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Kipling’s ghost in the land of Mowgli

On December 30, 2015, Rudyard Kipling would have turned 150 years. He has been dead for over 80 years but here, in Kipling Court, Pench, Madhya Pradesh, I can almost see his ghost, glaring through myopic eyes. I hear his whisper in the wind that rustles through the trees of the jungle. Today during a morning safari I sighted a tiger and thought of Sher Khan. I saw the monkeys sitting near the chital deer, and was reminded of the bandar log swinging above the jungle and living in the ruined city of Cold Lairs. They speak of splendid things they will achieve but it is empty chatter. It seems as if Kipling is voicing his indictment of ineffectual intellectuals who contribute nothing, achieve nothing, despite their endless babble.

Tomorrow, perhaps I will go see the Waingunga, the only stream that carried a trickle of water between dried banks, over which Hathi, the wild elephant, raised his trunk to declare the water truce. The boars, the kites, the jackal and the deer of Pench forest seem to have stepped straight out of the pages of The Jungle Book , Kipling’s most successful novel, which became a Walt Disney film and a TV series in India.

I want to believe that Kipling came here, to my beloved Madhya Pradesh, and set his iconic story here. I am told there is an old map, which shows all the landmarks of the The Jungle Book . It had been made by a former British forest officer who had taken great pains to work out distances and positions from indications in the Mowgli stories, and had identified, as he thought, all these spots. The poor man was as desperate to prove the historical veracity of the story as I am.

When he sent the result of his labour to Kipling, he received a reply: “I should be the last to deny the accuracy of your geography, but in fact I never went to Seoni.”

This breaks my heart. At a time when writing workshops exhort you to write what you know, it is a shock to realise that Kipling’s powerful work was based on what he could not possibly have known. He never visited Seonee. How is it possible that a writer can create a world and people it so magically that it becomes forever our image of that terrain, without ever having visited the place?

Kipling might have shrugged off the startling accuracy or credited it to his reading of Sterndale’s Gazetteer. Sterndale was a district officer in the mid-19th century who wrote Seeonee or Camp Life on the Satpura Range (1877), based on his life in Seoni from 1857 to 1864. His book gives an account of Seoni as a wild, tiger-infested country during the First War of Independence. Scholars have traced back the Mowgli story to incidents related by British official W.H. Sleeman and his pamphlet, ‘An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens’.

Yet, tracing the story back to these sources cannot help us comprehend the imaginative sweep and authoritative sway of this great writer. Kipling offered his own explanation. While writing The Jungle Book his daemon was in charge. What would be his advice to aspiring writers? When the daemon is in charge — drift, wait and obey.

It was a writing practice that won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907, making him the first English-language writer to receive the prize, and its youngest recipient. It is what allows him to haunt the Pench Tiger reserve and the Seonee landscape, where the guides keep trying to tell me, “ The Jungle Book was fiction, deal with it”, as I urge them to lead me to the hill where the Council of the Rocks was held.

In the recent past the literary glory of Kipling has dimmed a little because of his association with the high tide of British imperialism.

Yet, therein lies a paradox. Kipling’s creative Daemon could only be set free when he dealt in the hot beastly summer of India, his Eden and Paradise. He loved India. It is time we loved him back.

vinita.dhondiyal@gmail.com


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Printable version | Jun 4, 2022 8:47:33 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/open-page-kiplings-ghost-in-the-land-of-mowgli/article8014758.ece