When I received a copy of Feral Dreams — Mowgli and his Mothers, written by Stephen Alter, the herd of elephants tramping through the jungle on the cover gave me a big hint of what the pages hold. Feral Dreams takes the story of Mowgli, the human child, the main character of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, The Jungle Book, forward in time.
For animal lovers, it is one big jungle treat. Alter’s Mowgli is found by the elephant matriarch in Hathi Talao Wildlife Sanctuary, she hands the baby to the monkeys for feeding. Growing up with the monkeys and other wild animals, the boy, given the name Mowgli by the elephant matriarch, considers himself one of the jungle creatures.
The first part of the book brings the jungle to life, the banyan tree with its aerial roots where the boy is sitting with the troop of monkeys. “Drawing in a deep breath through his nostrils, he smelled the mouldering leaves and a sour earthy odour that he recognised as the passing scent of a sloth bear that had wandered by a short while ago.”
By the end of the first chapter Mowgli is caught by the forest guards, while they are transporting him to the town, the herd of elephants led by the matriarch, rescue Mowgli, taking him back into the sanctuary. Mowgli’s relationship with the elephants and the monkeys is so beautifully expressed through their conversation, that feels more like a telepathic link than a verbal dialogue, written in italics, it elevates the book to another level altogether, as do the descriptive paragraphs that bring the jungle with its sights, sound and smell to life, literally thrusting the reader smack into the middle of it all.
Mowgli’s relationship with the elephant matriarch is reminiscent of a mother-son bond, and his relationship with a young monkey, reminded me of the interaction between siblings.
By the end of part one, Mowgli is found near the waterhole in an emaciated condition by two forest guards who bring him to the Calvary Mission Children’s Home in Shakkarganj run by an American missionary Miss Elizabeth Cranston. Mowgli now christened Daniel lives with the other orphan children under the strict care of the principal Miss Cranston.
In the children’s home, Daniel is bullied by the other children, as his behaviour is different from theirs, he isn’t as humanised as them. Slowly Daniel learns Hindustani and a smattering of English, he learns to wear clothes, eat like a civilised person and sleep on a mattress.
As the story progresses, after one particularly harsh bullying episode, when Daniel is distraught, Miss Cranston decides to adopt him as her son. When Miss Cranston gives refuge to a dacoit, it results in her and Daniel’s deportation to America.
The book chronicles Daniel’s journey in life, from the jungle to civilisation, from childhood till his sixties. From Daniel’s relationship with his two mothers, Daniel is more comfortable with the elephant matriarch than Miss Cranston. He is awkward with her and is seldom able to express himself well with her. Sadly, as he grows up, he distances himself from her, but a patch-up of sorts is brought about by his live-in partner, Nadia.
The ending made me smile, Daniel paid a wonderful tribute to both his mothers. The book has so many breathtaking scenes that a reread is a must. I fell in love with Alter’s mastery of his craft and his firm grip over the story held my attention till the end.
Rachna Chhabria is a Bengaluru based children’s author and a freelance writer
Feral Dreams — Mowgli and His Mothers
Aleph Book Company