The Secret History of the Jungle Book

What new is there to learn about the Jungle Book which we do not already know? It has been dissected rigorously end to end through the last hundred years or so in learned journals, daily papers and magazine articles the world over?

The ‘Kipling Journal’ alone lists several hundred articles, book reviews, theses, reader’s guides, movies, operas, board games and all sorts of serious and ponderous writings on the book. The journal has been published quarterly by the Kipling Society without break since 1927. That means 372 issues in 93 years! Imagine the number of articles and notes that must have published and lectures and addresses reproduced during this time!

And yet, something new, say, a sleuthy bit of info, a leak or a lore about Kipling or his Jungle Book keeps popping up here or there every once in a while. Only some weeks ago I chanced upon some Kipling family ephemera and manuscript archives offered for sale on abebooks that I am sure will inspire yet another wave of articles on Kipling and Mowgli interface.

The abebooks seller quotes some lines from a letter written by Kipling’s sister Mrs. A. M. Fleming to the then Kipling Society editor Basil M. Bszley dated 14 Nov. 1938 in which she speaks of a woman who insinuated that “R. K. (Rudyard Kipling) had touch (sic) of the tar-brush” meaning black blood (Indian or African) in his veins.

Swati Singh’s book unearths nothing so sensational but it does offer something new and interesting—something ‘re-envisioned’, as she would like to call it. Hers is a lovely, little book, lissome to hold and fun to read with quite some gems strewn here and there for those who haven’t followed their Kiplingiana carefully over the last some decades.

She takes a flight of imagination on which she meets the Mowgli of the Jungle Book as Mahabharata’s Arjuna, Bagheera as Sri Krishna, Kaa as Sheshnag and Hathi as Ganesha. How daringly fanciful! Some may think it is bold and canny, others as whimsical and butkus.

Swati knows her Kipling well but makes no wild claims. She just surmises and infers. “Although it is difficult to point out if,” she says at one place in the book, “Kipling was actually taking the elements of Indian mythology, the ideas do not seem farfetched when one realizes that Kipling, through his own Indian years, as also through the legacy of his family who lived long in India, was definitely aware of these mythic Indian tales.”

“Considering the strange ways in which the creative mind works,” she goes on, “One never knows how something buried deep in the unconscious surfaces in the fictional characters one creates.” How true!

This is her simple formulation for her reading of the Jungle Book characters and Kipling’s probable unconscious sources. Quite a feat of literary plumbing and probing, isn’t it?

It is, however, not a where-no-man-has-gone-before sort of leap. A long time ago my senior journalist friend Hamdi Bey of many bottled memories had noted in an article in the Statesman (Calcutta and New Delhi): “There are some particularly telling passages (in Kipling’s works) that reveal efforts by Kipling to seek identification with India…Kipling was aware of the pitfalls of mistaking club lore for folklore. The real repositories of legends, myths and folklore were the crowded native quarters.

“In Kim he seems to try to escape the adult barriers by recapitulating an imagined childhood, by trying to weave the diverse strands of folklore into a single thread, whose homogeneity lay in the fact that it was all in his consciousness, a person born and brought up in India . . . How he must have wished to escape from his British school to India for Kim has the same wishes!

There are other passages in Kim which would make the nationalist Indian as fervent in his admiration of Kipling as he has been so far in his hate of the writer based on his imperialist passages.”

Kipling was shut out as a child from the real, throbbing Indian world of native quarters and bazars. Why be surprised if in his adult years he returned to Indian lore in his books? I, for one, am not entirely convinced of Swati Singh’s highly speculative notion, not yet, at least but I find it interesting. Who knows she may one day come out with some solid references in the huge Kipling oeuvre and archives to support her speculation. Until then it must remain in the realm of a beautiful surmise.

Whatever, I am sure the book will not disappoint its readers. I found it pleasant and forceful. It is written with great felicity and, as I said earlier, she knows her Kipling well. The Jungle book as an allegory and Mowgli as a sorrowful hero discovering at the end that, though he has in him something of the man and something of the wolf, in reality he belongs neither to the one nor to the other. A ‘wolf-man’ can never be a complete man or complete wolf! It is as simple as that. Tragic but true!

“Kipling was perhaps giving the world of literature its first postmodern hero…reflecting the existential crisis that literature was to explore later,” says Swati Singh, in conclusion.” I must note here that Hamdi Bey was the first to see this man-wolf split in Mowgli and suggest that there may be “allegorized autobiographical material” in the Mowgli stories and Kim.

Later, referencing the Statesman article of Hamdi Bey, the editor of the Kipling Journal wrote, “There is much, both critical and expository, that could be written about Kipling by Indian scholars and critics better than anyone else; may we hope that this is the beginning of a properly dispassionate and literary re-appraisal of a major writer so intimately connected and so deeply influenced by the great sub- continent.” Swati Singh’s short, little but stimulating book is a step in this direction but I am not competent to say that it is the first such step because I have not followed developments in Kipling studies carefully.

Leave a Reply