Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Kipling's "Chela"

From the desk of Sir Jason...

Chela: disciple or follower of a religious figure. From India, I forget which language. Made famous in the novel "Kim."

In "The Quest for Kim", by Peter Hopkirk, the author might be thought of as Kipling's Chela. The book is devoted to exploring the writing of the novel Kim, by Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling is a writer that has had the misfortune to be judged on his opinions rather than his work. And to have his opinions judged as caricatures of what they actually were. The fact is he is a more thoughtful writer then many think. To say he was not a racist would be wrong. To say he was a racist would be equally wrong. He was an imperialist. And his support of the British Empire must be taken in light of the fact that the Empire was a state of being in his time.

Whether or not the Empire had been built by immoral means, it was
there and had to be dealt with. The responsibility of power is a difficulty common to all ages and one cannot be sure Kipling was wrong. At the least he has something to say to modern Americans who are in a situation that is not dissimilar to England's at the time.

Moreover Kipling treats people as people with faults and virtues. He treats their cultures as part of their character or as part of the environment they live in. In other words he has a more realistic touch for humanity than many of his critics who in fact treat people merely as the groups they are part of or the cause they claim. In a way he is less of a bigot than some Kipling haters. He was not a fool and he did not think that all of the Empire's rulers were selfless guardians of the peace. Rather, he thought the result was better then the alternative and he praised
the Empire's more humble servants who deserved a little glory sometimes.

In Kim he gives an idea of what he thought the Empire out to be, a display of different cultures living together in peace. To call Kipling a "multiculturalist" would be laughable. Modern multiculturalsts really have no knack for sympathy with other cultures or people outside the "literary-academic complex". They are also vehemently anti-occidentalist which Kipling definitely was not.

Kim is an "idealization", but not a naive one. Rather it is looking at the glass half-full. Kipling knew the bad points about the Empire and sometimes criticized it elsewhere. However the point of "Kim" is to enjoy it.

Few writers are better qualified to write,"The Quest for Kim", than Peter Hopkirk. A noted historian of border intrigue in Asia, he is a splendid source for a novel which is among many other things the most famous spy-story ever written. In Kim, the hero is a small street orphan familiar with the ways of the city. Among other things he is what is called a "cut-out" in spy jargon (a minor local asset - like a street rat in an Indian city, like the hero). He does his work mostly for Mahbub Ali, the swashbuckling Pathan border-spy and horse trader who comes down from the mountains every once in awhile bringing horses to sell, and information for the
Imperial government. At the beginning Kim also makes friends with such figures as the Red Lama, an endearing old man from Tibet. He becomes, as the Lama says, his "Chela", and looks after him for the Lama is not a very streetwise character, and needs more than a
little protection. At the same time he carries a message for Mahbub Ali, thus setting up as a theme for the rest of the story the tension between the two worlds, which is left completely unresolved in the end. No one knows which path Kim takes and perhaps
that is the best ending.

In The Quest for Kim, Peter Hopkirk goes through India and Pakistan, and ruffles through old records, exploring the real-life ideas that he believed to have been the inspiration for ideas in Kim. This is a fascinating exercise and well worth the reading.

There really is a giant cannon rusting away in retirement at
the city where the story begins. The "wonder-house" (as it is called) is of course the museum where Kipling's father was curator. And so on. Other things were harder to identify, especially characters - the author tends to believe that the characters were inspired by real people.

Hopkirk's tale of his travels is well worth reading. It is both a giant book review, and a travel story and it succeeds on both counts.

Sir Jason


  1. One must not over-whitewash Kipling. He does often sound harsh and his assumption of occidental superiority, sometimes went beyond asserting cultural superiority into nearly asserting biological(there is a difference-asserting cultural superiority is asserting the superiority of a system of ideas, though one can be overproud about it, it is not as indefensible). Much of this can be explained simply by having a bigger mouth then was good for him at times. Also it has to be remembered that Victorians weren't fascists, and they weren't Klansmen. They were snobs, and though they would often sneer, they would seldom be outragously vicious in the "classic " manner.

    Sir Jason

  2. Kipling's most notorious gaffe, of course was, "take up the white man's burden". Actually he later said that "white man" refered to one's adherance to a given system of rule of law, not mere skin color. Which seems to indicate that he was rather embarrassed by that line-as I have dabbled in amateur writting I know what that is like.
    Kipling knew perfectly well that many of the people who made the Empire work were "brown men" and praised them in other places.

    Sir Jason

  3. Peter Hopkirk is a very interesting and readable historian. In the Great Game trilogy(The Great Game, Like Hidden Fire, Setting the East Ablaze)he chronicles the exploits of various adventuers in Central Asia doing work similar to that of Mahbub Ali.

    Sir Jason

  4. Interestingly, when Kipling criticizes the Empire his criticisms seem amuseingly mundane compared with the Faceless Evil, of some imaginations. The things he draws attention to are lethargic bureaucratic stupidities, petty jealousy's among "sahibs"("sirs"-I.E. Englishmen) and the inability of English and Asians to understand each other. It is done in a matter of fact way, with quite a bit of irony.
    In other words, the problems then don't look all that different. Some things never change.

    Sir Jason