Since I am writing a book about a boy spy in Asia (although in ancient China, not British colonial India), I was rereading Kim. The book is full of the life of India in the 1800s, in all its diversity and vigor. I love learning how Kipling was inspired by real people, places and events in his story.
One of the most intriguing characters in the book is the mysterious Lurgan Sahib, who runs a jewelry store in Simla, in the Himalaya. Today, Simla is a sleepy little town, but when the British ran India, the colonial administration would move there for the hot months, and for more than half the year, Simla was effectively the capital of India.
Lurgan Sahib teaches Kim how to observe. He was based on the real, fascinating “Alexander Jacob,” whom Kipling seems to have met. Peter Hopkirk, in Quest for Kim, writes: “Claiming to be a Turk, he was believed by some to be of Armenian or Polish Jewish parentage, though born in Turkey. ‘He was of the humblest origin,’ the obituarist continues, ‘and when ten years old was sold as a slave to a rich pasha, who, discovering the boy’s uncommon abilities, made a student of him.'” He became free on the death of his master, made a pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise, worked his way from the Arabian peninsula to Bombay, and ended up as a gem-dealer in Simla. Many people who knew him apparently believed he had supernatural powers, and this is hinted at in Kim. Peter Hopkirk, too, writes that odd things happened to him while he was trying to find out more about Jacobs. Among other misfortunes, he lost all of his notes for his book. “Although I cannot say I seriously believe in messages or warnings from beyond the grave, this was not the only thing that happened while I was searching for Jacob’s will…Perhaps it was now time to lay off Jacob before something far worse befell me!”
At about age sixteen, Kim is reunited with the old Tibetan lama who has paid for his expensive boarding school.
Kim and his lama make their way to the Himalayan foothills; the lama “drew a deep double-lungful of the diamond air, and walked as only a hillman can. Kim, plains-bred… sweated and panted astonished. ‘This is my country,’ said the lama.” One day in the hills, they meet Hurree Babu, one of Creighton Sahib’s top spies, who is pretending to be a “courteous Dacca physician” but is actually in the hills looking for two men who have come from Russia.
During the 1800s, the Russians continually advanced their frontiers, and the British in India definitely felt the threat. This is “the Great Game” in Kim. In reality, the Russians came thousands of miles closer to India during that century; but in the book, they are warded off by the network of spies set up by Creighton Sahib. Hurree Babu and Kim and the unwitting lama cause the Russian and French officer to lose all their maps and other possessions and feel lucky they are still alive. The lama and Kim take refuge with “the woman of Shamlegh,” Lispeth, the polyandrous mistress of a remote community on the edge of a 2000-foot cliff. Kipling wrote an entire story about her; it’s sad.
At the end of the story, the lama and Kim, having thwarted the Russians’ plot, return to the Indian lowlands and the lama happens across a farm stream he is sure was the Buddha’s.
“Certain is our deliverance! Come!” He crossed his hands on his lap and smiled, as a man may who has won Salvation for himself and his beloved.