“Set against the backdrop of a newly independent India, and amongst a host of brilliantly imagined characters, Feral Dreams: Mowgli and His Mothers is at once a heartbreaking story of identity, love, and belonging, as it is an exquisite ode to the fast vanishing, beautiful, and sometimes menacing jungles of India.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
A boy who rides the matriarch of an elephant herd and who rubs shoulders with langurs. 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 a human being. However, life changes when he is adopted by an American missionary who can tote a rifle and shoot 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 world view.
Alter quotes from Kipling to emphasise the parallels and the differences – 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 lose out by way of comparison.
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, along with the story of a nawab and a sadhu remain tantalisingly unanswered.
Added 30th Janaury 2021