Rudyard Kipling, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, is known today as the poet laureate of British imperialism and of the “White Man’s Burden”—titles that are no longer much in fashion, although Kipling’s literary reputation, which was on the wane even before his death in 1936, has recovered in recent decades. His body of work includes the great novel Kim (1901), the story of an orphaned Anglo-Indian boy who is drawn into the Great Game—the geopolitical contest in the 19th century between Britain and Russia for the domination of Asia. For the British at least, this contest ultimately meant the control of India. Kim is a classic of the espionage genre—former CIA director Allen Dulles had a well-read copy on his bedside table at the time of his death—but it is also a chronicle in miniature of the Great Game and the ethnography of the Indian subcontinent.

Kipling knew of what he wrote, or at least was sufficiently well informed to fill in the blanks for literary purposes. He was born in Bombay, the son of a teacher and artist, in the year (1865) that the great Central Asian city of Tashkent submitted to Russia. In 1871 he was sent to England for his education (a common pattern among Anglo-Indians). He returned to India eleven years later to work for the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, where he covered developments on the North-West Frontier and in Afghanistan, and later for the The Pioneer in Allahabad. He left India in 1889. While the product of his years of journalism in the region, it is important to remember that Kim is a work of fiction. The covert side of the Great Game certainly did exist, but the centralized organization and method of British intelligence depicted in the book is exaggerated—or at least so the historical record indicates. There was, for instance, a rivalry between the small British military staff devoted to intelligence, and the Foreign and Political Department of the raj. The number of men carrying out clandestine surveys was very small, probably half a dozen or less at any given time. Kipling, of course, was in a position to know what the historical record did not show. At the very least, he anticipated many later developments in the organization and conduct of spy craft.

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The action in Kim notionally takes place from 1878-1882 (or, by another calculation, 1888-1892) when the Anglo-Russian competition was at its height, although Kipling imports characters and incidents from various periods. (Kipling began to write Kim in the mid-1890s, when the Game was still very much on.) For the British raj, the Great Game was about much more than the Russian military threat from the north—there was also the threat from within India. Kipling grew up when memories of the Great Mutiny of 1857 were still fresh in the minds of Europeans. The civilian and military leaders of the raj feared a Russian advance towards the frontiers, coupled with a foreign-inspired insurrection in the interior that would include the wholesale defection of native regiments. The raj followed closely rumors of Russian-paid agents who were working to undermine the loyalty of problematic Indian military units and native princes who had their own private forces. British authorities, meanwhile, sent agents to work throughout India and beyond the frontier to collect intelligence and disrupt enemy plans.

The boy Kim, by accident and choice, finds himself in the middle of the Game. He is the orphan son of Kimball O’Hara, an Irish color sergeant, and a nursemaid to a British colonel’s family. Thirteen-year old Kim has gone native; he speaks the local languages and moves easily among the Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus who made up the population of Lahore, in the Punjab (which straddles modern-day India and Pakistan). Kim happens to meet a Tibetan lama on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Benares, to find a sacred river. Bored with his life in Lahore, Kim decides to join him as his chela, or disciple, who will beg for them on the road. (Tibet, when Kipling published the novel, had become the latest theater of contention between Russia and Britain.)

Before leaving, Kim is asked by a wealthy Afghan horse dealer, Mahbub Ali, to take a package to a British officer in Umballa, 200 miles to the southeast, on the rail and road route to Benares. (Kim has worked for Mahbub in the past, watching men and reporting on their doings.) The package, Kim is told, contains the pedigree of a valuable horse that Mahbub has sold to the officer. He is told how to identify the man and is given a verbal message to convey, along with the reply which he is to expect. Kim, no fool, realizes that there is much more here than meets the eye. The package is hidden in a large flap of Indian bread, along with three silver rupees. At night, before departing, he observes someone rifling through Mahbub’s saddle bags and other possessions.

Mahbub, as Kim will eventually discover, is actually one of most important agents of the British-Indian secret service, known as C.25.1B, or C.25 for short. His horse-trading activities are a cover for reconnaissance activities along and beyond the North-West Frontier. The British officer in Umballa for whom the message is intended is the chief intelligence officer for the raj, Colonel Creighton. Creighton runs a string of agents under his “cover” work for the Survey of India, which is tasked to produce maps of British India and the surrounding territories. Such surveys, with their potential for espionage and military reconnaissance, were not welcomed by Russia and many of the local peoples. The Survey employed specially trained natives—famously known as the “pundits”—to gather topographical and other intelligence, often in the guise of pilgrims or traders.

Kim delivers the package to Colonel Creighton but, curious and resourceful as always, he remains behind to discover what all the mystery is about. He eavesdrops on a conversation that the Colonel has with another officer, the Army commander-in-chief, who is based in Simla, the summer capital of British India, some 80 miles to the north. Mahbub’s message is fresh from the north and preserved despite two attacks on his caravan. There is a plot afoot among “five confederated Kings, who had no business to confederate,” a “sympathetic Northern Power, a Hindu banker in Peshawar, a firm of gun-makers in Belgium, and an important, semi-independent Mohammedan ruler to the south.” The commander-in-chief decides that a punitive expedition is in order. He instructs Creighton to signal the Rawalpindi and Peshawar brigades, about 8,000 troops, to move forward for the campaign.

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Although Kipling typically drew on a number of different experiences and people to create the characters in Kim, Creighton was probably inspired by Colonel Thomas Montgomerie of the Survey of India, who devised the techniques used by the pundits when they needed to conceal their work (such as drilling them to stride in a pace of known length that would remain constant whatever the terrain, while keeping count of the distance on Buddhist prayer beads). For the commander-in-chief, Kipling probably had in mind Field Marshall Lord Roberts of Kandahar, who held that role from 1885-1893, and who, as a general in 1879, conducted the famous punitive expedition that occupied Kabul and executed over 100 men in retaliation for the slaughter of the British Resident in Kabul by rebellious Afghan troops.

All of this Kim chalks up as one of life’s interesting twists, as he continues on with the Tibetan monk. Through various unrelated developments, however, he is caught as a suspected thief by one of the regiments moving forward (it happens to be his father’s). When the officers come to understand his real situation, they plan to send him to a British orphanage, which is prevented only after Kim manages to send a message to Mahbub pleading for rescue. Mahbub in turn appeals to Colonel Creighton: Kim, with his extraordinary background, would make a perfect intelligence agent, a European able to pass himself off as a native beggar or in any number of other possible guises. If Kim is sent to a military orphanage, Mahbub warns, these unique attributes will be quickly drummed out of him. Creighton agrees and, as it turns out, the Tibetan monk serendipitously provides the funds necessary for Kim to attend St. Xavier’s, a top-flight school in Lucknow, where Kim can be taught elementary surveying and other useful skills. When he leaves school, he will join the Survey of India as a “chain man.” For his part, Kim prefers to resume his carefree days on the open road with the monk, but Creighton and Mahbub Ali warn him that they cannot protect him if he does.

While learning to be a proper sahib at St. Xavier’s, Kim spends his vacations being schooled in the practical aspects of the Great Game’s covert trade craft. He travels with Mahbub from Karachi to Quetta, where Kim, posing as a scullion boy in the house of suspected arms smuggler, surreptitiously copies the smuggler’s coded ledger. He also secretly maps the caravan city of Bikanir, using the techniques of the pundits. He spends time in Simla in the shop of Lurgan Sahib, a dealer in precious stones and oriental antiques and Creighton’s right-hand man, who trains Kim in the arts of disguise and impersonation, and who drills him in techniques of observation and recall. Kim meets R.17, Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, also known as the Babu, a fat, talkative Hindu intellectual from Bengal, who is (according to Lurgan) one of the ten best players in the Great Game. The Babu informs Kim that even Colonel Creighton is not privy to all the secrets of the “our Department,” tricks employed by the non-European operatives. These include the protection provided by a native secret society called the Seven Brothers, or Sat Bhai, to get the agent out of “dam’-tight places.”

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Creighton, at the urging of Lurgan and Mahbub, removes Kim from school and allows him a six-month apprenticeship on the road to sharpen his skills. Kim’s relationship with the Tibetan lama provides a perfect cover for him to wander about India (Kim, in any case, is genuinely fond of the old man and his quest). On a train, he stumbles on a badly beaten man who turns out to be Agent E.23 and who is in possession of a letter that incriminates the ruler of an independent state in the south. Agent E.23 explains to Kim that they cannot count on the Indian government for protection: “We of the Game are beyond protection. If we die, we die. Our names are blotted from the book. That is all.” Kim, using the tricks of the trade that he has been taught, manages to disguise E.23 to escape detection and to ensure that the letter reaches Colonel Creighton.

R.17 (the Babu), having learned of Kim’s success, urges him to accompany him on a mission to discover the identity and purpose of two Europeans (they turn out to be Russian and French) who had crossed through the passes to the north, allegedly on a shooting expedition, but known to be carrying surveying equipment and having met two of the kings implicated in the earlier conspiracy. (Signs of Franco-Russian entente and the Fashoda crisis led Kipling to introduce this new player into the Game.) The Babu, claiming to be an agent for the raja of Rampur, ingratiates himself with the Russian party. After an apparently accidental encounter—Kim and the lama had been following the Babu at a distance—the Russians’ contemptuous treatment of the lama sets off a melee, during which Kim and the Babu manage to purloin the enemy’s secret reports, maps and letters. Reading one of those letters from one of the northern kings, the Babu declares, “He will have to explain officially how the deuce-an’-all he is writing love letters to the Tsar.” Kipling portrayed the Russian and Frenchman as crude, brutal, and insensitive to the native peoples, in implicit contrast to Kim and with the multi-ethnic and religious makeup of Colonel Creighton’s operation.

Kim, who has fallen ill during the long trek homeward, is left to decide whether he will stay with the lama or continue to play the geopolitical contest that never ends. “When everyone is dead,” the Babu explains, “the Great Game is finished. Not before.”