The honey badger currently enjoys cult status as the bravest mammal on Earth – but my vote for that title still goes to the mongoose. The story of Rikki-Tikki’s war with the king cobras Nag and Nagaina, as told by Rudyard Kipling in the ninth section of “The Jungle Book” (1894), still thrills me 30 years after I first read it. Rikki-Tikki is the Rasputin of animals: fearless, clever and apparently impossible to kill. His name is taken from his chittering battle-cry; his enemies are four times his length and poison-fanged. “It is the hardest thing in the world”, Kipling writes, “ to frighten a mongoose.” Rikki-Tikki proves it, killing Karait the krait, then Nag, then Nagaina – and needing only a nap to recover in between.
Rikki-Tikki doesn’t make it into Disney’s 1967 film, nor does Kipling’s obsession with injury and slaughter. The film, such a family favourite that two remakes are now under way, is upbeat to the point of kitsch, but the original is eerie. If you’ve never read the stories, be prepared for sharp dark jags of surprise.
“The Jungle Book” is far from the cosy fables of the “Just-So Stories”. Human-animal conflicts preoccupy it, as does the war for survival fought between creatures themselves. Wildness is a compromised category throughout: one of the first characters we meet is Tabaqui the jackal, lickspittle of the tiger Shere Khan, who survives by “eating rags and pieces of leather from the village rubbish-heaps”; one of the last is a “gun-bullock” who pulls the “seventh yoke of the first gun of the Big Gun Battery”. Everyone in “The Jungle Book” is in thrall to, or peril from, someone else. It is Kipling’s account of the caste-ridden, race-riven society of India under the Raj.
Not all the stories take place in the jungle or on its fringes. Some, like Rikki-Tikki’s, happen in the white cantonments, where minor British officials sip sundowners on bungalow verandahs to stave off despair. Others, like “Her Majesty’s Servants”, are set amid the mud, dust and rivers of Rawalpindi, now Pakistan. And “The White Seal” occurs on an island in the Bering Sea, where for a month each spring the male seals gather to fight over territory, like sunbathers tussling over towel-space on the beach.
Early in that story we are introduced to Sea-Catch, a seal who has just finished his 45th fight of the season, and is “scratched and bleeding in 20 places; one eye was almost out, and his sides were torn to ribbons”. “Oh, you men, you men!” sighs his wife. “Why can’t you be sensible and settle your places quietly?” Sea-Catch is threatened not only by his own species, but also the seal-hunters who come from a “little village not half a mile from the sea nurseries”, and who drive the seals “just like sheep” up to “the killing pens…to be turned into seal-skin jackets later on.”
Skins and skinning fascinate Kipling. Having slain Shere Khan by driving him into a ravine, Mowgli skins the tiger roughly, takes his striped hide to the council of the wolves – and then dances upon it in glee. When we first meet the panther Bagheera, Kipling describes his “inky-black” pelt, on which the markings show up “in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk”. And in the death-song, the fearsome folk-chant that precedes the story of Rikki-Tikki, Nag the cobra is known as Wrinkle-Skin:
At the hole where he went in
Red-Eye called to Wrinkle-Skin.
Hear what little Red-Eye saith:
“Nag, come up and dance with death!”
It’s hard not to read these repeated images of hides, pelts and furs as comments on an imperial culture in which fortune and fate are determined by skin colour. Kill or be killed, bite or be bitten, skin or be skinned – this is the law of “The Jungle Book”.