Once upon a time (because at its heart, Kim is a fairy tale), there was an orphan boy named Kimball O'Hara, Kim for short. In fact, this isn't just any old fairy tale time: this book takes place specifically around the late 1890s in British India. (For more on this time period, check out the "In a Nutshell" and "Setting" sections.) Kim spends his time in the city of Lahore running around, scrounging food, and generally leading a carefree and mischief-heavy life.
But there is a prophecy surrounding Kim. No, not "neither can live while the other survives"— that's about a different orphan boy. Kim's prophecy comes down from his now-deceased father: Apparently, Kim's luck will change once he finds a Red Bull on a green field. And two men will appear first to prepare the way for the arrival of this Red Bull.
So one day Kim is playing in front of the Lahore Museum (which everyone in the book calls the Wonder House) and he spots someone wearing clothes of a style he's never seen before. This man is a lama, a Tibetan Buddhist from the North. The lama wants to speak to the curator of the Wonder House because he has heard that the curator is a wise man. He needs to talk to smart people, because he is looking for something extremely important to him: the River of the Arrow.
According to the lama, once during a test of strength the Buddha shot an arrow out far beyond his furthest target. Where the arrow landed, a River sprung up. If the lama can find that river and bathe in it, then he will be Enlightened. Kim is so interested by the lama—by his strangeness and his seriousness—that he volunteers to go along with him on his journey to find the River of the Arrow. The lama is glad to have a chela, a disciple, and the two make plans to go to the holy city of Benares (now Varanasi).
The night before Kim and the lama leave Lahore, they spend the night with Kim's old friend Mahbub Ali, a horse-trader. Mahbub Ali has an exciting side job in the British Indian Secret Service. He likes Kim because the kid is a dependable carrier of messages and because he is really good at disguises and hiding.
When he hears that Kim is going south, he thinks this is the perfect opportunity to get a little kid to do a dangerous job for him, so Mahbub Ali hands Kim a secret, coded message to bring to an Englishman in the city of Umballa (now called Ambala, right on the border of the Punjab and Haryana states) when he and the lama pass through. Kim is delighted to do it—he just loves trouble.
As Kim and the lama travel south by train and on foot, they bond, but Kim's mind is always on his little side-errand for Mahbub Ali. When they reach Umballa, he quietly leaves the lama behind while he goes to the compound of the Englishman to whom he is supposed to pass on his message.
Once he has given this Englishman his note confirming that there are five kings in northern India who are planning to break away from the British Indian government, he secretly sits and waits to hear what comes of it. When he sees the Englishman planning troop deployments to the North, he gets really excited. This is the life as far as Kim is concerned, delivering information that has real impact on state decisions.
Kim goes back to the lama and they continue their search for the lama's River of the Arrow. But as they are walking the Grand Trunk Road (an ancient highway that cuts north and south across India) they happen upon Kim's prophesied Red Bull.
They are standing in a field when they see two guys—advance scouts—looking for a place for their regiment to camp. Once they choose a place, they plant their regimental flag: it's a Red Bull on a green background. It turns out that Kim's father's prophecy was actually a description of the flag that belongs to his former regiment in the British Army, the Irish Mavericks.
Kim slips into the army camp and gets caught by an Anglican priest attached to the regiment. He and Father Victor, his Catholic colleague, both finally figure out that Kim is none other than Kimball O'Hara, Sr.'s son. They also speak to the lama about Kim. The lama is amazed that Kim is actually a British boy—since Kim speaks Urdu and has been traveling with him in Indian clothing, he doesn't seem English at all. But now that the lama knows that Kim is British, he wants Kim to have the best education that money can buy. So the lama offers to pay Kim's tuition to St. Xavier's, a great (fictional) school in Lucknow.
What a transformation: Kim goes from this smart, charming little wiseass kid (kind of like Lyra Belacqua in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series) to a reluctant British schoolboy in a matter of days. Kim hates his early days at the regimental school, and he writes to Mahbub Ali to please, please, please come rescue him. Mahbub Ali does come by, but he doesn't rescue him—instead, he does something much better: he recommends Kim to Colonel Creighton, the Englishman who received Mahbub Ali's message in Umballa.
Creighton keeps tabs on Kim when he moves south to start school at St. Xavier's in Lucknow. And he is impressed enough with Kim's sass, creativity, and resourcefulness that he arranges for Kim to spend time over summer break with a legend named Lurgan in the city of Simla. This man Lurgan teaches Super Special Spy Skills, like remembering where objects are (seriously, this is a vital spy skill), assessing people's character, and resisting hypnosis (Kim is a natural at this one).
Between Lurgan, his ongoing friendship with Mahbub Ali, and his more formal education at St. Xavier's, Kim grows up prepared to become what Creighton wants him to be: an agent in the British Indian Secret Service. Kim has a particular talent for getting people to talk to him and for hiding his identity as a British guy. These are (apparently) useful traits when you want to spy for the British colonial government of India. And at seventeen, Kim is ready to go back on the road the way he used to when he was a kid.
Creighton is a little reluctant to let a seventeen-year-old just wander around India on the government's dime, so he gives Kim a probation period: he wants Kim to travel for six months to remind himself what real life in India is like. And since Creighton doesn't want Kim to go alone, Mahbub Ali tells Kim to go back to his old friend the lama in the city of Benares.
Another employee of the Service, an Indian man the novel just calls the Babu (for more on this term, check out Chapter 2 in the "Detailed Summary" section) escorts Kim down to Benares. He gives Kim a silver amulet that will identify him as a member of the Secret Service to other members, and then sends him on his way.
Backtracking a bit, while Kim has been off learning how to make maps and do spy stuff, the lama has been traveling all over India. He has visited all of the holy sites of Buddhism in the country. But the more he has traveled, and the more wise men that he has spoken to, the more convinced he is that his real quest is for the River of the Arrow. And the lama believes that he won't be able to find this River without the help of his beloved disciple, Kim. So when Kim leaves school, the lama is thrilled to find him ready to rejoin the search for the River, and for Enlightenment.
Back in the present, Kim and the lama are planning to stay for a bit at the house of a woman they met during their first round of searching for the River of the Arrow: the Kulu woman. Kulu (or Kullu, really) is a region in the foothills of the Himalayas. Once they arrive there, they find a familiar face: the Babu, disguised as a hakim (a Muslim doctor).
The Babu quickly brings Kim up to speed about why he's here: the thing is, he has spotted two Russian agents (well, one of them is French, but they both represent the Russians) making friends with two of the five potentially rebel kings right on the northern borders between British India and Afghanistan.
(It's worth noting, by the way, that the countries that are now India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan were all under some degree of British control after the Second Afghan War in 1878, so the whole Indian subcontinent is supposed to be loyal to Britain during the setting of Kim.)
The Babu wants to steal any messages or papers these guys might be carrying, but (and here's the problem for the Babu) he doesn't want to do something so dangerous on his own. The Babu wants a lively young guy like Kim to come with him.
Together, Kim and the Babu convince the lama that his River is probably in the north, in the foothills of the Himalayas. The lama is glad to hear this suggestion, since (being from Tibet) he loves mountains and feels at home there.
They all travel north, Kim and the lama as pilgrims and the Babu in his hakim disguise. The Babu rushes on ahead and befriends these two Russian agents; he pretends to be a guide, and volunteers to bring them to Simla (the summer capital of British India). He also takes care to badmouth the British and praise Russia at every opportunity, which totally fools these two guys into thinking he is loyal to them.
But everything comes to a head when the two foreign agents, led by the Babu, bump into Kim and the lama on the road. The lama is showing Kim his illustration of the Great Wheel of Existence (for more on this, go and see our analysis in the "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section). The Russian guy likes the look of this drawing and tries to take it from the lama, actually hitting the lama in the face when he refuses to sell this piece of religious art for money.
When the people of the valley see this foreigner hitting a holy man, they immediately turn against these two Russian agents, and it's only thanks to the lama's request that the two men get away with their lives. But as the two men flee (along with the Babu, who is still pretending to guide them), they leave behind their baggage. When Kim searches it, he finds a locked box filled with letters and messages from the hill kings that speak of treason against the British Indian government. In other words, from the point of view of a Secret Service agent, Kim has found the jackpot.
In the aftermath of his Brush With Death, the lama has a crisis of faith. In the split second after the Russian guy hit him in the face, the lama wanted him to die. The lama gave into anger and a desire for vengeance—for a little while at least—so he is convinced that he has begun to wander from his religious path.
The lama and Kim travel south to the house of the Kulu woman. By the time they arrive, the lama is sick in the soul (thanks to his guilt over his brief flare-up of anger at the Russian agent) and Kim is sick in the body (because he's been lugging this locked box full of papers all over the Himalayas while trying to take care of the lama). Concerned over his health, the lama hands Kim over to the Kulu woman, who gives him a long massage and puts him to bed. Kim sleeps for thirty-six hours with his super-secret stolen papers under his bed—that's how tired he was.
When Kim wakes up he finds that big things have been happening: first, the Babu has arrived at the Kulu woman's house to find Kim. He guided the two agents all the way to Simla, while deliberately steering them away from closer European settlements, so that he could delay any action they might take over their lost luggage.
When the Babu left them, they actually wrote out a recommendation for him for future employment as a guide—that's how good his performance as a loyal employee and Russian sympathizer was. But now the Babu is ready to take over Kim's secret papers proving the betrayal of these northern kings. He will bring them to Creighton in the South, and Kim's first real secret mission as a grown-up is officially a total success.
The other thing that's happened while Kim has been sleeping is that the lama has had a vision. After two days of fasting, he saw himself flying high above the world and coming right to the edge of the Great Soul at the center of creation. But just as he was about to receive Enlightenment, a voice asked him what would happen to Kim if the lama died. Hearing this, the lama decides to go back to his body to bring wisdom back to his beloved disciple.
He comes out of his vision soaking wet, since he apparently walked into a nearby river in his trance… and this river must be none other than the River of the Arrow. So the lama has found his River at long last, and he is ready to show it to Kim to bring him wisdom. The lama has come to a spiritual understanding of his place in the world and of his grandfatherly relationship to young Kim.