This Kid Will Go Places (And We Mean That Quite Literally)
The first chapter of Kim introduces us to, well, Kim—the probably-about-thirteen-year-old orphaned son of British parents who lives in Lahore more-or-less on his own. Yes, Kim has a woman to look after him, but we get the sense that she has basically no control over him, and that Kim is allowed to do whatever he pleases. And what Kim likes to do is to get into other people's business.
He runs around in local clothing playing with the children of Lahore and delivering secret messages for the famous horse trader Mahbub Ali. All the while, as he is scampering around the city, Kim is learning the languages and patterns of speech for the different kinds of people living there so that he can imitate them with pitch-perfect accuracy. So even though Kim's parents were British, Kim has gotten to know India so well that he can blend in to any crowd and say the right thing to any person whom he meets.
Surely, someone with this kind of talent for disguise and surveillance should be able to find a useful career path? (*cough* Her Majesty's Secret Service *cough*)
A First Step On The Road To Destiny (Cue Dramatic Chords)
One day, when Kim is playing in front of the Lahore Museum, he spots someone standing in front of the building dressed in robes that Kim does not recognize. This unfamiliarity really hits Kim hard, since he "thought he knew all castes" (1.11)—Kim believes, apparently incorrectly, that he knows all the peoples and cultures of India… and here is someone new.
Since Kim is as curious as a cat, he quickly attaches himself to this man, who turns out to be a Tibetan lama on a quest for Enlightenment. Kim reminds the lama that, as a holy man who has taken a vow of poverty, he will need someone clever to beg food for him from the local people—someone like Kim, perhaps?
The introduction of the lama into Kim's life story changes it in two major ways: first, Kim finally finds a mentor figure. Sure, Kim does not actually follow the lama's moral teachings (like, at all), and he does not share the lama's Buddhist faith, but the lama's simple virtue and religious conviction inspires something new in Kim: a desire to find something other than himself that he can use his particular set of skills to support.
Kim is a great mischief-maker, but the lama gives him someone to be tricky for, as Kim enjoys finding food and money to help this old man who has trouble thinking of worldly matters.
Of course (and we have to be frank about this), Kim may really love the lama, but he is totally using the guy as well. Traveling as a disciple to a holy man is a great cover for Kim to deliver a message from British-Indian-Secret-Service-Agent Mahbub Ali to an Englishman living in the city of Umballa, south of Lahore. This trip with the lama introduces Kim to the most important emotional relationship he enjoys over the course of the novel, but it also prepares Kim for his new potential career as a spy.
Three Years Later, The Band Gets Back Together Again
We take a brief break from all of these adventures while Kim goes to school at St. Xavier's from Chapters Six through Ten. Oh sure, a lot still happens: Kim goes roaming with Mahbub Ali on his school breaks; he also gets to play a bunch of learning games with legendary spy Lurgan in the city of Simla (for more on the Jewel Game, check out our "Character Analysis" of Lurgan).
Kim grows up a bit, learns to get along with other European boys, studies how to make maps and measure terrain, and continues to perfect his abilities in imitating the manners of other people. At last, Mahbub Ali goes to Creighton and says, listen, Kim has enough schooling—if he gets much more, he won't be a good spy any longer. So Creighton allows Kim to leave school at seventeen.
Starting in Chapter Eleven, Kim goes back on the road with his beloved lama. Mahbub Ali suggests that he go for six months to get used to living rough again; after that, Kim can start working full-time for the Secret Service. Now this all seems like a great idea on paper, but of course nothing works quite like Creighton and Mahbub Ali planned.
The Babu, another spy and agent for Creighton, quietly asks Kim for some help in northern hill country. (We say hill, but we mean most-gigantic-mountains-on-earth-country—the Babu wants Kim to travel to the Himalayas with him.) There are two Russian agents there (technically, one is French and one is Russian, but they are both working for the Czar) who are carrying papers proving that two of the northern kings are planning to switch their loyalties from the British Empire to the Russian Empire. The Babu wants Kim to steal those papers while he is walking with the lama.
So finally we have a crisis between Kim and the lama. While Kim is traveling with the lama, begging for him, and generally making him comfortable, he is also doing his work as a soon-to-be-fully-fledged British spy. And the lama sees Kim doing at least some of his spy work, and he doesn't like it—the lama criticizes Kim's sense of pride and arrogance in his work. The lama wants both of them to focus on his quest, the search for the River of the Arrow that will be his Salvation
This new trip offers a lot of possibility, as Kim and the lama rejoin forces, Kim is about to start on his new super-spy career, and the lama is on the edge of spiritual Enlightenment. However, it also presents a lot of risk: the relationship between Kim and the lama seems a little rocky after all of this time, Kim is about to start out on a dangerous mission against foreign agents, and the lama appears to be losing track of some of his religious goals.
Wait, That's It? That's All It Takes To Defeat Russian Agents?
And then—the resolution happens… and it's really simple. (At least, it seems that way at first.) As the lama is showing Kim his painting of the Great Wheel of Things at the side of the road in the village where the Russian agents are staying, the Russian tells the lama he wants to buy it. The lama says he won't sell it—not for any price. It's a religious teaching tool, for crying out loud.
The Russian agent reaches out, tearing the painting; he then hits the lama in the face for refusing him. (Whoa, anger management problems, much?) As soon as his porters see that this agent has actually hit a holy man on the face, they immediately turn on him and his colleague and drive the two men out of town. Kim rescues their papers, concluding his quest… and yet, things are still up in the air.
First off, we have traveled into the lama's home territory of the Himalayas, but we still haven't found his River of the Arrow. What is more, when the Russian agent hit the lama, the lama felt a moment of absolute, overpowering rage—he wanted to kill the Russian. What kind of a holy man can he be if he can be overcome by this murderous anger? So the lama's soul feels sick.
As for Kim, he starts lugging this locked box of the Russian agents' papers down out of the Himalayas on his own; he is also trying to take care of the lama as best he can, since he sees how sad and guilty the lama feels. All of this stress makes Kim physically sick. This whole spy business isn't turning out to be much fun so far.
And Now, The Meaning of Life—
Kim and the lama wind up at the Kulu woman's house, where Kim promptly falls into bed sick and sleeps for a full day and a half. When he wakes up, it is like he just gets it: why he is wandering around India, why he is making connections with people whom he meets on the road, all of it. Kim understands at last that this is what he is for: to travel the country finding information and conducting missions.
All of Kim's doubts and anxieties over his place in the world have been unnecessary—he has found the work that he was born to do. As soon as Kim feels better physically after his whole ordeal with the Russian agents, he starts to feel better spiritually as well.
Similarly, the lama has found all of his answers. While Kim is ill in bed and sleeping, the lama goes on a long fast—he doesn't eat or drink for two days. This fast gives him a vision of the universal Soul that he has been trying to find all of this time, but when the lama sees his Salvation right in front of his eyes, he realizes that he doesn't want to take it right now. He doesn't want to leave Kim on his own, and he wants to bring Kim to the Enlightenment he has found. The lama sees the rightness of things: he is Kim's mentor and Kim has become a wise man.
So by the end of Kim, both our boy hero and his grandfather-figure have reaffirmed their places in this mad, mad world of ours. They have found the meaning, maybe not of Life as a general philosophical category, but of their individual lives, for sure.