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A boy who rides the matriarch of an elephant herd and who rubs shoulders with langurs. The one who understands the language of wild animals but no human beings and who is christened Mowgli. Stephen Alter’s new novel takes the Mowgli tale to a new dimension and turns it into a question of identity. His wild boy—who is terrified of tigers and not in the least feral—hates the idea of being identified as a human being.
However, life changes when he is adopted by an American missionary who can tote a rifle and shoot a nilgai when required. Miss Elizabeth is not a great believer in any god and she also befriends dacoits—including a Christian dacoit who is close to her—but she gives Mowgli, now rechristened Daniel, a new life and worldview.
There are different voices in the novel—the omnipresent author who escorts the boy through his jungle encounters, Elizabeth’s and ultimately Daniel’s. Elizabeth’s comes through the notes in her diary as she tracks the boy’s relationship with the other children she is bringing up in the mission.
From the beginning, she is drawn to Daniel, possibly because of his strange upbringing and she trains him to speak, a word at a time, through Hindustani and English. She also documents the conventional missionary attitude—the boy has been rescued from the wild and needs to be brought into the fold of Christianity and thereby civilised through baptism with various Old Testament quotes about Nebuchadnezzar lying down with the wild beasts and chewing grass.
There is also the transition from matriarchal elephant to missionary mother—Mowgli’s wolf mother is only present in Elizabeth’s readings—both of whom adopt the boy in their different ways to the rage of young elephants and young humans alike. Only the monkeys seem to be unruffled by all this constant transitioning.
Alter quotes from Kipling to emphasise the parallels and the differences between the two jungle boys—Daniel has never heard of wolves and his world is stalked by poachers who rob from the jungle and the city.
Feral Dreams gets livelier when it moves into the sphere of American missionaries in India, possibly because of Alter’s own background, though whether a slither of child abuse adds to the story or not is doubtful. The dreaming jungle with its healing herbs and dangers that stalk rather loses out by way of comparison. Dacoits and innocent missionary meddling brings in an undercurrent of the current day with its urban Maoists who are frequently handcuffed and dragged away by the police. Elizabeth has the benefit of her American background to ensure that she does not moulder in an Indian jail because if she did, it would have been a very different kind of narrative.
At the end of it, who is Daniel? A jungle creature? A human being, an American or an Indian? And whose child is he and how did he get lost in the jungle? These questions, and many more, along with the story of a nawab and a sadhu remain tantalisingly unanswered.
Feral Dreams: Mowgli & His Mothers By Stephen Alter
Aleph Book Company Rs699
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