Saturday, September 14, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- the Jungle Books

Take this as a book that helped you understand another culture. Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. You should read the first volume at least. Under no circumstances should you watch the drek produced by Disney Studios.

Although Mr. Kipling was a very privileged member of a very privileged group, wealthy White English masters of the British Empire, he showed a surprising understanding of the humanity of British subjects in foreign lands. His Jungle Books, set in colonial India, are full of detail. The first volume is about Mowgli, a small Indian child who was adopted by wolves after his parents are killed by Shere Kahn, the tiger.

Both the boy and the animals who adopted him display the characteristics of human life in India. Eventually Mowgli begins to interact with Indian villagers. All of this makes clear what life was like at that period of time. On the one hand, Mr. Kipling makes it clear that the Indians are indeed humans just like all the rest of us, an idea that wasn't very popular at that time in the British Empire, or in the United States for that matter. But he also manages to display elements of Indian culture. He makes it clear that while these are people, they are people who grew up in a different place and who lived and experienced different things than what was normal for Europeans and Americans.

I don't think it's possible to read the books without developing some understanding of Indian religion, custom, and what it is like to be occupied by foreigners. All the better, the book does not lecture on these points. Instead it simply presents interesting stories. What you learn, you learn by enjoying yourself.

It's rather surprising that Kipling managed to be this tolerant. Remember that this is the man who wrote the poem, “The White Man's Burden”, in which he refers to, "new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child". It's hard to believe it's the same man! The poem is obviously arrogant and dismissive. The Jungle Book, however, paints a picture of real human beings experiencing real difficulties. Sometimes human beings take the form of animals, but it's very clear that they are people and that they're just as good and just as bad as people anywhere else.

They don't seem to be half devil and half child at all. Instead they seem to be fully human.

Than again, being fully human sometimes seems to mean being half devil and half child...

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