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Thursday, August 05, 2021

Stephen Alter: “Kipling’s stories had a much darker side which Disney erased”

The writer on taking forward Mowgli’s story in his latest book, Feral Dreams and recapturing the shadows and fears of the original Jungle Books

Written by Devyani Onial |
December 6, 2020 6:20:32 am
Stephen Alter, The Jungle Book, Mowgli, Feral Dreams, An American Boyhood in the Himalayas, In the Jungles of the Night, Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant, sunday eye, eye 2020, indianexpressStephen Alter on his book and more. (Pic courtesy: Stephen Alter)

Most people are acquainted with the characters of The Jungle Book, whether it’s through Rudyard Kipling’s book or its many film and television adaptations. Children continue to be fascinated with the story of the man-cub Mowgli growing up in the wild, some scholars and parents regard it as an imperialist narrative while yet others see in the tale a contemplation of identity and belonging. Your Feral Dreams: Mowgli and his Mothers (Aleph, 2020) takes forward the story. Do you remember when you first read the book and what made you turn to it now?

My first memories of Kipling’s Jungle Books are of my mother reading the stories to me when I must have been five or six years old. They left a lasting impression in my mind, which has stayed with me until now, a kind of personal mythology and lore. The forests of India have always held a strong fascination for me. As a boy, I spent a good deal of time wandering about in the jungle. Later on, I became an amateur naturalist and have written about wildlife and the environment. Of course, I realise now that Kipling knew very little about the natural history of India and drew upon books by other writers rather than his own observations. Much of his work contains overtly colonial stereotypes and racist perspectives, which I’ve tried to overturn in my book, though Feral Dreams is not intended as a critique. I suppose the book could be described as a form of recovered memory, stories that come out of my subconscious and haunt my imagination. That’s the magic and mystery of fiction!

Stephen Alter, The Jungle Book, Mowgli, Feral Dreams, An American Boyhood in the Himalayas, In the Jungles of the Night, Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant, sunday eye, eye 2020, indianexpress Feral Dreams: Mowgli and his Mothers By Stephen Alter
Aleph Book Company
208 pages

There is a plaintive strain that runs through Feral Dreams. In the beginning chapters you see Mowgli being raised by an elephant matriarch, but you always know that his days in the wild are numbered. Then as he is found and taken to an orphanage run by American missionaries and christened Daniel, you do not know whether the past was an imagining, a dream. Your grandfather and father were both missionaries, so do you recall that world with the eye of both an insider and an outsider?

Most people associate The Jungle Book with the Disney cartoon version from 1967. It was a lighthearted feel-good story with happy songs and amusing characters. I remember watching it the year the film came out and enjoying it enormously. But Kipling’s stories had a much darker side to them, which Disney erased, and I’ve tried to recapture some of the shadows and fears that the original Jungle Books evoked. There is something tragic about Mowgli being an orphan but also his inevitable exile from the jungle, confronting the moral dilemmas of civilisation. Because I grew up in a missionary family and community, I was aware of Christian teachings about good and evil, but my parents emphasised compassion over dogma. Through the character of Miss Cranston, who adopts Daniel as her son, I’ve tried to explore my own ambivalence regarding what’s right and what’s wrong.

All the Way to Heaven: An American Boyhood in the Himalayas (1998) is a vivid account of your growing up years in Mussoorie, your school days at Woodstock where your father was principal, the time spent in Uttar Pradesh where your parents’ work took them and the in-between trips to the US. At one place you write of your stories written in high school as “full of invisible borders and erased identities.” How many of these personal journeys have travelled into the life of Daniel, who too moves between so many worlds, from an ambiguous past to the orphanage and finally to the US?

Identity is a pretty slippery concept and I’ve never been able to define myself in any conclusive manner. You look in the mirror and some days you recognise yourself while other days you think, “Who on earth is that?” The inherent uncertainty in recognising oneself has never really bothered me though I’ve been able to explore this confusing paradox in many of my books. Ultimately, I suppose Feral Dreams is a book about identity but you could probably say that about almost any novel. For Daniel or Mowgli the biggest question isn’t, “Who am I?” but instead, “Who do I want to become?”

In Feral Dreams you have taken Kipling’s story forward. In In The Jungles of the Night (2016) you have taken the lens of fiction to capture the life and times of Jim Corbett. How challenging is it to recast stories that are already so well-known?

Adapting popular stories or recasting well-known personalities and giving them a fresh narrative is a bit like being an actor who performs a famous role. Thousands of different people have played the part of Hamlet and each of them has added something to his story, through different interpretations. It’s the same sort of thing when I write about Jim Corbett or Mowgli. As a writer I try to surprise and unsettle a reader’s preconceived expectations and show him or her a new way of looking at a familiar character.

Wild Himalaya that released last year to much acclaim is an overarching portrait of this magnificent mountain range. Have they been a fixed point, a fixed address in a journey that has taken you places?

I was born in the Himalaya, in Mussoorie, which gives me a sense of belonging to the mountains. More than anything, however, it has been the many journeys I’ve made throughout the Himalaya that give me a strong connection to this region. When you travel on foot, you learn a great deal about the landscape and the people, as well as the historical, spiritual and natural heritage of a place. Being a writer allows me to retell the experiences and stories that I’ve gathered along the way. Though I’ve always considered Mussoorie to be my home, it’s as much a place that I depart from as it is a point of origin where I return.

As someone who belongs to Uttarakhand and as the writer of Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant (2004), how do you see the decision to denotify the Shivalik Elephant Reserve to pave the way for the expansion of the Jolly Grant airport?

The Dehradun Valley has lost most of its forest cover during the last half century. Every time I read about trees being cut down to make way for roads or other forms of development, it seems unjustified and short-sighted. Of course, I know that people want the convenience of air travel and Jolly Grant airport has grown busier and busier in recent years but I think there must be some other way to accommodate more flights, without destroying the limited tracts of forest that remain.

As we near the end of an unquiet, unsettling year, as a writer how do you make sense of it? How would you remember 2020?

Frankly, I’d like to forget 2020 completely but I’m not sure that 2021 is going to be any better. For me the most unsettling part of the pandemic has been the way in which it has separated me from family and friends. Despite the technology that allows me to communicate from isolation, there’s still a feeling of personal connections being lost. Perhaps, when it’s all over, we’ll meet again as if we have become strangers.

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