Physical and Narrative Mapping in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim

Painting/Illustration: Alix Ayme. Source: Oil Paintings Art Maker.

Kim is the story of the adventures of a young boy, Kimball ‘Kim’ O’Hara, who is born and raised in colonial India. He plays with the slum children on the streets and speaks in vernacular but he is white, a sahib. Kim’s adventures begin when he becomes the chela (devotee) of a Tibetan Lama in search of a holy river of Buddha. The quest, in the novel, is not just for the mysterious river, but also for Kim’s identity as he realizes its complexity. The aspect of colonial representation explored in the novel is mapping (both physical and narrative mapping).

British occupation in India was not predominantly driven by military force or by religious imposition. Apart from trade, its inclination was towards the collection, archiving, and administration of information. The Survey of India was a project intended to provide ethnographic and cartographic knowledge about India. Through this knowledge, the British administration constructed visual maps and established boundaries to enclose colonial subjects. Besides visual maps, a number of anthropological surveys were significant in building this knowledge. Narratives, therefore, coexisted with and elaborated upon visual maps.

Physical and Narrative Mapping

Maps and the motif of map-making were important to the adventure fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An example is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) where the narrator, Marlow is fascinated by the “large shining map” that prompts him to undertake the great adventure. In Kim, there is a double adventure. The first adventure is the one that Kim undertakes with the Lama in search of the river. The second is Kim’s own adventure around colonial India: Kim “was to be diligent and enter the Survey of India as a chain-man.”

The “Great Game of Imperialism”, in Kim, is the game of mapping the colonial territory. Colonel Creighton, an ethnographer in-charge of Kim’s training tells him, “… [T]hou must learn how to make pictures of roads and mountains and rivers- to carry these pictures in thine eye till a suitable time comes to set them upon paper.” In “The Irony of Imperial Mapping”, Mathew Edney writes

Maps served as a primary technology of governance since the early modern year… The population in the mapped territories remains ignorant while another population is actively enabled and empowered to know the mapped territories… Europeans have, in the modern era, idealized their own mapping practices as being thoroughly scientific and objective in opposition to the mapping practices of non-Europeans.

The colonial visual map, therefore, serves as a tool to establish a binary between the superior ‘Self’ and the inferior ‘Other’ where the former is empowered and the latter is increasingly disempowered and primitivized.

However, the characters in Kim are not just involved in the process of physical mapping; they are also involved in narrative mapping. Kim describes the diverse set of people who populate colonial India, he records their experiences intermingled with his own. There is a scene in the early part of the novel where Kim and the Lama are travelling in a train compartment. The description of the different people who occupy the compartment is a clear reflection of the diversity. There is a Hindu Jat from Jallandar, a Dogra soldier, a Hindu money-lender, a turbaned Sikh and so on.

In “The Subject of Imperial Geography”, Bruce Avery writes,

Narrative space is organized by the passage of agents through it… and the objects of the gaze do not sit passively awaiting the gaze.

This means that the “passive objects of the gaze” are real people who move across boundaries, perform actions, and have experiences. They neither remain fixed within the lines of the physical map nor do they remain passive. This is not to say that narrative mapping in colonial India presented the diversity or gave some form of agency to the colonial subjects. In fact, colonial narratives often did the exact opposite; they represented the ‘Orient’ as a homogeneous mass. Here, I am talking in terms of the potential that narrative mapping has in Kim to challenge the fixity of the physical map.

Liminal Space, Hybridity, and Kim

The movement of colonial subjects creates, what Homi K. Bhabha in The Location of Culture calls, a ‘liminal space’. In this liminal space there exists a tension- the master-slave discourse of the colonizer is destabilized as the colonized subject possesses agency. This space, according to Bhabha, is the space of the ‘hybrid’: someone who is the object of the gaze at one moment and the gazing agent at another; someone who is both inside and outside the lines of the map. This person is the transgressor, the challenger of binaries and power equations.

Kim is full of such hybrid characters. Most importantly, there is Kim himself. Kim occupies a peculiar position in relation to the Empire. He is Irish by birth but in British India, he is white and privileged. Kim is also “burned black as any native” and speaks vernacular “by preference”; he even dreams in vernacular at times and knows the land thoroughly. He is twice colonized, yet able to slip into the identity of the colonizer.

The ‘liminal space’ that is created through narrative mapping becomes, for Kim, the space of negotiation of identity. He says, “No. I am Kim. This is the great world, and I am only Kim. Who is Kim?” It is in this space that Kim challenges the binaries and power equations. He asks why he should study the ‘strange’ English letters and why he should pray to Mary and Jesus.

To conclude, in “Reading Between the Lines: Geography and Hybridity in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim”, Sailaja Krishnamurth writes,

Where the visual map exists for the purpose of fixing borders… the narrative itinerary describes the ambiguity and fluidity of the border… the movement of subject-positions, and is able to contain multiple possibilities of agency [and protest].
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