Rereading Kim recently, I encountered words I hadn’t known the first or even the second time I read Rudyard Kipling’s novel. For example, kichree: dal with vegetables. My son had introduced me to this dish around 2009, when he returned from a year in Nepal. And madrissah: a Muslim school. Kim was published in 1901, exactly a century before 9/11, yet like many Westerners, I imagine, I learned the term only after the Twin Towers fell. It goes without saying that kichree and madrissahs—let alone more familiar words such as tsunami—preceded by many centuries, even by millennia, our provincial Western knowledge of them. These words, and the things they signified, were waiting, until they finally came to life for me.
I was waiting, too. I read—reread—Kim in a big waiting room at 111 Centre Street, in Lower Manhattan. Most of the hundred or so potential jurors waiting in the room were reading, or at least staring at their smartphones. The room was like a shabbier but calmer airport lounge, without the TV screens and the announcements. There were no flights to catch—perhaps the jury pool would catch us. Under the bemused gaze of the clerk, we could do nothing but wait—and read. Where now do we read but in waiting rooms? Where but in waiting rooms do we live? A cheerful lady named Gert, who seated herself next to me the first morning, was trying to finish The Boys in the Boat in time for her book group’s next meeting. Another imminent event in Gert’s life was her husband’s cancer surgery.
After lunch on a sunny bench in Foley Square, my eyes got heavy. I put aside my hardcover copy of Kim and switched to Stoicism Today: Selected Writings on my Kindle. And here, a pleasant surprise—my father’s name, Moses Hadas, twinkled from time to time on the device’s glassy surface. Not so surprising, maybe; he had edited The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca in 1958. Still, unexpected—and good to know that a younger generation is drinking at that well. The patience and perspective that stoicism offers are useful in many situations, especially when one is waiting around for jury duty.
It was in the note concluding Laura Inman’s essay “Happiness for Sale: What Would Seneca Say?” that my father’s name first leaped out at me. Now that I am roughly the same age as my parents were when they died, there’s no need to address or think of them as Mommy and Daddy. Moses, I say inwardly, come back. Can’t we talk about Seneca and Plutarch? Elizabeth, come back. Tell me about the first time you ever read Kim, or the first time it was read to you. How old were you? I know Kim was one of your favorite books, but I don’t know how I know that. Did you tell me, or did someone else?
When we think back to our parents in their youth, we rarely imagine them as bored or lonely. After all, they had no time to be lonely once we arrived. It’s easier for me to envision my parents reading. I have no idea just when my father inhaled the Stoic writers, probably fairly early in his life. And my mother and her mother (whom I remember reading “The Pobble Who Has No Toes” and “The Owl and the Pussycat” to me in her Virginia accent, in a wonderfully growly voice) knew and loved Edward Lear’s nonsense poems, the Alice books, The Jungle Books, and, certainly, Kim. People used to ask me, on some kind of Lamarckian principle, whether, having grown up as the daughter of a classicist, I knew ancient Greek from an early age. Alas, the answer was no; I had to acquire Greek, which I did laboriously and incompletely. But when it comes to books absorbed very early in life, the idea of acquired characteristics’ being inherited is a lot more convincing.
That night, before I fell asleep, a sentence that sounded as if it came from Kim reverberated in my head. It featured the old lama, the Tibetan holy man whose disciple Kim becomes early in the story. Although central to the novel, the frail, unworldly lama is peripheral to life itself. He moves across the crowded stage of India in quest of his River, but he never ceases to pine for the clear, cold air of his northern monastery. The lama needs Kim’s protection because he is a stranger in the world.
The sentence that kept playing in my head was, The lama nestled by the gate.
I tried to make sense of this. The monastery gate? The gate of the museum in Lahore where the lama first encounters Kim? The Grand Trunk Road, which threads through the heart of Kim, perceived as some kind of mystic portal through which we all must pass? My parents passed through the portal ahead of me, of course, leaving a few clues behind, twinkling like my father’s name on the smudgy screen of my Kindle. Sometimes the clues are as inscrutable as the Red Bull of Kim’s father’s regiment, morphed into a myth for the orphaned child, yet also an emblem that turns out to play a crucial part in Kim’s life.
The sentence chanted itself into a sort of Pooh hum, which is how many of my poems (and not only mine, I suspect) get started:
It was early. It got late.
The lama nestled by the gate.
What do you see when you meditate?
Someone leaning on a gate.
At this point, my improvised jingle about the lama sounded a lot like the opening stanza of the White Knight’s song in Through the Looking-Glass: “I’ll tell thee everything I can; / There’s little to relate. / I saw an aged aged man, / A-sitting on a gate.”
That quatrain, in turn, could take me back to the Wordsworth poem “Resolution and Independence,” which Lewis Carroll parodies in the White Knight’s poem. Did Kipling know the Wordsworth poem? He must have. Did he know the Alice books? I’d be surprised if not. Kipling was born in 1865, the year Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published. Intersections of books and people: an endless web.
My jury room neighbor Gert was, it turned out, also an English professor. Neither of us was called to a pool of potential jurors; we got to sit and read in the waiting room for two lavish days, after which I was free to go to the country and Gert could attend to her husband. When, at the end of the second day, the clerk—now revealed as genial—distributed our proofs of service, I told him that we two professors of English had clustered together. With a namaste bow, the clerk saluted us both in parting.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.