Kim’s skin was tanned as dark as a native’s and while he was fluent in speaking several Indian languages, his English was imperfect. But Kim was white – a Sahib (European). His mother had been a nursemaid in a Colonel’s family, and his father had been Kimball O’Hara, a colour-sergeant in an Irish regiment before leaving the military to take a low-ranking job with the Indian railway.
Kim’s mother died of cholera, and his father took to drinking and using opium, and “died as poor whites die in India.” Before Kimball O’Hara, Sr. died he told his son he was leaving him a legacy of three pieces of paper that had great magic. His father had died when Kim was quite young, and the half-caste woman who cared for the boy didn’t understand English well, so the boy was told that once the legacy became known the Colonel and 900 devils – who worshipped the Red Bull in a green field – would come and tend to him.
India’s people had many religions, with many gods, and so Kim accepted that a Red Bull would be an important part of his future. The three “magic” papers were sewn into a leather amulet-case that the boy always wore around his neck.
Kim hated wearing the restrictive shirts and trousers worn by Sahibs, preferring loose-fitting native clothing. Though he’d received a few reading lessons, sitting in a classroom didn’t interest him. He would prowl through alleys and run across rooftops to deliver messages, or learn secrets, and he’d then report to those who gave coins to boys who didn’t mind a bit of danger.
When Kim was 13 he met an elderly Tibetan Lama on a pilgrimage to find the Holy Places of Buddhism, especially the River of the Arrow. The Lama’s chela (disciple) had died, and Kim agreed to travel with the holy man, for the journey would be a chance to take his own pilgrimage and find the Red Bull in a green field.
He soon discovered the Lama was an innocent who didn’t understand people could be dishonest, and since Kim was familiar with the seedier realities of life he became the Lama’s protector.
When a horse trader by the name of Mahbub Ali learned that Kim would be traveling through the town of Umballa he asked the boy to give an army officer a written message about the pedigree of a white stallion. Kim knew he was not being told what the true message was, but he accepted the assignment.
When he arrived in Umballa Kim found the correct location to pass on a sealed packet of papers, and then he spied and overheard an officer say that he’d received information concerning the need for 8,000 soldiers, plus heavy artillery.
Kim and the Lama traveled on India’s Grand Trunk Road, and while the Lama was focused on enlightenment, and seeking clues to where the River of the Arrow might be, Kim wanted to explore locations near the road, to learn more about parts of India he’d never seen before.
One day Kim came upon a field and saw a group of soldiers scouting out a location for their regiment to make camp. One of the soldiers had a flag depicting a Red Bull on a green background. He had come upon his father’s Irish regiment.
Kim rushed back to tell the Lama he had found his Red Bull, and then found a comfortable place for his holy man to sit and wait for his return. He snuck into the army camp in hopes of learning about the promised legacy from his father.
The regiment’s Anglican chaplain caught the boy spying, dragged Kim into his tent, and then called upon the Catholic chaplain for assistance. Kim attempted an escape, the Anglican tried to grab hold of him, and tore off the leather amulet holding the three “magic” papers. Kim frantically insisted that he must have his magic returned to him, and the chaplains cut open the amulet to see the contents.
They found a paper certifying Kimball O’Hara’s membership in a Masonic Lodge, a military document, and the boy’s birth certificate. Kim told the men he needed his papers, and that he must return to care for his holy man. He was told he couldn’t leave – he was a military orphan and the regiment would make sure that he was educated, and trained to be a soldier.
Kim was allowed bring the Lama into the camp in order to say goodbye to him, and as soon as the man learned his beloved helper was a Sahib he agreed he must be sent to a Sahib school. Kim was told the regiment would take him to his new school, but the boy said that wasn’t going to happen because they would soon be in a war involving 8,000 soldiers. (He knew a thing or two about keeping secrets, and so said nothing about delivering the message concerning “the pedigree of a white stallion.”)
All who heard the boy’s war prediction scoffed at the foolish tale – until they were ordered to change plans and take part in a military action involving thousands of soldiers. Then officials took a special interest in the white boy who looked and acted like a native.
Kim was told the very best Sahib school in India was St. Xavier’s, where he could not only learn how to read and write, but how to survey land and prepare accurate maps. There were military men who took part in what was called the Great Game by disguising themselves, learning secrets, and providing maps of remote locations. Kim had no interest in learning to be a soldier who marched all day, but the Great Game would be a life of adventure.
Kim was enrolled at St. Xavier’s, became a good student, and usually followed school rules. His only infractions were the few times when he was seen outside of the school, conversing with an old beggar. The Tibetan Lama had put his pilgrimage on hold in order to live near his young Sahib disciple.
When Kim was 16 several men who took part in the Great Game – including Mahbub Ali the horse trader – decided the young man had received enough schooling and should be sent on his first mission, but not before he was given six months to travel with the Lama. They understood that Kim would not give his full attention to his life’s work until the holy man was at peace in his search for enlightenment.
Kim was given an amulet to wear, and told that if he met someone he thought might be a part of the Great Game there were certain subjects to be mentioned, using certain speech patterns. Then he was sent off on his six month holiday.
Unfortunately, during a train ride with the Lama, Kim met up with an injured man. Kim caught sight of the man’s amulet, conversed with him on certain subjects, and learned the Great Game required that a message be delivered, and that the injured man was too weak to escape from enemies on his trail ….
Several years ago I watched an old movie entitled Kim, so I knew the novel would contain adventure, and that is the major portion of the story, but I didn’t realize how much of Kim involved the Lama’s pilgrimage, and discussions about India’s diverse religious beliefs and traditions. For the most part I found the pilgrimage conversations to be of interest, though there were a time or two when I wished the talkers had gotten to their point a little sooner. Be warned that those wanting non-stop thrills and adventures might find Kim a little slow-moving at times.
For those seeking an exotic tale set during the days of British colonial rule in India I recommend Rudyard Kipling’s classic novel.
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