Lahore to Umballa (Ambala) road tripping in 1881
I was leaving for Amritsar with my family for our annual visit to the Golden Temple. I wanted to read something Indian on the train, something I could relate to while looking outside the window. I picked the book that Pogoat had sent me, Kim by Rudyard Kipling. How’s this Indian? I was a bit miffed, to be honest. I was really not in the mood for another jungle book type story. So, I called him…
Pogoat: Are you crazy? I picked this one for you, for this trip. There is nothing jungle bookish about Kim. This is road tripping in 1881 with Kim (Kimball O’Hara).
(He was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, 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)
Travelling from Lahore to Ambala with a Tibetan Lama who’s in search of a mystical river –‘River of the Arrow’ so the Lama can dive in and break away from the Wheel of Things. And all this is happening in the background of The Great Game.
Me: Not a spy novel now. Really, I’ve read about The Great Game. A silly mess where the Russian Empire was suspicious of the British inroads into Central Asia and the British were fearful that Russians might want to take over India. Other Europeans were bitterly jealous about the wealth the British generated out of India that even Napoleon was rumoured to propose a French- Russian invasion of India.
Pogoat: Kind off, in the remote background. Kim signs up to deliver a message to the head of British Intelligence based in Ambala. The Lama’s quest for the river is on constant detour as Kim tackles his way across the Grand Trunk. Dealing with double agents and crooked cops.
A Punjabi constable in yellow linen trousers slouched across the road. He had seen the money pass.
‘Halt!’ he cried in impressive English. ‘Know ye not that there is a takkus of two annas a head, which is four annas, on those who enter the Road from this side-road? It is the order of the Sirkar, and the money is spent for the planting of trees and the beautification of the ways.’
‘And the bellies of the police,’ said Kim
Or an Indian wedding on the Grand Trunk
A little later a marriage procession would strike into the Grand Trunk with music and shoutings, and smell of marigold and jasmine stronger even than the reek of the dust. One could see the bride’s litter, a blur of red and tinsel, staggering through the haze, while the bridegroom’s bewreathed pony turned aside to snatch a mouthful from a passing fodder-cart. Then Kim would join the Kentish-fire of good wishes and bad jokes, wishing the couple a hundred sons and no daughters.
We also have to remember that Kipling saw India for in all its complexities and was a brutal critic of the British Empire. That was one of the main reasons he left India.
These Sahibs travelled without any retinue. Therefore they were poor Sahibs, and ignorant; for no Sahib in his senses would follow a Bengali’s advice. But the Bengali, appearing from somewhere, had given them money, and could make shift with their dialect. Used to comprehensive ill-treatment from their own colour, they suspected a trap somewhere, and stood by to run if occasion offered.
Then through the new-washed air, steaming with delicious earth-smells, the Babu led the way down the slopes — walking ahead of the coolies in pride; walking behind the foreigners in humility.
Me: The language feels personal, crisp and so local to understand. I think I have already started connecting with the book.
Pogoat: You’re in safe hands. Kipling experience of one brutal summer as a teenager in Lahore led him to midnight walks into real India that the British never crossed into. Kipling visited opium dens and prostitutes by the cemetery; the low life is what he chased after. He went crazy over the local language, people and did things that no British deployed in India would. Even simple scenes like this one in the train, has the immensity of the people and the land.
Golden, rose, saffron, and pink, the morning mists smoked away across the flat green levels. All the rich Punjab lay out in the splendour of the keen sun. The lama flinched a little as the telegraph-posts swung by.
‘Great is the speed of the te-rain,’ said the banker, with a patronizing grin. ‘We have gone farther since Lahore than thou couldst walk in two days: at even, we shall enter Umballa.’
‘And that is still far from Benares,’ said the lama wearily, mumbling over the cakes that Kim offered. They all unloosed their bundles and made their morning meal. Then the banker, the cultivator, and the soldier prepared their pipes and wrapped the compartment in choking, acrid smoke, spitting and coughing and enjoying themselves. The Sikh and the cultivator’s wife chewed pan; the lama took snuff and told his beads, while Kim, cross-legged, smiled over the comfort of a full stomach.
Pogoat: You should check what Indian writers say about Kim, check this Wikipedia page-
Nirad C. Chaudhuri considered it the best story (in English) about India itself – singling out Kipling’s appreciation of the ecological force of “the twin setting of the mountains and the plain…an unbreakable articulation between the Himalayas and the Indo-Gangetic plain”.
I’m sure you have heard this line, “Those who beg in silence starve in silence,’ that’s Kim for you.
Me: Alright now, enough of the trivia. Even I know that Kipling won the Noble Prize.
Pogoat: Forget all that, this is a time-travel road trip. You will be going through the same places mentioned in the book. Check this passage
Kim asked and paid for a ticket to Umballa. A sleepy clerk grunted and flung out a ticket to the next station, just six miles distant.
‘Nay,’ said Kim, scanning it with a grin. ‘This may serve for farmers, but I live in the city of Lahore. It was cleverly done, Babu. Now give the ticket to Umballa.’
The Babu scowled and dealt the proper ticket.
‘Now another to Amritzar,’
Pogoat: Besides being one of the finest books ever written, I feel it’s the easiest book that I relate to the vastness of India, all the people and all the madness. While the Empire is busy grabbing and securing its booty in India, one more soldier drops-off wanders around and sends us his dispatch.
Me: So it was to be, me and Kim travelling to Amritsar.
You can check this video of Kipling’s Indian Adventure
You can buy the Kindle Edition or the Paperback version of Kim from here
Pogoat is a Goan writer. His first novel Fair-Weather Brother is a scary reminder of the times we live in – drugs, prostitution, corruption and fear of an impending nuclear disaster. And, this could possibly be the reason why people are calling Fair-Weather Brother a dangerous book.