Kipling’s Jungle Book Was An Allegory of the British Raj

Mowgli with the Bandar Log who soon make him their leader. Sketch based on Jungle Book stories, made in 1903 by John Charles Dollman

Mowgli with the Bandar Log who soon make him their leader. Sketch based on Jungle Book stories, made in 1903 by John Charles Dollman

There is a library of critical opinion about Rudyard Kipling and a shelf full of his biographies. Allow me to make two observations about him which haven’t been made in quite the way I intend to: 

Kipling wrote his Jungle Books, not as Walt Disney has interpreted them, as the antics of animals in a universal cartoon forest, but as an analogy of his experience of British colonial India. The British in India are the Wolf Pack. They are advised by several elders who have graduated from being wolves to being benign Bhalu the bear, Bhageera the retired general of the Raj, Kaa the contriver of cunning in the cantonment and the others to whom we may assign similar fanciful metaphorical roles.

The Bandar Log, the chatterers without discipline are the mass of Indians. The Wolf Pack has to ‘Wash daily from tip to toe’ to avoid the contamination of the heat and dust of India. And they can tolerate no deviation or dissension; they must stick together in this hostile environment they rule: “The strength of the pack is the wolf/ The strength of the wolf is the pack!”     

Kipling has never, despite his modest literary biography, called Something of Myself, written about his inspirations but we may conclude that these were uniquely and primarily the life and lore of India. I think he drew the analogies or allegories of his two Jungle Books from having read the Ramayan.

The Indian epic presents the people of the forest as Vaanars, monkeys whose King is Sugriva and champion Hanuman. An ally of their armies is the bear Jambhavan.

So who then is Mowgli, the white boy brought up by wolves? Kipling’s narrative scheme, following imperial judgements, makes him the arbiter of truth. So perhaps he is based on Ram, though I doubt if Rudyard was conscious of such a transference or influence.

Rendering the vernacular in English

My second observation about Kipling is based on the experience of myself being a writer who has written about the Indian experience in the English language. I have read very many Indian writers, from those of the nineteenth century to contemporary English novelists who win literary prizes, all of whom have attempted to render in English the spirit of Hindi, Urdu or the vernaculars.

The characters of Indian novels, sui generis, speak in either of these. And yet some of the ‘best’ contemporary novelists don’t succeed in capturing or transliterating the idioms and nuances of Indian speech rendered in English in a convincing way. If this were a detailed critical essay I could point to renowned novelists making Bengalis sound like pastiche south Indians,  Parsis running Mumbai restaurants sound like dyslexic Peter Sellers etc. But this is about Kipling — and what he does in the railway carriage scene of Kim should be an example to all of us writers.


Kipling projects the dialects of the people in the compartment, which the Lama and Kim board, in very specific registers of tone and idiom. The characters in the railway compartment speak in Hindi, in Purbhi or in Urdu, and Kipling captures their speech in an English which stands out as a triumph of creative translation.

The marvel of Kipling’s Indian writings conceals and may, on consideration reveal a universal secret of the writing of fiction. I once asked V.S.Naipaul why he thought critics praised him for his prose ‘style’. He said he was puzzled by the accolades as he believed that the key to style was simplicity and not using hard words when easy ones would work. Kipling’s prose is never recondite. His triumph of ‘style’ is not simply being simple, but is in fact a triumph of observation. The example above of capturing in English the nuances of the different linguistic idioms of the various characters is not a just a trick of hearing things accurately and reproducing them. It is the natural gift of observation of character. And the marvel of this is that Kipling didn’t spend all that much time in India.

He was there as an infant and was sent to England at the age of six. He then returned at the age of seventeen and went the length and breadth of India as a reporter. He left india, never to return in 1889 when he was 24. So he spent six years in Bombay as infant and six to seven years in India as a young man.

The plots and the observation of Anglo-Indian and of a myriad Indian characters, of the climate and landscape of the subcontinent seem to owe their existence to his life as a young reporter. This seems obvious, but the deeper understanding reflected in his Indian stories might very well have its roots in the subconscious observations of the growing  infant. It may well be that the young Rudyard, growing up close to his Goan ayah and his Hindu bearer, absorbed the essences of what was later to emerge as acute observation.

Is the child the father of the writer?

Farrukh Dhondy is a novelist and script writer


  • Maitrey Deshpande

    Isn’t Mowgli an Indian by ethnicity, i.e. brown? In one scene, he’s thought to be the child killed by Shere Khan, and miraculously returned to his parents in the village who first adopt him and are then forced to abandon him. And that couple is definitely not white.

  • Metis

    “Is the child the father of the writer?” In Kipling’s case I think so, certainly. Kipling was a genius of course and his childish observations were not those of a child with only normal intelligence. Kipling’s Kim is definitely one of the best books I’ve ever read. And I grew up with the Jungle Book and the Just So Stories. Kipling also wrote a few stories about the severely traumatic experience of his childhood – being sent away from India and his parents when he was only 6 years old to board with a cruel family in England.

  • Metis

    That’s right. While Kim is definitely white.