The story behind the story: Kipling’s Kim

Kim is one of my favorite books (and the name of my first boyfriend– he was named after it. For a long time that put me off reading the book). I’m aware that for a lot of people, independent of the story, the book is problematic because of its unapologetic colonialism. But it’s a really good read and, approached with an open mind, a fascinating glimpse of India under British rule in the late 1800s, with all the wild variety and color of its landscape and its many different ethnic groups, religions and languages.


Recently I read a book by Peter Hopkirk (who also wrote The Great Game) on the sources and original people and places that inspired Kipling to write Kim.

Hopkirk, who died last year, didn’t have the advantage of the internet in writing Quest for Kim, which was published in 1996. But I do! Using Hopkirk’s book’s identifications, I went looking for pictures to illustrate the story behind the story of Kim, the boy spy.

The book begins in Lahore, which was once a great Indian city and is now in Pakistan and almost completely Muslim. A bunch of street urchins, including Kim, are playing on the great cannon, Zam-Zammah. It’s still there.


10246675_10100765302339774_6272338693372118626_nInto the chaotic city walks a creature from another world– a lama, abbot of a Tibetan monastery, come down from the Himalaya to look for the Buddha’s stream of enlightenment. He’s been told to ask “the keeper of the wonder house” – the museum curator. Kipling’s father, Lockwood, in fact: a scholarly, gentle man.

I was delighted to learn from Hopkirk’s book that the lama, too– the second hero of Kim– was also based on a real person. Here is a distinguished red-hat lama of today, who looks like the lama in the story to me: “such a man as Kim, who thought he knew all castes, had never seen. He was nearly six feet high, dressed in fold upon fold… and not one fold of it could Kim refer to any known trade or profession. At his belt hung a long openwork iron pencase and a wooden rosary such as holy men wear. On his head was a gigantic sort of tam-o’-shanter… His eyes turned up at the corners.”

“I am no Khitai,” says the old man, “but a Bhotiya (Tibetan), since you must know– a lama– or, say, a guru in your tongue.”

10959874_10100765306541354_4221154889893290041_nHopkirk identified the lama’s monastery as Tso-chen, which you can see on the map in the bottom left quadrangle. It is very remote, but today, tourists can visit the Mendong monastery in Tso-chen.

A third hero of the book is the Pathan horse merchant Mahbub Ali. Kim meets him at a caravansery, an inn with space for camels and wares. Here is a picture of one in Peshawar that probably looked much like the one Kim visits in Lahore.

1795603_10100765303951544_3455251642590718434_n And here is Kipling’s father’s illustration of Mahbub Ali himself:  a Pashtun (Pathan) from Afghanistan. It’s exactly how I imagine him. “The big burly Afghan, his beard dyed scarlet with lime (for he was elderly and did not wish his gray hairs to show) knew the boy’s value as a gossip.” He is a Muslim and likes to say “God’s curse on all unbelievers!” before doing something kind for the unbeliever in question. He is also a master spy.


Kim and the lama set out on the Grand Trunk Road that runs east-west across India. Today, much of it is a major highway.

“See, Holy One–” says an old man to the lama, “the Great Road which is the backbone of all Hind. For the most part it is shades, as here, with four lines of trees; the middle road– all hard– takes the quick traffic…. Left and right is the rougher road for the heavy carts– grain and cotton and timber, bhoosa, lime, and hides. A man goes in safety here– for at every few kos is a police station….All castes and kinds of men move here. Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnyas, pilgrims and potters– all the world going and coming.”

“And truly,” continues the narrator, “the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles– such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.”


Kim sneaks up into the bushes to Colonel Creighton’s villa in Umballa, just off the Great Trunk Road, to pass a secret message to the colonel from Mahbub Ali. Peter Hopkirk was able to find the only villa it could have been in the modern town of Ambala, and this picture in Quest for Kim was drawn from his photo. The message, as Kim guesses, has nothing to do with horses and is about rebellious hill rajahs.


10922686_10100765308242944_6446155722805806567_n Thomas George Montgomerie of the Indian Survey was undoubtedly the original of Colonel Creighton, who manages Kim’s career as a spy.

“An officer of great ingenuity,” writes Hopkirk, “he trained these hand-picked individuals in clandestine surveying techniques devised by himself which would permit them to work undercover beyond the frontiers of British India, thus enabling the Survey to produce maps of the strategic approaches which an invader might use.

“Montgomerie first taught his men, through exhaustive practice, to take a pace of known length which would remain constant whether walking uphill, downhill or on the level. Next he devised furtive ways whereby they could keep a precise but discreet count of the number of such measured paces taken during a long day’s march. Some travelled as Buddhist pilgrims, with rosaries and prayer-wheels, which Montgomerie’s workshops at Dehra Dun, the Survey’s headquarters, cunningly doctored for clandestine use…. ”

More in the next post.

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