Book review: Feral Dreams/ Mowgli and His Mothers by Stephen Alter
FERAL DREAMS, Mowgli and his Mothers by Stephen Alter. Aleph Books.
The book had me at its cover pic, that much I will tell you. The pic, by Sangram Govardhane, being a herd of elephants on the move, with a diffusion of glorious light at their back. Then I started to read and Alter`s fluid writing took over, and I was hooked, fair and square.
We have Daniel, a 65-year-old facility supervisor at MIT, coming back to Shakkarganj to lay his adoptive mother`s ashes to rest in the missionary centre she grew up in, then later ran with efficiency and compassion. The woman who adopted him, Elizabeth Cranston, had nicknamed him Mowgli, because Daniel was a feral foundling. How he survived his first handful of years in the jungle was a mystery…or was it? Because the reader is almost immediately introduced to someone who was Mowgli`s adoptive mother well before the `Miss Sahib` came upon him: Mahua the elephant, matriarch of her herd.
The first part of the book deals with Mowgli among the animals of the jungle and the lessons he learns just being there, so it is a bit of disappointment to the reader to find that once Mowgli is taken into the missionary centre and brought up to be a good little boy, all memories of his early days leak out of his head and heart.
The Daniel who grows up, grows away from the Miss Sahib, and makes a successful life for himself, is understandably a flat character after the Mowgli who roamed the jungle atop the his elephant mother`s back. But that is how life must play out, and interestingly enough, his very real need to construct a personal narrative has him making up various tales, and using them to suit his needs as and when the occasion demanded it.
Alter has Daniel actually throwing shade on Kipling, in a moment of pure irony. As an adult, Daniel muses that the Jungle Book had a stilted, unconvincing narration and structure, while `the law of the jungle` came across as contrived.
There is a passage where a wounded Mowgli visits a secluded glen where animals come to heal when they are sick or injured. Pure magic. There is a paragraph where a huge snake (definitely not Kaa, though) sinuously makes its way along a tree branch to attack Mowgli. Pure terror. There is the bit where the elephants hold an all-night wake for a tusker who had been brutally killed by poachers. Deeply moving.
The story here is different from Kipling`s fable but both there and here, the characters are symbolic of traits and manners, values and principles, in humans as well as animals.