A fascinating aspect of literature is its capacity to change over time. Intuitively, one may think that the message a book conveys, the experience the tale imparts, the revelry a novel causes remains somewhat static and consistent, a belief that I completely disagree with. By this, I mean that the state of the reader, influenced by such dynamic factors as age, relationship status, type of socialization experienced, among others, significantly affects, and perhaps ultimately determines, one’s reaction to a story.
Kim , Rudyard Kipling’s famous novel published in 1901, is for me a prime demonstration of this idea of how one’s feelings towards a story can change. I first read Kim as a sixth grader and found the story of the orphaned Kimball O’Hara, otherwise known as Kim, gripping – a young guy, a bit older than I was at the time, was leading an adventurous life on the streets of Lahore, India, free of the pressures of school and family, and while he was poor and did lead a somewhat harsh existence, his complete independence seemed so appealing. And his life only becomes more incredible as he joins a Tibetan lama on his spiritual journey and is eventually recruited by the British secret service for important work, which they refer to as the great game, on the northern border of India involving Russian agents, turncoat allies, and danger – almost a young James Bond.
Now, let’s skip quite a few years ahead, the young sixth grader is now an adult, and I find myself looking at a copy of Kim and remembering the first time I read it. Succumbing to nostalgia, I cracked that paperback open and began reading. I was taken quite by surprise. Being an enormous fan of several modern writers hailing from India, I have developed a particular picture of post-Raj India, one in which India, despite the challenges that pluralist societies face, is filled with beauty, culture, and, above all, magic; something that modern life can oftentimes lack or lose altogether, particularly as one grows older.
Although Mr. Kipling included wonderful descriptions of the geography and lively city life of India, it was made perfectly clear that Mr. Kipling considered Indian independence something akin to madness, for in his mind how could the country thrive and progress without the leadership of the British? In the words of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, complete “tommy-rott”, I thought.
Despite the imperialistic overtones that overshadow Kim , I must say that it still is a good adventure and coming-of-age story that can be easier to digest when the time and context in which it was written is taken into account. In fact, it is the various layers of the story that can keep it fresh and new through subsequent readings.