Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In the footsteps of Kipling and his Kim

Quest for Kim, Peter Hopkirk

I am blessed with bookish friends who read deeply, immersing themselves in books like I do, so that the characters come alive for us.  When a new member of one of my book clubs complained, "You talk about these characters like they are real people," I thought, umm, yes, and what's wrong with that?  We can spend hours discussing them, comparing theirs to other stories we have read, projecting their lives into the future.  I've had friends join me on literary pilgrimages, visiting scenes from favorite books or their authors' lives.  I've also found these kinds of readers on-line, first through listservs and now with blogging.  I don't often come across them within books, though.  I had never heard of Peter Hopkirk before I found this at Half Price Books, but after only a few pages I recognized a kindred spirit.

The subtitle of his book is "In Search of Kipling's Great Game."  What he set out to do was "[retrace] Kim's footsteps across Kipling's India to see how much of it remains."  Unlike Mr. Hopkirk, I did not grow up with Kim, or with Kipling's books at all.  I must have seen the Disney version of "The Jungle Book," from 1967.  I remember a 33 rpm record for our little children's player, with "The Bare Necessities" on one side  (Just typing that starts the words running through my head - [pause to watch a YouTube video] - and my day just got noticeably brighter.)  But it was years before I picked up any of Kipling's books, and even longer before I realized I had only read a selection of The Jungle Books, and none of The Just So Stories.  And typing that made me think it's been too long, Best Beloved, since I read The Just So Stories.  But I digress.  While I read Kim somewhere along the way, it was Laurie R. King who really made me appreciate it with her book The Game, a Sherlock Holmes & Mary Russell story set in 1920s India.  In an afterword, she says that her book "may be read as a humble and profoundly felt homage to Rudyard Kipling's Kim, one of the great novels of the English language . . . a book for any age."  It was only just now, in checking for that quote, that I saw her acknowledgement that her book owes much to -- Peter Hopkirk.  It's the Circle of Books.

Reading Kim at a young age, Mr. Hopkirk became fascinated with India and with the "Great Game," "the century-long Anglo-Russian struggle for the mastery of Asia which, to the British at least, ultimately meant India."  This fascination led him into the Army, hoping to serve in India (he was sent to Somalia instead).  It also led him to research and write about different facets of the Game, published in five books over the years (some of which I will probably be reading).  After the last, he decided to go back to the source of it all, Kipling and Kim, at first purely for his own interest and curiosity.

He begins his journey in Lahore, where Kim opens, with the title character "in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher - the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum."  From there, he traces Kim's journey with the old Tibetan lama down to Lucknow and Benares (today Varansai), and eventually into the Great Game.  He lightly sketches in the main events of the story, just enough to provide context, while constantly encouraging his readers to pick up the original and read for themselves.  Along the way, he looks for the originals of the story's characters, beginning with Kim himself.  I knew so little of Kipling's life that I did not even realize that his own father was the keeper of the Wonder House, written almost unchanged into his son's story.  Mr. Hopkirk also looks for the sites where the events of the story take place, such as La Martini√®re College in Lucknow, which Kipling transformed into St Xavier in Partibus, the school (also in Lucknow) to which Kim is sent.  As he discovers, he is far from the first to try and match fact with fiction.  Sometimes, as when he tries to locate the extraordinary Lurgan Sahib's shop in Simla, he finally has to admit defeat (while still hoping that a lead will turn up eventually).

Kim and his lama can move easily between Lahore and Lucknow.  Today, those two cities are in different countries, and Mr. Hopkirk finds it impossible to follow their exact route, even by train.  Many of the places he visits, at least in the first half of his book, were the scenes of terrible violence and devastation during the Partition of India and Pakistan, in 1947.  At times it seemed like I was seeing three images of Pakistan and India super-imposed: Kim's fictional world, the one Mr. Hopkirk was travelling through in the early 1990s, and hanging over it all, the events of 1947.

This is a true literary pilgrimage, and a historical one, and I enjoyed it immensely.  Mr. Hopkirk's deep affection for Kim suffuses his book, though he acknowledges that it is of its time, with elements that trouble today's readers.  Nevertheless, his enthusiasm is catching.  I have made myself a little stack, of Kim, as well as Laurie King's The Game, and some of Kipling's books that I have had on the TBR shelves for far too long.  I might start with his posthumous autobiography, Something of Myself.


  1. I read a book by Hopkirk a couple of years ago called "The Great Game" which focused on the history of the period. It sounds like this was more of a travel memoir. He's a really good history writer, and I can imagine he would do well with the travel/history combination.

  2. Teresa, I remember your review - and I remember putting the book on my reading list, but I don't remember where I put that particular list! I am definitely looking forward to exploring his other books.

  3. I love the 'one book leading to another' - surprising where you end up sometimes. I think Kipling's autobiography would be interesting. I read a bit about his life in A Circle of Sisters about the four MacDonald sisters - Alice M was Kipling's wife.

  4. I have been meaning to read T. N. Murari's 'The Imperial Agent' which is a sequel to Kim - apparently rather good though I cannot find the review that recommended it now. The Laurie R. King sparked my interest at the time too - she is so brave to take on two classics of English lit. together!

  5. Cat, I knew very little about Kipling's life before reading this, except that he was related to Angela Thirkell (which I learned from her autobiography). I think I'll be reading more about him, and by him.

    vicki, Peter Hopkirk mentions this book too. I was just reading that the new Holmes & Russell comes out in February of next year, and I immediately went into "want NOW" mode.

  6. Sorry, that first sentence was unclear. Hopkirk mentions Murari.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!