Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Important coughings - I chop up a paragraph of Kipling's Kim

Having nothing to say about a book makes the writing kind of hard.  I will pick a passage and see what happens.  The book at hand in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901).

The setting is the Grand Trunk Road that runs across Northern India.  I will rudely interrupt Kipling’s paragraph.

By this time the sun was driving broad golden spokes through the lower branches of the mango-trees; the parakeets and doves were coming home in their hundreds; the chattering, grey-backed Seven Sisters, talking over the day's adventures, walked back and forth in twos and threes almost under the feet of the travellers; and shufflings and scufflings in the branches showed that the bats were ready to go out on the night-picket.   

My Oxford paperback has a footnote on Seven Sisters, but I do not need it – chattering, “almost under the feet.”  They are some kind of bird.  The anthropomorphization is excellent.  Kim in a streetsmart orphan who has left the big city for the first time, traveling as the assistant and beggar-boy for a Tibetan lama.  If he were Mowgli and this were The Jungle Book he, too, would be talking over the day’s adventures with the birds, but this is a different Kipling novel starring a multilingual boy superhero.*  It is all adventure on the Grand Trunk Road.

Swiftly the light gathered itself together, painted for an instant the faces and the cartwheels and the bullocks' horns as red as blood. 

Kim likes sunsets.  His affinity runs through the book.  A lot of action during times of slanting light, as if Kipling is thinking about the cinematography.

Then the night fell, changing the touch of the air, drawing a low, even haze, like a gossamer veil of blue, across the face of the country, and bringing out, keen and distinct, the smell of wood-smoke and cattle and the good scent of wheaten cakes cooked on ashes.   

The veil is a cliché, but the light effect is plausible.  I can more or less see it, and I can imagine two of the three pungent scents.  Those cakes, who knows how they really smelled.  I have to imagine that I can imagine that I can smell them.  Close enough.

The evening patrol hurried out of the police-station with important coughings and reiterated orders; and a live charcoal ball in the cup of a wayside carter's hookah glowed red while Kim's eye mechanically watched the last flicker of the sun on the brass tweezers.

That’s good, funny, “important coughings.”  I have shattered the effect with my babble, but looking back I can see the progression of the paragraph.  The bats go out on patrol as do the police, and their “coughings,” an odd word, and perhaps even the “orders,” echo the bats’ “shufflings and scufflings.”  The sun’s  “spokes” suggest the cartwheels.  The oxen pulling the carts are mentioned twice, but with different words, a simple variation.  The sun comes in at the beginning and the end, where we also find a new sun.

If only all of Kim were written like this.  I would have no end of fun with it.

*  Hindi, Urdu, English – I wonder if I missed a couple of Kim’s languages (Edit: Punjabi).  Others appear – Persian, Tibetan, Russian, French.  It is a cacophonic novel.  An original English novel written in translation.


  1. That is a wonderful paragraph and I enjoyed your analysis. "Coughings" is an odd word choice but it is perfect too. I can imagine the police going out and mumbling and clearing their throats and making important sounding noises.

  2. Isn't it great, what two out of place words can do? They contain so much descriptive power. Much of Kim works this way - it makes the novel seem absolutely crammed with life.

  3. There is no need to rush since there will be more posts on Kim (I assume), but boy are there many hidden wonders on that book! A new pair of glasses, nirvana, espionage, saboteurs, etc. But, enough for now. I look forward to your next posts on Kim.

  4. More, yes, although even now I have little idea what I will write about. Kim is outside of my usual categories in some ways. That is good, but perhaps suggests that some percolation and a re-read would be smarter than writing. Then again, writing is a form of thinking.