This has been on my favourite bookshelf for many years as I was introduced to Kipling early on. When I was eight, I was in the Wolf Cubs at school, and the teacher who ran this was known as Akela, the leader of the wolf pack.
The story of Mowgli, the boy brought up by Mother Wolf and Father Wolf, has been defined for most people by Disney’s 1967 film ‘The Jungle Book’. The appearance of Mowgli, Baloo, “the sleepy brown bear who teaches the wolf cubs the Law of the Jungle” and Bagheera, “the Black Panther, inky black all over” is fixed in our minds by the film, and that image of the characters seems to fit surprisingly well.
Kipling was in his late 20s when he wrote the Mowgli stories and was not living in India but in Vermont in the USA. We like to pigeonhole our writers to make life simpler. We imagine Kipling in the heat of Lahore, pen in hand, glancing up from his writing for a moment to look at the Indian sky and the brightly coloured saris passing by in the street.
But things are always more complex than we think, and, in fact, after some time in the States, Kipling lived in England for many years.
I love the Mowgli stories, but when I pick up ‘The Jungle Book’, it often falls open at the story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. This tells of how a young mongoose clears a bungalow and its garden of two cobras. It is a tale of great courage and skilful tactics, and it is seen entirely from the mongoose’s point of view as he wages his campaign against the snakes.
He finds Nag, the male cobra, who is over five foot long, by the water-jar.
“If I don’t break his back at the first jump,” said Rikki, “he can still fight, and if he fights – O Rikki!”
“It must be the head,” he said at last, “the head above the hood. And, when I am once there, I must not let go.”
Then he jumped.”
But Nag fights back.
“Then Rikki was battered to and fro as a rat is shaken by a dog – to and fro on the floor, up and down, and round in great circles, but his eyes were red and he held on. As he held, he closed his jaws tighter and tighter, for he was sure he would be banged to death, and, for the honour of his family, he preferred to be found with his teeth locked.”
His fight with Nag’s wife Nagaina was even more dangerous. He chased her as she flew back to her hole at the end of the garden. “Rikki’s little white teeth were clenched on her tail, and he went down with her – and very few mongooses, however wise and old they may be, care to follow a cobra into its hole. It was dark in the hole, and Rikki-Tikki never knew when it might open out and give Nagaina room to turn and strike at him. He held on savagely and stuck out his feet to act as brakes on the dark slope of the hot, moist earth.”
Darzee, the Tailorbird, gave up all hope of Rikki’s surviving and “sang a very mournful song that he made up on the spur of the minute, and just as he got to the most touching part, the grass quivered and Rikki-Tikki, covered with dirt, dragged himself out of the hole leg by leg, licking his whiskers.”
In both Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and the Mowgli stories, the wife is more practical and decisive than the husband. She controls the situation.
“Darzee was a feather-brained little fellow, but his wife was a sensible bird, and she knew that cobra’s eggs meant young cobras later on. So she flew off from the nest, and left Darzee to keep the babies warm, and continue his song about the death of Nag. Darzee was very like a man in some ways.”
It is Mother Wolf who frightens the tiger, Shere Khan, when he comes to the mouth of her cave and tells Mother Wolf to hand over Mowgli to him.
“The tiger’s roar filled the cave with thunder. Mother Wolf shook herself clear of the cubs and sprang forward, her eyes, like two green moons in the darkness, facing the blazing eyes of Shere Khan.
“It is I, Raksha the Demon who answer. The man’s cub is mine, Lungri – mine to me! He shall not be killed. He shall live to run with the pack and hunt with the pack and in the end he shall hunt thee! Now get hence or back thou goest to thy mother, burned beast of the jungle, lamer than ever thou camest into the world! Go!”
Shere Khan might have faced Father Wolf, but he could not stand up against Mother Wolf, for he knew that where he was, she had all the advantage of the ground, and would fight to the death. So he backed out of the cave-mouth growling.”
And so Mowgli was adopted by Mother Wolf and Father Wolf, and a wonderful story begins.
Kipling, R. (1994). The Jungle Books. London: Penguin Classics.