Kipling as Mowgli: One View of The Jungle Book


Mowgli – a new cinematic take on Kipling’s classic, The Jungle Book – is set to hit theaters in October. I used this occasion to read Kipling’s work once again. Well, admittedly I had another reason to do this: I was reading it to my children. At any rate, this is an opportune moment to share my interpretation of The Jungle Book, an interpretation which I largely owe to the teachings of my former supervisor, Professor Jan Kieniewicz.

The plot of the novel is not only set in India – it is based on Indian reality in a deeper sense. Indian readers of The Jungle Book find it easy to spot words from the Hindustani language. The name of Baloo, the bear, actually does mean a “bear” (bhaloo) in Hindi/Hindustani, just like the name of Hathi, the elephant, means exactly an “elephant.” Shere Khan, the evil tiger, bears a distinctively Muslim name. But certain elements of the plot are much more telling. Tabaqui, the jackal, is avoided by other animals, and we are told that the reason is his smell. But given the way his relations with the other animals are depicted, the ostracism could as well show the social situation of an untouchable (Dalit) character. The gatherings of the wolves do resemble caste meetings, as nearly only wolves can influence their decisions.

It would obviously be ridiculous to take this interpretation too far: It is not that every knot in the plot, every name and symbol in the novel must closely relate to Indian reality. But such scattered remarks – and there are more of them – suggest that Mowgli’s jungle is a partial metaphor of Indian society.

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Kipling Is Mowgli: On Crossing the Borders

Let’s start with a reminder that Kipling spent his childhood in India – and was not as removed from Indian reality as his imperialist vision of Great Britain may suggest. Moreover, the motif of crossing the borders of identity appears in Kipling’s other novel set in India, Kim. Kim, the hero of the book, was a white child of mixed origin, raised in India, accustomed to Indian mores and versatile in Indian languages, just like Mowgli learned the laws of the jungle and the languages of the animals. Both Kim and Mowgli were raised by beings other than their own kin and hence lived in the fuzzy border area between two identities.

I think both Kim and Mowgli represent young Kipling. Mowgli’s jungle is young Kipling’s India but not in the sense that Kipling perceived Indians as animals. The jungle and its animals are a symbol of another civilization, with different rules, in which Kipling-Mowgli had lived and learned to understand, despite being aware of belonging to another world.

When Mowgli sings the song of his victory over Shere Khan, he says that his heart is heavy and light the same time. “These two things fight together in me as the snakes fight in the spring. The water comes out of my eyes; yet I laugh while it falls. Why? I am two Mowglis […] My heart is heavy with the things that I do not understand.”

In both Kim and The Jungle Book, the motif of being capable of returning to one’s previous civilization is also strongly underlined, but so is the feeling of being torn apart. Kim could easily pass as either British or Indian; Mowgli could be an animal as well as a man. They could take the best they could from two worlds but all this came at the cost of mental confusion and a feeling of not completely belonging anywhere. I do think this echoed Kipling’s experiences from his childhood days.

I do not claim that this theory about Kipling’s novel is particularly, well, novel. I also do not consider it racist. The animals of the jungle are a metaphor. They are depicted as brave and wise, harsh and traditional, but just. Mowgli understands the world of the jungle much better than the world of humans and it is very clear that the latter is depicted as the better one.

East is East, West is West but Kipling is Both

To support my interpretation, let me turn to another of Kipling’s works, The Ballad of East and West. Unfortunately, many people quote it without caring to read it. These are the oft-quoted opening lines:

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

It is taken to mean that the Western and Eastern civilizations – or maybe more specifically Europe and India – can never understand each other. But what is often missed are the next two lines (which are repeated as the ultimate line of the ballad).

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.

What Kipling really says here, therefore, is the opposite: “There is neither East nor West” — though in a very specific context.

When it comes to the story in the poem, the above words serve to reinforce its moral. The ballad, very briefly speaking, tells us about an officer, a “colonel’s son” (apparently British) chasing a thief, Kamal (apparently a Muslim and perhaps a Pashtun) who stole the colonel’s mare. Rushing through the Pashtun borderlands of what was then northwestern India (and what are now the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands) the colonel’s son manages to find Kamal but during their short and bloodless standoff they become impressed with each other’s prowess. Kamal decides to ally himself (and, it can be guessed, his band) with the British forces. To cement this alliance, he dispatches his son to join the British border force, the Guides.

There is little doubt that the “two strong men” of the ballad are the colonel’s son and Kamal; Kamal actually says that himself (“We be the two strong men”). The message is rather straightforward and so is its importance for the British imperial narrative. As the Pashtun borderlands were an unstable, volatile area, which the British often found difficult to pacify, the empire should be open – the ballad seems to tell us – to cooperation with local forces if they would be willing to support the crown. The ethics of those forces was a secondary issue. These could even be bands of criminals but what mattered most is whether they consisted of brave and strong warriors that could become loyal to the British.

Thus, the ballad may be read as radically pragmatic. In areas such as the Pashtun borderlands, there is no use of talking about cultural complexities like “West” or “East” because that region is only ruled by brute power, and the British must gather more power on their side. There is no hint that the colonel’s son considered Kamal’s culture more attractive or that Kamal changed sides because he found the Western civilization superior. It is visible that the colonel’s son changed his mind about Kamal only because he found him bold, staunch, and honorable in his own way. Kamal is equally pragmatic, as he tells his own son to join the British so that he can make his way up the army’s promotion ladder and carve out a more powerful position for himself. The already mentioned lines, “there is neither East nor West […] When two strong men stand face to face” can be paired with a similar, but more crude quote from the same poem: “No talk shall be of dogs […] when wolf and gray wolf meet.”

At this level of understanding, the ballad does not have to confirm either the stereotype of Kipling the racist (though it surely confirms him as an imperialist) or the vision of Kipling as man of two civilizations, the Mowgli, the Kim. But can the interpretation be brought to higher levels? And, in that case, is the ballad in any way comparable to The Jungle Book?

I would assume it is possible if we read the Ballad of East and West as not only pragmatic and referring not only to physical force after all. This interpretation may be more daring, but attempting it is at the center of understanding Kipling’s thinking on India and on the contacts between civilizations.

Let me focus on Kamal’s son rather than Kamal himself. Though little mentioned in the poem, I find him equally important to the moral. Kamal ordered his son to not only join the British unit, but also to adjust to its mores: “So thou must eat the White Queen’s meat, and all her foes are thine.” The son becomes the blood brother of the British Guides and eventually was fully accepted by his fellow soldiers: “There was not a man but carried his feud with the blood of the mountaineer.”

Thus, Kamal’s son’s story is like that of Kipling and Kim: He crosses the border between civilizations or cultures. It is only that his direction of crossing is opposite to that of Kim. What Kipling claimed in The Jungle Book and Kim is that a British/European person could become one of the Indians and yet still be separate from them, as well as able to go back to his previous identity. What he claimed in the Ballad of East and West is that an Afghan warrior could be accepted among British soldiers, although the author did not muse about further changes of his identity.

Kipling does not tell us that borders between identities must be fuzzy and further, that they are easy to traverse. Most of his characters have a firm of understanding of who they are and to which group they belong. At the same time, however, Kipling did not simply claim that “East is East and West is West”; crossing to the other group is possible, according to him, though it is rare and comes at a high cost. Without being firmly anchored in a particular identity group, Kipling seems to tells us, a person may feel lost and torn but he or she may also find it easier to change identities, take on masks, adapt to new conditions and thus achieve successes.

Our problem with Kipling’s thinking is our own thinking. As usual with judging historical personae, it is difficult not to look at him without our modern lens. That Kipling believed in the supremacy of the British empire and wanted to strengthen it is a given. That he considered Western civilization superior to the Indian civilization is also rather undisputed. In these respects his views were typical of a man of his group and era. I may not agree with many of views, but here I am not trying to judge them, only to recreate them. He was an imperialist but his understanding of India was higher than that of an average man – and in the 19th century, this was hardly a contradiction. Thus, Kipling offered some very interesting views – and rather uncommon ones for his time – on how individuals can exist on the borders without civilizations.

Dedicated to my former supervisor and mentor, Professor Jan Kieniewicz.

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