Author: Tara DeWorsop, Ph.D. student in Multi-Sector Communications program
About the Author
Rudyard Kipling (“Kipling”) was born December 30, 1865 in Bombay, India and died January 18, 1936 in London, England. Kipling was considered a ‘child of colonial India’. He was there as an infant and was sent to England with his three year old sister at the age of six to a British boarding school for children whose parents lived abroad. Though it was common for British children to be sent ‘back home’ for schooling, he described his experience at this boarding school as ‘miserable’ and said openly that both he and his sister suffered greatly. His formative years, however, are remembered fondly. Rudyard spoke Hindi as well as English due to the influence of his Goaan nanny and Indian caretakers. Kipling returned to India at the age of seventeen and traveled India as a reporter. He left India for the last time in 1889 when he was 24.
Kipling was an English short-story writer, poet, and novelist chiefly remembered for his celebration of British imperialism, his tales and poems of British soldiers in India, and his tales for children. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. The British India into which Kipling was born in 1865 was just seven years old, having been founded in 1858 by the India Act.
Rudyard Kipling was considered the foremost writer of the British Raj in the last few decades of the 19th century with his writings serving as a culmination of ideological trends of the time. Cultural dynamics of colonialism and belonging and alienation are common themes in his writing. This may be because of Kipling’s own identity as an Anglo-Indian. “The Anglo-Indian is the English colonizer who lives in and conducts. imperial work in India as opposed to one of the other British colonies” (Hart, 2012).
Rudyard’s colonialist reputation remains controversial for postcolonial writers in India & elsewhere. George Orwell called Kipling “a prophet of British imperialism, a man so devoted to duty, service and Empire that his writing was bound to be full of prejudice, racism and a total belief in Britain’s military correctness” and pointed to Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” as evidence. Kipling wrote the poem “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands” in 1899 to urge the U.S. to take up the “burden”of “expansion” and “empire”, as had Britain and other European nations. The racialized notion of the “White Man’s burden” has become a euphemism for imperialism. Undoubtedly, Kipling’s The Jungle Book was influenced by these beliefs.
About the Book & Key Characters
Kipling’s (1894) ‘Mowgli stories’ (now known as The Jungle Book) is a trio of tales set in India’s colonial period. Rudyard Kipling published it in 1894 when he was 33 years old. The collection of stories is centered around anthropomorphized animal characters and a “man-cub” named Mowgli in the jungles of India. Mowgli is the central character, an Indian boy who is raised by wolves, learning self-sufficiency and wisdom from the jungle animals. The book describes the social life of the wolf pack and, more fancifully, the justice and natural order of life in the jungle.
Among the animals whose tales are related in the work are Akela the wolf; Baloo the brown bear; Shere Khan, the boastful Bengal tiger who is Mowgli’s enemy; Tabaqui the jackal, Shere Khan’s servant; Kaa the python; Bagheera the panther; and Rikki-tikki-tavi the mongoose. The jungle is an analogy of his experience of British colonial India. The British in India are the Wolf Pack. They are advised by several elders including Baloo the bear, Bhageera the retired general of the Raj, Kaa the contriver of cunning in the cantonment and others. They are depicted as brave and wise, harsh and traditional, but just. Mowgli is taught the rules of the jungle by Bagheera, Baloo, and Akela. Though he is never fully accepted into the world of the jungle, he understands it much better than the world of humans through these lessons.
Most of the characters have a clear and firm of understanding of who they are and to which group they belong and how their roles relate to the others. Mowgli, on the otherhand, doesn’t fit into any one of the animal groups and, being an Indian raised by wolves, may have reflected his experience growing up Indian caretakers that were firm yet gentle with him (unlike his traumatic experience at boarding school). A classic way of reading the tales is as an allegory for the position of the white colonialist born and raised in India. Mowgli – the Indian boy who becomes “master” of the jungle – is understood to be – as Kipling scholar John McClure interprets it: “behaving towards the beasts as the British do to the Indians”.
Because Mowgli is raised by wolves and initiated into their society he has a hybrid identity. Shere Khan, the tiger, resists Mowgli’s hybrid identity, referring to it as “man-wolf folly”. He claims that his hatred of Mowgli is justified because Mowgli is intrinsically “a man, a man’s child”. On the other hand, Akela, the leader of the wolves, claims kinship with Mowgli on the basis that: “He has eaten our food. He has slept with us. He has driven game for us. He has broken no word of the Law of the Jungle. … He is our brother in all but blood.”
The Jungle Book stories focus a great deal on the issue of belonging, raising questions about the grounds on which one may claim to belong to a particular group or community: is belonging a matter of being born a member of a group, or is it a matter of convention and social agreement? Does the habitus of the jungle define Mowgli or is his identity created outside of the other?
Oppress not the cubs of the stranger, but hail them as Sister
For though they are little and fubsy, it may be the Bear is
“There is none like to me!” says the Cub in the pride of his
But the jungle is large and the Cub he is small. Let him
think and be still.
- Maxims of Baloo, The Jungle Book
Kipling has written an Indian tale using the English language peppered with Hindi. Within the context of the Jungle Books, Kipling’s main concern was to compose moral precepts which had a suitably ancient or primitive feel to them. Baloo, we are told: ‘always recited them in a sort of sing-song.’ the “laws” of the jungle are of indirect relevance to human life.
The themes in the ‘laws’ Mowgli is taught, however, have elements of immortality because of their ability to speak to truths in human nature that are timeless and transcend cultures. The above prose speaks to the pervasiveness of pride and cautions against ‘judging’ from appearance alone.
I thought it was interesting that in just four lines Kipling cautions against dismissing the power of something because it is small while two lines later encouraging the small thing to remember it is small in a big jungle and not boast too much. The “little and fubsy” cub could have a powerful backing (the Bear mother) and the Cub in the “pride” of his earliest kill should remember how large the jungle is in and not invite challengers.
Oppress not the cubs of the stranger, but hail them as Sister and Brother” could also be a caughtion against imperialism which may reflect Kipling’s complicated relationship with India – a fondness that approached patronizing.“Let him think and be still” paints the picture of a squirmy young cub fighting his desire to boast. Fighting this desire is a caution against the ‘pride that comes before the fall.’ In some ways, this is a foreshadowing to the fall of the British empire. Mowgli, and perhaps the Indians in Kipling’s world, may have seemed small, “fubsy”, and easy to conquer to both Shere Khan and the British empire respectively. However, they ultimately triumphed over their foes and earned independence with Mowgli triumphing over Shere Khan and Indians earning independence from Britain.
The plots and the observations of Kipling as an Anglo-Indian and how they reflect on his depiction of the myriad of Indian animal characters, of the climate and landscape of the subcontinent seem to owe their existence to the subconscious observations from his formative years growing up in India. The themes of ‘laws’, ‘belonging’ and ‘alienation’ in the Jungle Book were most likely longings and emotions Kipling felt as a child outside of his native land and culture. He too was a boy being raised away from people ‘of his own kind’. He most likely wished he had a benevolent Baloo to teach him the ‘rules’ of the world in a harsh and potentially dangerous environment.
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