The Greatest Jungle Story Ever Told: Why Mowgli Continues to Captivate Us


The Greatest Jungle Story Ever Told: Why Mowgli Continues to Captivate Us

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

The elephant was huge – Colonel Hathi huge. His hulking grey mass was hidden by ferns and branches, but my ten-year-old brain filled in the gaps using my imagination. It wasn’t that difficult, because it was mainly fuelled by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which I had carried with me on my family vacation to Jim Corbett National Park. It was the first time I had seen an actual elephant in the wild, and it was the most memorable trip of my childhood.

Getting out of the city was a rare thing for me. I grew up more used to the sound of traffic than birdsong, the orchestra of mosquitoes and flies buzzing rather than that of jungle crickets. Which is why, it was extra important for me to dream about the wilder places of the world. While some boys in my class were staying up late to watch “Midnight Hot” on FTV, I was devouring late-night programming on Animal Planet. I had a whole section on my bookshelf devoted to this obsession, from animal encyclopaedias to Tarzan novels. But amid all those books, there was one hard-bound tome with a plain leather cover that had clearly seen more use than the rest – Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

The Jungle Book was my ticket out of the crowds and noise of Mumbai to the unspoiled beauty of the Indian jungle. No homework. No rude bus conductors. No stress. The wild was my escape. The Seeonee Hills and the thick, fragrant forests of central India were my emotional retreats.

I suspect I’m not the only one. There was a time in history when civilisation’s outposts were islands in an ocean of wilderness, and humankind had to live alongside nature. But as our cities grew, so did the gulf between nature and us, and we lost touch with the wild. Since then, we’ve had to rely on storytellers like Rudyard Kipling to bring the jungle to us.

Sher Khan, Bagheera, Baloo, Kaa, and the rest are the reason why I joined Bittu Saigal’s Kids for Tigers movement in school. We had a march on Marine Drive that began at Chowpatty beach. I was probably the only kid in the entire crowd who cared more about the “Jungle Bachao” part of the “Bagh Bachao, Jungle Bachao” slogan we were chanting, because Kipling had instilled a love for all the denizens of the jungle in me, and screw Sher Khan. That guy was evil.

Even Kipling could not have predicted how much our forests would shrink and how threatened our wilderness would become in the 21st Century.

Even though I had childhood dreams of being a forest ranger and a conservationist, the wildest place I got to see on a regular basis was the plant nursery at Colaba Woods. That didn’t deter me from walking off the jogging track and scanning amongst the roots for leopard pug-marks, just in case. The jungle and its animals were my obsession. It was so bad that I actually felt jealous of a cousin in Powai when a leopard attacked a boy in his building.

For me, Kipling’s collection of short stories (yes, there are more than just the one Mowgli tale that keeps getting made into movies) about The Law of the Jungle and those who live by it, was much more preferable to the other tales, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes or the man-eater hunting accounts of Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson. These other books always had Man in the ascendancy over Nature; only Kipling seemed to afford the beasts and their forest the respect they deserved by placing them at the centre of the story. Apart from Mowgli, whose feral nature makes him almost an animal himself, men exist only at the periphery of the world we visit in The Jungle Book, making it the purest literary escape for a harrowed city-dweller.

Like me, Kipling was also born in Mumbai, and spent most of his life in cities. Perhaps he also felt the same disenchantment with urban existence and, foreseeing that city life would only get more taxing, wrote The Jungle Book as a balm for those suffering the same affliction. But even Kipling could not have predicted just how much our forests would shrink and how threatened our wilderness would become in the 21st Century.

When The Jungle Book was published in 1894, India was a land of forests. Sher Khans were a dime-a-dozen, as the tiger population numbered in the tens of thousands, a far cry from the morose ad campaign of “Just 1411 left” in 2010. This loss of our natural heritage, as miners, loggers, and industrialists despoil our wilderness, makes The Jungle Book even more significant today.

For me, it was a tonic to tide me over until my parents could take me out of the city on a holiday. For coming generations, who might not have the privilege of seeing a giant tusker like I did, or a crocodile basking on a sun-dappled riverbank, or a tiger regally lounging on a fallen log in his kingdom, the book will be one of the only ways to experience the majesty of nature. It’s survived over a hundred years already, so who’s to say there won’t be a VR version of The Jungle Book in 2027?  

Rudyard Kipling’s legacy might be a bone of contention for some, especially in our post-colonial society. There are those who would rather he and his “white man’s burden” body of work be cast aside as dated drivel, and others who celebrate his life by turning his home on the JJ School of Art campus into a museum. But by igniting a lifelong love and respect for the wild in his readers via his best-known work, Rudyard Kipling transcends such arguments. Because even in the future, when jungles are a distant memory and people pick up their kids from school in flying cars and tuck them in to their sleeping pods, their bedtime stories are probably going to be about Mowgli, Bagheera, and Sher Khan.