Kids Corner

Ranjit Singh’s legendary gun, the Zam-Zammah (below) on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib Ghar, the modern day Lahore Museum (above).


Imagining Ranjit Singh’s Erstwile Empire Through The Eyes Of Kipling And Kim





An armchair journey in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim’s footsteps with a favourite travelogue

Revisiting special books in a particular place or manner is a joy with few parallels. It is a pleasure only a small subset of favourite books affords, and it unfolds in different ways.

There is, of course, what Anne Fadiman calls “You-Are-There Reading”, sitting with a book in a location where some drama is set -- and for me no trip is complete without packing a book that would allow me to set up an I-Am-Here Reading timeout. Ruskin Bond in ‘Mussoorie’s Landour‘, Ian McEwen’s ‘Saturday in London’s Fitzroy Square‘, and so on.

There is, then, what I file away as an I-Read-This-There book -- an unplanned deep reading of a book in a strange place that brings back memories of that location each time the book is subsequently reread. Rattled by a rough day on a cricket tour in Antigua years ago, I folded my stress into Attia Hosain’s ‘Sunlight on a Broken Column‘, and now that anyway beloved novel signals comfort and a rectified evening in the Caribbean.

Another is the How-May-I-Reabsorb-This book, and in this category Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is good example.

These are books that we could read on infinite loop and, for sanity, we must mark out reasons to return to them, or there’d be time for nothing else. It’s all too easy to find a reason to return to this novel about the Great Game, set along the Grand Trunk Road, brimming with the sounds and smells of Lahore (the erstwhile capital of Ranjit Singh’s great Sikh Kingdom), and the then Punjabi cities of Ambala, Simla and Saharanpur (among others), centred on the intermediate East-West character of Kim, “Friend of all the World”, as a lead-in for multiple readings for our colonial history (so that while for some he could evoke nostalgia for an imperial past, for the rest of us he’s instrumental in subverting Kipling’s imperial landscape).

So, once again this week, as Kipling’s 150th birth anniversary passed by and with his 80th death anniversary two weeks away, it’s a good occasion to return to Kim via yet another favourite book, Peter Hopkirk’s ‘Quest for Kim: In Search of Kipling’s Great Game.’


Hopkirk, a former journalist who passed away in 2014, had been foremost in bringing the Great Game to a popular readership, and in the 1980s, he traced his obsession to Kim and set out along the route Kim takes as he embarks with the Lama in search of the sacred River of the Arrow.

Even in another’s travelogue, the opening lines of the novel crackle with anticipation:

“He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib Ghar -- the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum …”

And no matter how many times they are read, it is difficult to hush the expectation that some new secret will be uncovered about “the Great Game that never ceases day and night”, that some more ghosts of the past will be sighted as Hopkirk goes investigating in these cities, that essentially some nugget ignored in previous readings will reveal itself.

The opening pages of the novel had an in-joke, as emerging out of Museum was its curator, modelled on Kipling’s father, but Hopkirk picks his way through the novel to search for the antecedents of each character.

Kipling had lived in Lahore from 1882 till 1887 in the post-Sikh-Empire era, working in the Civil and Military Gazette, and his reportage skills were as legendary as his walkabouts in the old parts of town. Hopkirk goes back and forth checking locales in the book against actual sites, and digging through the archives to find the inspirations for Mahbub Ali (Pathan horse-trader but a key link in the Great Game’s intelligence network), Colonel Creighton (intelligence chief rallying his odd bunch against the Russian threat, with a Survey of India assignment as cover), Lurgan Sahib (owner of a curios shop in Simla, but key recruiting agent in the Game), Hurree Chunder Mookerjee (based on the “pundits” schooled in surreptitious surveying techniques by the real-life Col. Thomas Montgomerie, also of the Survey), and the Lama (regarded by many to be the actual hero of Kim).


What makes this journey so riveting, and configured for so much rereading, is that Hopkirk heeds the pace of the Road (the GT Road, Kipling’s “river of life”), and is not detained over-long pottering about for clues. There is also Hopkirk’s infectious conviction that the reporter in Kipling stuck to fact, and those that he cannot connect to the book’s fiction are still up for matching to the next investigator.

So he tries to find a place on the 3.25 am train from Lahore to Ambala - (“Umballa” in Kim) -- both in Kipling’s contemporary Punjab) -- and of course reading it you know that such a train cannot be running any more, but each time it’s an invitation to imagine “what if” such a train journey were to suddenly materialise.

He finds a house in Ambala that could have been the actual inspiration for Col. Creighton’s, where Kim delivers a message from Mahbub Ali and overhears the Army Commander-in-Chief swinging the Rawalpindi and Peshawar brigades into action -- but in the interest of keeping the privacy of the current inhabitant, he does not reveal its exact location.

If that’s not an invitation to us Kim devotees to get ourselves to Ambala and look around, what is!

But try as he might, Hopkirk cannot change the image in my mind as Kim sits at the Zam-Zammah on Lahore’s Mall -- Ranjit Singh’s legendary gun, now sometimes known as “Kim’s gun” -- and looks at the Museum.

A friend of Hopkirk’s refers him to a letter in the Bodleian to Aurel Stein from Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard’s father. Dated May 16, 1902, it goes:

“I wonder if you have seen my son’s ‘Kim’, and recognised an old Lama whom you saw at the old Museum and at the School.”

The word “old” sets off an alarm for Hopkirk, and he establishes that at the time Rudyard left Lahore, the museum had not yet shifted to the grand building it’s still in, and was in fact in a structure nearby. For me the view will always be the one you see in this photograph.

[Courtesy: The Hindu Newspaper. Edited for]
January 7, 2016

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