Kipling's Ode to Misanthropy

by Kenneth Champeon, Aug 17, 2002 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

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Review of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.

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People of my generation - that generation contemptuously known as "X" - are liable to know Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books not as books or a book but as a musical Disney film. Amidst the flotsam of popular culture constantly washing up on our neural shores, we remember the wide eyes of Mowgli the man-cub, the sound of Kaa the snake, the slink of Shere Khan the tiger. And we feel perhaps a special affinity for the roly-poly, happy-go-lucky bear Baloo. Little did we suspect that their inventor was one of England's foremost imperialists, quite sanguine about the idea that the English were the natural rulers of India where most of the The Jungle Books takes place, just as Hathi the elephant was the natural ruler of Kipling's mythical jungle. Ironically, the books were composed in neither steamy India nor sodden England, but in the snowy Vermont where Kipling lived from 1892 to 1896 with his American wife. Kipling scattered his garrets and his genius all over the world.

Difficult though it may be to imagine, Kipling's imperialism was accompanied by a profound love of India, where he was born and spent much of his life. Kipling also loved India's people, though never without a tincture of condescension. His knowledge of Indian culture and language is as impressive as his knowledge of the land, the seasons, the flora and fauna. Of course it is one thing to admire the Indians for their tendency to understate their wealth or to multiply their gods, quite another to propose that they are better at building a bridge, enforcing a law, or arriving on time. Kipling's characters seldom veer from the opinion that the English have worked marvels, and that they can be relied upon to do something when the "natives" are paralyzed by incompetence or fear.

Consider the story "Servants of the Queen", which like many of the collection's stories acts as an intermezzo to the life of Mowgli. It begins with "a camp of thirty thousand men and thousands of camels, elephants, horses, bullocks, and mules all gathered together at a place called Rawalpindi, to be reviewed by the Viceroy of India. He was receiving a visit from the Amir of Afghanistan - a wild king of a very wild country." The scale and orderliness of the review so astonishes the Amir that one of his retinue asks a native officer how "this wonderful thing" was accomplished.

"And the officer answered: 'An order was given and they obeyed.'....
"'Would it were so in Afghanistan!' said the chief, 'for there we obey only our own wills.'
"'And for that reason,' said the native officer, twirling his moustache, 'your Amir whom you do not obey must come here and take orders from our Viceroy.'"

The substitutions to be made for "Amir" and "Viceroy" in order to update this story should be obvious, and one can easily detect Kipling's racist smirk. But the native officer says "our Viceroy" and is just as smug. Thus does Kipling subtly remind us that many Indians helped to guarantee the Empire's success and longevity, just as American proxies in Afghanistan are content killing other Afghanis with American help.

Like anyone who has spent some time in the subcontinent, Kipling has absorbed some of the spiritual power that has made India the source of more gods and religions than any other place on earth. At times he aggrandizes or trivializes Hinduism, perhaps so that the polite ladies reading him back home can gasp in horror without succumbing to cardiac arrest. Kipling is most absurd when he attempts to render Hindu religious songs in the upbeat, even martial English rhyme that Kipling, to the embarrassment of his modern admirers, so adored. But often his attitude borders on reverence, as in the story "The Miracle of Purun Bhagat," about an old statesman-turned-hermit who saves a village from a landslide. In it Kipling betrays sympathy toward Indian mysticism's efforts to transcend the human frame. Purun Bhagat "would repeat a Name softly to himself a hundred times, till, at each repetition, he seemed to move more and more out of his body, sweeping up to the doors of some tremendous discovery. But, just as the door was opening, his body would drag him back, and, with grief, he felt he was locked up again in the flesh and bones of Purun Bhagat."

In his masterpiece Kim, Kipling claimed that India is the only true democracy in the world. In The Jungle Books he says that only in India can a man "do as he pleases and nobody asks why." Kipling surely exaggerates: as they will be the first to admit, Indians can be quite nosy; and nonresident Indians often grouse about the country's stifling moral strictures and oppressive extended families. But probably Kipling was only trying to convey something of India's lawlessness and the freedom it resembles.

Baloo frequently enjoins Mowgli and his animal friends to follow "the Law of the Jungle", a rather Darwinian ethical code ("strike first and then give tongue") with some uniquely Indian variations ("thou must never kill or eat cattle young or old"). The Law is final and its enforcement swift: "One of the beauties of Jungle Law is that punishment settles all scores. There is no nagging afterwards." It is fairly clear that Kipling, often accused of war-mongering, regarded Jungle Law as more than just a fiction to titillate his audience of pugnacious little boys. "Strike first and then give tongue", in other words, was a viable article of imperial policy.

On the other hand, The Jungle Books are suffused with a distrust of humanity, and with a sentimentality about animals that Orwell rightly noted to be a particularly English trait. Mowgli's conflict is whether to remain among the animals, or to return to what Kipling calls "stupid and unaccommodating" mankind and its strange attachment to clothes, money, and agriculture. Greenpeace should revisit Kipling's story "The White Seal", which describes a group of seals fleeing massacre at the hands of creatures that kill merely for sport. "They are idle, senseless, and cruel," says Mowgli hominis sapientis.

Ultimately Mowgli defies his better judgment and returns to his rightful fold. But before he does, he offers a beautiful, almost biblical elegy to the human predicament. It may even allude to God:

"By night and by day I hear a double step upon my trail. When I turn my head it is as though one had hidden himself from me that instant. I go to look behind the trees and he is not there. I call and none cry again, but it is as though one listened and kept back the answer. I lie down, but I do not rest. I run the spring running, but I am not made still. I bathe, but I am not made cool. The kill sickens me, but I have no heart except I kill. The Red Flower is in my body, my bones are water - and - I know not what I know."

The Jungle Books resembles two very different classics of literature, the Panchatantra (a kind of Indian Aesop's fables) and Orwell's Animal Farm. It is very possible that Kipling was inspired by the first, and in turn inspired the second (given Orwell's admiration for a writer whose biography rather resembles his own.) There used to be a time when, as Kipling says of the Indians, "most of [their] tales were about animals, for the jungle was always at their door." Now most of our tales are about ourselves, or about aliens. In either case we are much diminished by our human pride, and we would often do well to heed this advice of Baloo: "'There is none like to me!' says the cub in the pride of his earliest kill, / But the jungle is large and the cub he is small. Let him think and be still."

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