Bias Alert: Any book which deals in any way with India or the Indian subcontinent automatically makes me sad – both while reading it and especially when it comes to the end. Such emotional outpouring for me can’t help but push the book into at least a 3-star category or, more likely, a 4-star one. Thus, before even beginning to consider the actual merits of Kipling’s most famous pair of books, the rating was going to be high. The reasons for this bias, if you don’t know them already, will be apparent presently.
Debates continue about the level of Kipling’s colonial pride and loyalty to the British Raj. Some dismiss him and believe his writings should be downgraded because of their prejudice and nationalism; others dismiss this and want to pretend he was simply a damned good storyteller for children whatever his personal beliefs and his writings are timeless.
The truth is somewhere between the two I think. I grew up on his stories partly because in the 70s we all still lived to some extent in the shadow of the Empire – unnamed and slightly ashamed though it was – but mostly because my mother was a product of India, as was her parents before and their parents before them. So I loved India as they did though it was over 35 years before I would live in what my mother knew as the Bengal jungle and nearly 40 before visiting India itself. It took some doing to rid myself of their colonial spirit of supremacy while retaining the undeniable love for India my family truly and deeply held in their hearts. Kipling, I feel, has the same traits. He truly believed that the British Empire was a good thing (and while I am a fierce critic of colonialism, his beliefs were not without good reason) and he clearly loves and adores India.
Whatever your view of this though, ‘The Jungle Books’ – dealing mostly with the fantasy world of animals in the Indian jungle – are largely on safe ground. Humans are rarely mentioned and the English even less so, though when they are it is, I confess, a little too in praise of the white man and his magnanimous rule. For the majority of the time however, it is just Mowgli and his animal companions.
I have always wanted to read these books having only ever really known the Disney movie (although not even that all the way through). I knew the books were very different but I wanted to see just how much so. I can see where Disney stole ideas and concepts, trivialising the confrontation of the ‘bandar log’ into a silly monkey song etc. It is difficult to cast those images out of my head to be honest. But Kipling’s use of imagery does get you there in the end. I can appreciate the stories for what they really are and distance myself from the cartoon stereotypes.
As such, the books are treasures. I’m not sure how much, today, young readers can empathise with the young boy reared by wolves, taught by a panther and a bear, and protected by a snake, but somehow Kipling manages to make these characters real and believable. I was surprised to find that not all the stories are about these jungle people. Interspersed are unrelated stories which gives the whole collection a feel of his ‘Just So’ stories. Nonetheless, the books begin and end with Mowgli and each chapter is complete in itself. Somehow, it all works.
Less effective though is the use of poems/songs which come after each story. This is a typical device of Kipling’s but, today, I don’t think it works. Certainly, they did nothing for me and I found them annoying.
Bizarrely, for all I said above about Kipling’s colonial heart, I don’t think ‘The Jungle Books’ are as good as my favourite book – ‘Kim’. In some ways, you can’t get more colonial than that, focusing as it does on a young British orphan boy, dodging and dealing in Indian society and ultimately working for the British Empire. Yet, this book is full of unashamed love for India, Indians and all things related to the culture of the time. And in it I recognised my own love of Bangladesh and India today. So little has changed since Kipling wrote ‘Kim’ and I felt I deeply knew the truth of the story. Not so ‘The Jungle Books’ with most of the Indian jungle now gone, cut down to give way to human encroachment without a care for the creatures for whom it was home. This jungle is all but myth and in 12 years I’ve only had glimpses of its remnants. Gone are the Baloos and the Bagheeras and even a good number of the kaas. The world is a less beautiful place with their loss.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org