by Brian Reinken
A photographed plaster relief illustration that John Lockwood Kipling produced for his son Rudyard’s novel Kim (1900–01) shows Kim and the Lama strolling down the Grand Trunk Road in the company of Indian men and women (Fig. 1). The illustration portrays all of these people in the same pale shade of green, making them look very much alike. The text of the novel, in contrast, represents the Grand Trunk Road as a cornucopia of vivid colors—red, blue, pink, white, and saffron—whose profusion complements the travelers’ human diversity.
Kim is keenly attuned to the details of human difference. Although readers like Edward Said and Patrick Brantlinger have stressed the delight that the novel takes in representing the people of India, there is inevitably something sinister in the way that it observes, classifies, and separates these people into different communities. Oftentimes, the narrator implies that India’s communities reflect “natural” divisions originating in race, religion, or language. At other times, however, Kim suggests that the subcontinent’s social diversity is the product of careful imperialist engineering.
The contradiction between these two claims is difficult to miss—but, rather than revealing a fatal weakness or uncertainty within the pro-imperialist novel’s anthropology, it enables Kim to buttress British power in South Asia. By upholding different claims about Indian communities in response to different circumstances, Kipling portrays the ostensibly immutable facts of nature as protean fabrications. From the perspective of his novel, Indian communities are simultaneously organic and artificial, born and built. They grew into existence from the dawn of history, and they were invented in the nineteenth century by the British Empire’s demographers.
In effect, the contradiction at the heart of Kim empowers British administrators to dictate what it means to be “organically” Indian even while permitting them avoid entrapment in the rigid categories that they call into existence. These administrators become observers who cannot be observed and categorizers who cannot be categorized. Kim’s famously chameleonic protagonist provides the clearest example of this phenomenon. The novel’s opening paragraphs describe him as white and English, but they also invoke his dark skin and his preference for speaking Hindustani rather than his European mother-tongue. When Kim joins the Secret Service as a British spy, his proteanism becomes his greatest asset. He anticipates, manipulates, and co-opts multiple—even contradictory—categories of identity in order to disguise himself, adapt to adverse circumstances, and defend the British Raj.
Today, activists and advocates for human rights often embrace the idealistic hope that exposing the ideological contradictions within oppressive power structures will contribute to those structures’ downfall or reform. Reading Kim, however, offers a sobering reminder that ideological contradictions frequently sustain oppressive institutions rather than weakening them. In the Raj as Kipling represents it, imperial authority thrives on its own internal inconsistency, and imperialism has the potential to survive in perpetuity because it deliberately refuses to commit itself to any particular end. Ultimately, calling attention to inconsistencies within imperialist ideology does not weaken it because the inconsistencies are precisely the point.
To read more, see Brian Reinken, “Recasting India’s Organicism in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.” Victorian Review, vol. 47 no. 2, 2021, p. 263-279. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2021.0033.