Like many books that have been adapted to movies and other forms fifty times over, it’s hard not to tarnish your own imagination when reading the novel based on what you have seen on the big screen, the TV or even your niece’s shirt. I am very much guilty of this and I shape the images in my mind on images that I’ve seen in other mediums. In such way I have been corrupted. Disney, I think, has distorted our notion of what the original Jungle Book that we think Mowgli as infantile.
Reading the original, I was surprised by how much of a badass Mowgli was from the get go. The wolves play a huge part in the book, raising Mowgli as wolf-cub, even though he never really was part of the pack. The wolves in his pack tolerated his existence until the cusp of his manhood but secretly loathed him.
And this is why the Mowgli storyline really got to me, because it is about otherisation, it is about isolation and trying to fit in while you are different, and then to outdo all these expectations and still not be good enough to belong to any group. This is Mowgli’s dilemma and it is the migrant’s dilemma, something admittedly personal to me. Mowgli belonged neither to the wolf pack or to the humans who saw him as a savage — he floats in the middle and in the end, transcended both sides by becoming his own and disassociating himself from either groups.
The best part of the book for me were the monkeys, who were clueless like a headless chook without a leader but were staunch of their pride and their own truths:
“We are great. We are free. We are wonderful. We are the most wonderful people in the jungle! We all say so, so it must be true…”
Mowgli saw this attitude as madness, and it is. But I find this attitude a terrifying parallel with nation states today, a toxic nationalism of the same breath as the Cyclops in Ulysses.
Mowgli’s storyline in the Jungle Book reminded me of reading Jack London’s White Fang, one of my favourite books — because the wild is uncompromising and the character needs to fight to survive and make his own position in the order of things. I don’t think there are enough books like this, that warns us of harsh realities to come and to better ourselves for it.
The latter parts of the Jungle book is a collection of story, some which did not even take place in the jungle. The second part of the book is a downright mess. There is a lack of cohesion between the storylines, save that they involve animals. Perhaps there is a recurrent theme of the relationship of men with animals, but it wasn’t something in my radar. After each story, Kipling includes a poem which complements the story. I can barely remember most of these stories, as I found them uninteresting and a bit of a drag to read.
The last story, “Her Majesty’s Servants” made an impression with me, especially in the final pages where the solder’s animals were discussing why they do as men commanded and as they try to figure out for themselves who are commanding these men. It is an allegory of the folly of war, that men cannot find the root cause of conflicts, yet order must be maintained by all lest order falls apart. The story is concluded with a conversation between a Central Asian chief and a native officer, that the animals were able to follow orders, because their handlers are able to follow orders up the chain, which goes as far as the Empress.
But in Afghanistan, the chief mentions that instead of obeying the chain of commands, they obey their own wills. This is the reason that, according to the native officer, the amir of Afghanistan obeys the Empress. This arrogant British way of thinking prevails in English writing about India for a long time, and it is a condescending and simplistic view of the subcontinent. I haven’t read enough about Kipling to dissect his relationship to Indians as opposed to India, but it seems that he had no love for the former though he was impassioned for the latter.