Game is no longer being played against the Russians. The threat to the Indian Empire is now perceived as coming from the Indians themselves, and the same tactics of divide, provoke, and conquer that had worked so well on the North West Frontier are now to be applied to the nascent nationalist movement.
As he wanders across India, Kim sees the day-to-day injustices of running India for the benefit of the British. A village faces famine because the government forces them to grow indigo as a cash crop instead of millet for subsistence.
Ethnic and religious minorities — Muslims, Parsis, Christians — are enlisted to help suppress the majority Hindu population. And at the back of every Englishman’s mind is the memory of the Sepoy Mutiny, when Indian native troops rose in 1857 against their masters.
The native troops who volunteered to fight in World War I did not mutiny; but they saw much in Europe, and remembered what they saw. They learned that the British were not entirely a race of sahibs, and the comparison with the working-class Englishmen they met in the trenches and on leave in London was not a flattering one. Led by Indians who had received the best British education, communicating with one another through the networks of telegraphs and railways the British had erected across India, they demanded the right to rule their own land. And volunteer sepoy Kimball O’Hara, more comfortable as Kimathchand, learned the same lessons and came to the same conclusions.
So for Timeri Murari, Kim’s coming of age is India’s in microcosm. Which is fair enough, for — like Kimball O’Hara — India herself has “two sides to my head”. Like America, another continental country that emerged from the British Empire, India both embraces and rejects her British heritage. There’s an early scene in A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth’s great novel of India in the early 1950s, in which university classes are cancelled upon the occasion of the death of King George VI — this despite the fact that India had been an independent republic for five years. But for two decades before independence, George VI had been Emperor of India; and in a land that had for millennia been ruled by foreign dynasties, even a British emperor is deemed worthy of respect.
The rich heritage, the incredible diversity, and the sheer size of India have given Indians a national self-confidence lacking in many other nations born of the British Empire. Indian novelists do not feel compelled to flatter their fellow-countrymen. Murari does not hesitate to portray the shabby and even vicious sides of Indian life, and he shows the British as more selfish than evil. Reading The Imperial Agent and The Last Victory I found myself in total sympathy with Kim’s decision to embrace India rather than Empire; yet I was able also to retain my wistful (and no doubt entirely unrealistic) sympathy with the vision of Empire that Kipling proclaimed in his writings, not least in Kim.
The Imperial Agent and The Last Victory are not merely sequels to Kim. They are novels of India. Kipling’s adolescent Kim found all that one could wish from life along the Grand Trunk Road; Murari sends him — now a young man — across all of India.
And it is not an Englishman’s India, the chaos of millennia tamed by steel rail and copper wire. Kim’s journey takes him through the India of ghosts and spirits and demons. He encounters Bala and Bala, blind holy twins who sing their way across a subcontinent. He is protected by the eagle Jatayu who miraculously heals the dying. (But remember that Kim is Irish, not English, and his birthright is the Celt’s predisposition to encountering the supernatural.)
Kim consorts with babus and beggars, with politicians and prostitutes, as he did in his youth on the Grand Trunk Road. He is still the “friend of all the world”. But he has lost his innocence. And in these two novels, Timeri Murari has convinced me that he knows what would have happened to Kimball O’Hara as he grew into adulthood along with the India he loved.
The Imperial Agent was published by New English Library (London) in 1987 and by St. Martin’s Press (New York) in 1989. The Last Victory was published by New English Library in 1988 and by St. Martin’s Press in 1990. This essay originally appeared in Lofgeornost #43, May 1996.