Exploring the life of the writer who almost single-handedly conjured the popular image of “British India”, we look at the legacy of the Raj in other locations close to his heart — from the magnificent architecture of Mumbai, where he was born in 1865, to the hill station of Shimla, former summer capital and colonialist playground in the foothills of the Himalayas.
We all know Kipling’s jungle and whether you first encountered it in the pages of his short stories or found it in Disney’s adaptation, you’re obviously familiar with its steamy layers of leaves, sun-warmed pools, ancient temples overrun by monkeys and creeping vines.
It’s the living backdrop for a cast of animal characters whose names are as familiar as childhood toys — from the sleepy brown sloth bear Baloo to the fearsome tiger Shere Khan; the panther Bagheera, his voice “soft as wild honey”, and the quixotic python Kaa. And, of course, it’s home to Mowgli, the orphaned man-cub raised by wolves.
With the possible exception of a resident wolf-boy, the jungle — so vividly described in Kipling’s fiction — does, indeed, exist but it’s was not a place the writer knew himself. Although he spent most of his 20s in India, he never visited the central region where his stories were set, and only began writing them after he had moved to Vermont in 1892. Kipling borrowed his jungle from a fellow Britisher – a district officer who published a contemporary account of his years spent living in the Satpura Range, and enlivened it with his own imagination.
Satpura National Park in Madhya Pradesh derives its name from the same set of sprawling hills. The landscape surrounding it echoes the one conjured in The Jungle Book — dense forest edged by small hamlets like Nayapura, where villagers live in simple mud huts, colourful saris hanging from home-made washing lines. Subsistence farmers tend fields of rice and maize and collect the fruits of the forest to make a little extra money. In this buffer zone where Satpura’s human and animal inhabitants coexist there are occasional clashes over precious local resources. Both are keen on the fleshy edible flowers of the mahua tree and, as villagers tend to pick them in the half-light of dawn, they occasionally surprise the notoriously short-sighted and slightly deaf sloth bears, inadvertently provoking an attack.
Inside the confines of the park itself, people are strictly observers. Guests prowl the rugged terrain in little 4x4s known by their model name, Gypsy, with their local driver-guides alert to any possible sightings. Langur monkeys, Kipling’s “Bandar-log”, gather in chattering crowds and are usually found with herds of sambar and spotted deer, with whom they have forged a friendship. The monkeys’ guttural alarm call warns grazing deer to potential predators, and fruit and berries dropped from the branches supplement their otherwise grass-heavy diet.
Although in Kipling’s stories monkeys made their home in an abandoned stone city known as Cold Lairs, Satpura’s simians tend to give their own ancient rubble a wide berth. Tucked away in the far corner of the park is a temple devoted to Shiva and fallen to ruin, a dead ringer for King Louie’s palace in Disney’s The Jungle Book film, complete with intricate carvings of dancing figures, bael trees growing through its foundations and columns on the verge of collapse.
Thought to be 300-400 years old, it was built here by the Gond people, who, before adopting Hinduism, practised their own animist religion. They believed non-human entities such as plants and animals possess a spiritual essence — a view seemingly shared by Kipling himself.
The sloth bear’s spiritual essence is most accurately summarised by the cartoon Bagheera, who, in the film, affectionately describes his friend as a “jungle bum”. Dishevelled-looking and unkempt, sloth bears feed predominantly on termites, opening up nests with great sickle-shaped claws and vacuuming up resident insects through their long snouts. Unlike the elusive tigers and leopards that also roam the forest, real-life Baloos are considerably easier to track down. They stumble noisily from the undergrowth, sometimes carrying cubs on their backs.
But the creature everyone wants to catch a glimpse of on a visit to this region is the one Kipling called “the Big One”, Shere Khan. Nearby Tadoba National Park, in neighbouring Maharashtra, has the highest density of Bengal tigers and sightings are almost guaranteed. Tracking one down means enlisting the help of someone properly attuned to the rhythms of the jungle.
By his own admission, wildlife guide Himanshu Bagde is not unlike a grown-up version of Kipling’s hero — if Mowgli had swapped his loincloth for a shirt and tie. “Since I was a boy, I have always loved nature. Not just animals, but trees and birds… the aura of the forest,” says Himanshu. “For a short while I worked for a pharmaceutical company, but in the end I decided I must obey my heart — and my heart is always in the jungle.”
A pair of binoculars around his neck, he scans the undergrowth from an animal as it races along Tadoba’s dusty, pothole-ridden paths, bathing its occupants in a fine red mist. The menthol scent of the herb hoary basil carries on the breeze. To track his quarry, he listens for the alarm calls of big cat prey: the hoot of startled sambar deer or the distress call of a grey junglefowl, squawking like a squeezed chicken.
It’s dawn and the forest is cool, the sun not yet fully penetrating the thick canopy of bamboo and teak. Each time one safari vehicle passes another, both drivers slow to confer — sometimes clues are offered wordlessly: a mysterious series of gestures that Himanshu explains as we tear away. A big, claw-shaped hand means a tiger; a smaller one is a leopard — a flick of the wrist shows that whatever is under discussion has left. “Guides and rangers communicate constantly,” he says. “Each piece of information builds a bigger picture. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.”
As we roam the forest in search of the final piece, nature offers unexpected scenes of drama: spider webs the size of bedsheets that billow in the breeze like washing on a line, the slender tail of a retreating leopard terrifying a gaur that crashes through the trees with eyes wide in alarm, huge horns ready for a fight. Stopping by the roadside to examine a set of fresh tracks, we’re joined by a pair of fox-like dholes: much rarer than tigers, in Kipling’s stories these pack hunters are the jungle’s most ferocious predators. With each game drive, more neglected skills return: it becomes instinctive to sniff the air for the smell of a recent kill, peer into the shadows for a glimpse of stripy fur, strain ears to the sound of an alarm call. In our search for a hunter, we have ourselves become hunters.
The animal everyone is seeking seems reluctant to be found, but on a final drive in Tadoba, suddenly there she is: a tigress called Maya. Peering out from the long grass, she gives the vehicle a cursory glance and alters course, creeping towards a watering hole. She pads silently, slips into the black water with barely a ripple, and swims past great green lily pads with her nose held high. Reaching the bank, she shakes water from her stripes before disappearing again into the grass. Himanshu seems electrified by her presence. “We have more than 70 tigers in the park, but Maya is my favourite,” he says. “It’s hard to describe the feeling I get when I see her, but it’s a powerful connection. I feel drawn to her. I love her like a member of my family.”
Maya’s name means “illusion” in the local lingo and it is, indeed, as though her appearance has distorted our senses. Our glimpse of her is over, the jungle falling rapidly under the cloak of darkness, but her image lingers in the mind: fusing with Kipling’s fictional Shere Khan until the two become one.
Getting back to Kipling, there’s Bombay — now Mumbai — where he was born in 1865. The building that replaced the home where he was born — on the grounds of the Sir JJ Institute of Applied Art, of which his artist father Sir John Lockwood Kipling was then dean — still stands. Tucked away in a place Kipling described as “between the palms and the sea”, the once-grand house sits in a quiet grove full of mango, guava and fig trees hung with sleeping fruit bats. Its sea-green paint is peeled and flaking, and a peek through filthy windows reveals ornate mosaiced floors stacked high with old newspapers and broken furniture. Crows make their nests inside broken drainpipes and pockmarked latticed screens.
The crumbling building is symbolic of India’s complex relationship with the writer — viewed by some as a propagandist for the imperial machine, by others as the country’s most faithful chronicler. Although the building has heritage status, no one knows quite what to do with it — for now, the only thing that marks its significance is a bust of Kipling, complete with his trademark walrus moustache.
By Orla Thomas