Misrepresenting the Other in ‘Kipling’s ‘Kim’

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Misrepresenting the Other in ‘Kipling’s ‘Kim’

Tamara Fernando


Fernando is an editor and writer based in Seattle, Washington. In this essay, Fernando argues that Kipling misrepresented the political environment of late-nineteenth-century India in order to promote the validity of British imperialism.

Much of Rudyard Kipling’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction, focuses on India. Kipling — himself an Englishman born in Lahore, who lived and wrote during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the height of the British Empire — was known as one of the most vocal proponents of his time of British rule in India. His writing reflected the largely common belief held by Britain that the Western world had a moral obligation to provide the Eastern, nonwhite world with what they saw as their superior political and intellectual guidance. This complex of superiority was coupled with the largely held and promoted stereotypical portrayals of the Asiatic person as weak, immoral, and incapable of independent advancement. Of course, hand in hand with this sense of moral obligation to impose British government on the “dark races” of the world was the amassing of economic and global power for Britain itself, the largest empire the world had ever seen. Thus, the maintenance of the sense of moral obligation in India was a significant part of the ideology behind the economic welfare of the empire.

Kipling’s nonfiction work was bluntly polemical, but a pro-imperialist message pervades his fiction as well. Even though the novel Kim, with its vibrant descriptions of the geography and cultures of India, seems to be a celebration of the subcontinent and its native peoples, it nevertheless is structured as a pro-imperialist work. Specifically, Kipling creates a very particular portrayal of the political environment of India that pointedly ignores the growing conflict between the native Indians and their British rulers. His constructed misrepresentation of the Indian political environment serves to maintain the strength and validity of the British presence in India.

One of the most telling scenes in Kim is in chapter 3, when Kim and the Tibetan lama come upon an old soldier who had fought on the British side in The Great Mutiny of 1857. The mutiny was the first and one of the most violent uprisings of Indians against their colonizers, in which Hindu and Muslim soldiers, who vastly outnumbered their British superiors, stormed and took over the city of Delhi. It is recognized historically as a starting point for the division between Anglos and Indians and as a starting point for the push for Indian independence (which would come almost one hundred years later, in 1947). Edward Said writes in his introduction to Kim: “For the Indians, the Mutiny was a nationalist uprising against British rule, which uncompromisingly re-asserted itself despite abuses, exploitation and seemingly unheeded native complaint.” The British, on the other hand, saw the mutiny as an act of irrational and unwarranted aggression.

The language that Kipling uses to describe this mutiny is markedly from the British point of view, so it is significant that the account comes not from a British soldier but from an Indian:

A madness ate into all the Army, and they turned against their officers. That was the first evil, but not past remedy if they had then held their hands. But they chose to kill the Sahibs’ wives and children. Then came the Sahibs from over the sea and called them to most strict account.

The Indian soldier describes the cause of the mutiny as “madness” that made the soldiers turn against the officers. That Kipling characterizes an uprising based on resentment towards imperialist rule and the attempt to resist this rule as merely “madness” reduces the Indian nationalist cause to irrationality and, therefore, to meaninglessness. Because there is no rational reason for the uprising, the murder of officers — the most egregious act of disloyalty — is cast as “evil.” And while the murder of civilians, especially women and children, is deemed universally unacceptable, that the soldier chooses to focus on this aspect of the mutiny serves to further demonize the actions of the Indians and invalidate their nationalist cause and the reality of their discontent.

Furthermore, the Indian soldier frames the British in a pointedly paternalistic light in describing the British retaliation against the Indian mutineers: The Sahibs “called them to most strict account” for their actions. This particular choice of phrasing casts the governing British in a parental role; the British counterattack and squelching of the insurgency — and all of the brutality likely thereafter — is cast as a just punishment that brings the unruly back to their rightful order. And that rightful order, of course, is to remain the governed, rather than the governing. Through the language he gives the soldier, Kipling frames the mutiny not as a group’s legitimate attempt for independence and nationalization, but as an unjustified, irrational, and isolated act of brutality, thus not only ignoring but invalidating the existence of legitimate conflict.

While the mutiny is largely regarded by historians as the turning point in Anglo-Indian relations and the true first attempt by Indians at retaliating against the British colonizers, the future of the independence movement in India was not characterized by violence, but was instead orchestrated politically through the growing British-educated Indian middle class. The regime of Britain in India was not one of intellectual oppression — indeed, the British saw it as part of the white man’s moral obligation to educate the Oriental in ways of Western morality and rationality, and so Indians were not denied, but encouraged to obtain, a British education. Nevertheless, many British did not regard the Indian, even a British-educated Indian, to ever be able to govern himself. Blair B. Kling writes in the Norton critical edition of Kim: “To the British in India the Bengalis might be English educated, but they were still racially inferior and did not have the moral fiber, manliness, or common sense to warrant more than subordinate administrative appointments.” This wide-reaching British sentiment towards the educated Bengali class is specifically reflected in Kipling’s characterization of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee.

The character of Mookerjee in Kim is one of the educated Bengali class to which Kling refers. Indeed, Kipling does portray Mookerjee as highly educated and extremely competent in his work as a spy in The Great Game, especially in his heroic, skilled, and dangerous success at the climax of the novel, in which Mookerjee, with the help of Kim, tricks the Russian spies out of their goods and leads them astray. He is extremely competent at his work, even described, when he is in the midst of his anthropological studies, as a “sober, learned son of experience and adversity.” However, as learned as Mookerjee may be, Kipling treats him not as an equal to the British whom he emulates, but rather as a caricature. This is especially evident in the way that Kipling has rendered his English speech patterns. Mookerjee’s English speech is liberally peppered with highly British expressions, such as in a conversation with Kim: “By Jove . . . why the dooce do you not issue demi-offeecial orders to some brave man to poison them . . . That is all tommy-rott.”

No other character in Kipling uses such a highly concentrated smattering of idiomatic expressions. Kipling also renders Mookerjee’s English in an unorthodox spelling — such as “dooce” for “deuce” — to highlight the Bengali’s non-British accent. This has the effect of portraying Mookerjee’s English as not “true” English, but almost as a dialect. The dialect-type spelling, together with the almost laughable, exaggerated use of British figures of speech, has the effect of making Mookerjee’s speech a caricature of the English language — the opposite of authentic English language. Said writes of Kipling’s cartooning of Mookerjee: “Lovable and admirable though he may be, there remains in Kipling’s portrait of him the grimacing stereotype of the ontologically funny native, hopelessly trying to be like ‘us.'”

This parodying of Mookerjee devalues him — and, by extension, the educated Indian class to which he belongs — and places him on a field unequal to the British, thus rendering the Indian educated class — and therefore their cause for independence — impotent.

The misrepresentation of the Indian historical and cultural experience in these two specific instances is tantamount to Kipling outright ignoring that a very real conflict of interests existed in the Anglo-Indian relationship. The very absence of conflict between the Anglo and Indian characters in Kim is in fact not limited to specific instances, but is intrinsic in the plot of the novel, the centerpiece of which is The Great Game. The Great Game was the complex espionage operation that the British government used to collect information about the northern borders of the Indian Empire and the independent regions bordering on it — such as Afghanistan, Nepal, and Tibet — chiefly to protect their northern border against the threat of the Russians.

The main action of the plot of Kim involves the participation of Mahbub Ali, Colonel Creighton, and other key characters — including, of course, Kim himself — in a dangerous game of espionage against what remains a largely vague and unnamed enemy throughout the book. It is not until chapter 12 that the enemy is finally given a concrete identification: They are Russian spies, and the climax of the novel involves Mookerjee and Kim successfully disarming and derailing the spies from their mission. Thus, the main action of the plot of the novel results in nothing less than the preservation of the British Empire.

In addition to the Indian characters working actively as supporters of the British government is the complete absence of any Indian characters who were working in opposition to the imperial presence and for independence. Kipling would have been quite aware of the very real and vocal organizational work of the educated Indian elite to challenge British rule and bring about independence. So it is of great significance that Kipling not only completely leaves out any characters representing the independence movement, but also puts the preservation of the British Empire directly in the hands of Indians. The absence of dissension, coupled with the complete devotion of the Indian characters to the British cause, works towards a representation of India that completely denies any conflict in the Anglo-Indian relationship. Kipling, by extension, therefore denies any validity to the very real independence movement. The fact that Kipling portrays the Russians as the sole threat to British sovereignty also denies that the independence movement posed a real threat to British sovereignty. The act of completely ignoring Indian national movements on Kipling’s part symbolically invalidates it and renders it harmless.

Kipling’s purposefully constructed misrepresentation of the political environment of India thus leaves the reader, in the end, with an image of an India not divided by conflict, but happily united under the British Empire. Even the spiritually transcendent closing scene of the novel reflects Kipling’s aim in portraying an utterly unified India: The book closes with the Tibetan lama attaining Enlightenment after finally finding the Holy River of his pilgrimage — and even in the description of the lama’s Enlightenment, Kipling manages to make a final, overreaching impression of an India not divided by strife, but unified in harmony:

Yea, my soul went free, and, wheeling like an eagle . . . my Soul drew near the Great Soul which is beyond all things. At that point, exalted in contemplation, I saw Hind [India] from Ceylon in the sea to the Hills, and my own Painted Rocks at Such-zen; I saw every camp and village to the least, where we have ever rested. I saw them at one time and in one place, for they were within the Soul.

Source: Tamara Fernando, Critical Essay on Kim, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

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