by Rudyard Kipling
Kim Race Quotes
How we cite our quotes: (Chapter. Paragraph)
Though [Kim] was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white—a poor white of the very poorest. The half-caste woman who looked after him (she smoked opium, and pretended to keep a second-hand furniture shop by the square where the cheap cabs wait) told the missionaries that she was Kim's mother's sister; but his mother had been nursemaid in a Colonel's family and had married Kimball O'Hara, a young colour-sergeant of the Mavericks, an Irish regiment. (1.2)
Take note that this is the second paragraphof the novel, and alreadyKipling is emphasizing that Kim is white underneath his deep suntan. Obviously, his whiteness is an important part not only of the novel's politics but also of its plot. However, even though Kim is racially a member of the elite in India, his social status is still low within that hierarchy. Kim is "a poor white of the very poorest," which means that his social status is at the bottom of the white elite.
Kipling also emphasizes Kim's Irishness at a time when being Irish in the British Empire would certainly have inspired a lot of racism and prejudice. So according to Kipling's imperialist ideas, Kim is an in-between figure: he is a Sahib, a white man (to use the language of the book), but he is also an outsider in the Sahib world. It's this position of being both inside the elite world of British India and outside of it that makes it possible for Kim to cross so many social boundaries.
But R17's report was the kernel of the whole affair, and it would be distinctly inconvenient if that failed to come to hand. However, God was great, and Mahbub Ali felt he had done all he could for the time being. Kim was the one soul in the world who had never told him a lie. That would have been a fatal blot on Kim's character if Mahbub had not known that to others, for his own ends or Mahbub's business, Kim could lie like an Oriental. (1.189)
There are all kinds of off-hand, brief references to "Oriental" and "Asiatic" characteristics in this book. Kipling is clearly writing for a late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century British audience with definite, racist ideas about what it would mean to "lie like an Oriental."
Kipling's frequent use of these kinds of racial terms makes his novels hard to read today, since they often shake us out of our easy identification with the characters or the action of the book. But these terms also remind us that Kipling is writing about colonial India; it's a mark of how much things have improved that Kipling's racial terminology is so strikingly unacceptable by today's standards.
It is a shame and a scandal that a poor woman may not go to make prayer to her Gods except she be jostled and insulted by all the refuse of Hindustan—that she must eat gali [abuse] as men eat ghi. But I have yet a wag left to my tongue—a word or two well spoken that serves the occasion. And still am I without my tobacco! Who is the one-eyed and luckless son of shame that has not yet prepared my pipe?' (4.135)
The Kulu woman's appeal is her rough, brash manners. Much of the time that we see her in the novel, she is sitting in a cart behind a curtain that is supposed to be protecting her modesty, but what kind of a modest woman can shout about "one-eyed and luckless son[s] of shame?" This is no bashful and blushing lady, to be hidden from the public eye; she makes a spectacle of herself through her voice even while she remains mostly hidden from sight.
Yet part of the implied humor of this scene is that the Kulu woman is not behaving at all like classy women of either Indian or British descent. She is certainly not acting according to the social norms of Victorian British women, with her pipe and her imaginative cursing. She is a deeply likable character, but the reason that she appears so notable in Kim is partly because of what she is not.