Kipling, Kim, and Anthropology
Length: 897 words (2.6 double-spaced pages)
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It is widely recognised that the relatively recent sciences of anthropology and ethnology have often seemed in thrall to, and supportive of, the colonial project. Supposedly objective in outlook, anthropological discourse has often been employed to validate and justify theories of race, hierarchy, and power. So-called factual knowledge becomes a means through which racial stereotyping can be bolstered or created. The ethos of Western rationalism allied with the discourse of pseudo-science in Orientalism and Indology creates a body of knowledge which can be used as leverage in the acquisition ,or, retention of power. Such theories, however flawed, become essential ingredients in the process of defining the Other, inevitably a process which measures itself against definitions of the Self. Nineteenth-century anthropological investigations in India proclaimed a body of supposedly verifiable truths about the land and its people. In the process of formulating what or how the Indian people are, ideas of individual agency are stripped from them. Ronald Inden writes that essentialist ways of seeing tend to ignore the "intricacies of agency" pertinent to the flux and development of any social system (Imagining India. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.p20).
Rudyard Kipling's Kim exemplifies this in a variety of ways. Kim reveals a genuine love and sympathy for India but remains a jingoistic product of its time and place. Benita Parry points out that the history of Kipling criticism mirrors the history of attitudes to the imperial encounter itself (Delusions And Discoveries: Studies on India in the British Imagination. London: Penguin, 1972. p205). Several of the characters in Kim illustrate the underlying links between imperialism and anthropology, even as Kipling himself seems to be engaging on a similar project. The encounter between the lama and the museum curator at Lahore is the first instance of this type of relationship in Kim. It is surely anomalous for the white curator to have the authority of knowledge in this meeting . The lama is meant to be a venerated Tibetan sage, and yet the curator presumes to educate him through "the labours of European scholars, who...have identified the Holy places of Buddhism"(p7). By cataloguing, labelling, and classifying Indian ritual and practice the curator has somehow acquired a body of knowledge which renders the lama helpless "as a child" (p7). Time and again in Kim it will be seen how Western knowledge is used to appropriate autonomy and agency from the Indian people.
Colonel Creighton is the last of Kim's surrogate fathers and, as a member of the Ethnological Survey and a government spy, it is he who facilitates Kim's assumption of place in his patriarchal heritage. It is Creighton's "fluent and picturesque Urdu" (p101) which convinces Kim of his merit and authority. The act of surveillance is closely allied to imperial control, however, Kipling masks this awareness from the reader by the use of euphemism, double talk and code. Creighton's seemingly obscure gathering of knowledge represents considerably more than a disinterested desire to gain entry to the Royal Society. Using terms such as "Great Game" creates a conceptual distance from the realities of government and colonial administration. Threats to the Indian nation come from Russians, French, and five kings "who had no business to confederate"(p18). The colonial view is taken as the world view in Kipling's tale. Characterising Colonel Creighton as manly, rational and scientific diminishes the paternal potential of the lama who appears increasingly passive, dependent, and feminized in accordance with Eastern stereotypes. Within the scheme of the novel Kim must relinquish his Indian loyalties in order to become a part of the imperial endeavour.
Although he is designated the "little friend of all the world" (p2) Kim reiterates racist theories about the inherent irrationality and disorder of the Indian psyche. Kim's value to Creighton, and therefore to imperialism, lies in his ability to 'pass' as a native. However, his sahibhood is stressed from the outset --" though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white"(p1) and Kipling will not let the reader to lose sight of this core fact. Kim proves his racial superiority by his strength of resistance to Eastern mesmerism aided by the recitation of his multiplication tables. Mathematical rationality is more than a match for the mystical forces of the Orient! Kim repeatedly exploits his relationships with Indians but, far from questioning his motives, they prove to be complicit in the abstraction of the Great Game. Political realities of the era are ignored in favour of an implied 'natural' relationship between Sahib, Pathan, Tibetan, and Bengali.
Just as the museum curator patronised the lama, Kim itself has been viewed as a realistic representation of India. It acts as another example of how colonial powers judge themselves best qualified to represent the colonised nation to itself and others. Kipling's vision of "happy Asiatic disorder"(p56) on the Grand Trunk Road has often been read as indicative of the 'real' India instead of a nostalgic evocation of a much loved childhood. Blurring distinctions between caste and class, Kipling also manages to blur distinctions between the colonisers and the colonised. In many respects Kim has tended to function as an anthropological text as it cultivated popular opinion of India and the colonial experience. While the modern reader can recognise the ideology behind Kipling's reductive maxims it is important to appreciate the links between rational sciences and the core project of imperialism.