Fiction Reads: The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Now Chil the Kite brings home the night 
That Mang the Bat sets free – 
The herds are shut in byre and hut 
For loosed till dawn are we.
This is the hour of pride and power, 
Talon and Tush and claw. 
Oh hear the call! – Good Hunting all
That keep the Jungle Law! 
                                                     NIGHT-SONG IN THE JUNGLE

We talk here, oh non-forest folk, of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Apart from the popular stories that feature Mowgli and his jungle friends, it also features other imaginative animal stories.

Even though there is the guise of a novel, the stories in The Jungle Book are singular short stories in their narration, each containing, either at story’s start or conclusion – a poem. Kipling’s passion and hold over poetry is in all spark here, he writes with simplicity and playfulness, deft skill in rhyme.The book looks favourably at British colonial rule, the image is predominantly romantic.

Kipling’s animals speak in classic English with a scatter of Indian slang. Yet it does not seem odd that the creatures are speaking. There is a Peter Pan kind
of timelessness to their talk. Humans linger as a threat, his intrusive danger always lurking. Kipling gets his message across:

The Law of the Jungle, which never orders anything without a reason , forbids every beast  to eat Man except when he is killing to show his children how to kill, and then he must hunt outside the hunting-grounds of his pack or tribe. 

The first story, Mowgli’s Brothers chronicles the induction of a ‘man-cub’ to the wolf pack, introduces his friends Baloo, the jungle law teaching strict, kind bear and Bagheera, the inky-black panther. We are also introduced to the menace of Shere Khan, an able nemesis. The story ends with Mowgli’s decision to leave the wolf pack. Why does he take such a drastic decision? You have to read the book for that.

Kaa’s Hunting is another Mowgli tale that flashbacks to a confrontation between a giant rock python and the wayward Bandar-log: as monkeys are defamed here. Tiger! Tiger! chronicles the final face-off between Mowgli and Shere Khan. The Mowgli stories in the book end there. The Second Jungle Book contains other stories featuring Mowgli and his friends.
Moving on, The White Seal, fabled to be heard from a traveling and truthful sea bird that the narrator nursed to health on a ship, takes a diversion to the snow-frozen Arctic region. A relevant tale on the devastating role humans play in mixing livelihood with killing.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is the most celebrated of mongoose vs cobra stories, with a whiff of fairy-tale in its depiction of cobra as a cruel, merciless villain. One story where humans feature prominently as the ones protected by a valiant mongoose.

Toomai of the Elephants tells the tale of a young Indian boy mahout, who gets a rare insight into a secret ritual of elephants. Servants of the Queen serves as a parody of the imperial, all-conquering British army. The comic conversation between the animals is lively, as the night before the big parade, they enumerate their experiences to each other.      

Kipling and Mowgli
Much of Kipling’s writing for the book was sourced from his stay in India. Kipling was born in 1865 in Bombay (presently Mumbai). Mowgli’s character is said to be inspired from Kipling’s isolation when, at the age of three, he and his sister were left by his parents with a couple in England for five years.The author has written bitterly about this five-year period in his autobiography. That Mowgli grows up with wolves, and there is no mention of his parents, except a sentence that he is a woodcutter’s son, seems the outlet of that memory, if not distinctly so.

Kipling returned to India at the age of 17, his experiences resulted in an astounding seven volumes of stories.  The writer had left India in 1889 and moved to London. He traveled extensively during this period, got married and wrote prolifically. The Jungle Book was an outcome of this lush period of youth, change and success.

Watch out for an omnibus edition that contains the duo – The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book.
(Article by Snehith Kumbla)

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