Stephen Alter’s Feral Dreams makes a creative and engaging intervention in the proliferating literary and cinematic industry that constitutes the afterlife of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. During the span of a century or more since this novel was first published, the intriguing story of a boy growing up in the wild has haunted imaginations, serving as the source of several literary and visual adaptations. Despite the unapologetic racist and imperialist worldview which structures Kipling’s tale most readers find it difficult not to come under Mowgli’s spell. The boy presents the promise of tantalizing human possibilities, which popular visual narratives have attempted, rather simplistically, to capture. Alter’s retelling of Kipling’s tale is emphatically revisionist and offers a refreshing turn of direction in locating the premise of the story in a world shaped by postcolonial and postmodern cross-currents of thought accommodating an acute empathy, that can only be termed post-humanist, for ecological conservation. Alter lives and works in the Himalayan region, having produced well-regarded books on its natural history, besides several fictional works on related themes.
The subtitle of the book ‘Mowgli and His Mothers: A Fable’ reveals the turn in Alter’s revisionist narrative. The strange child rescued from the wildlife sanctuary by forest guards is handed over to the orphanage run by the American missionary Elizabeth Cranston who is instrumental in christening him Daniel/Mowgli, easing him into a world structured by political, social and linguistic hierarchies, and eventually adopting him as her son. It is she, one must note, who is the author of the highly romantic though incomplete novella influenced to a great degree by Kipling’s wildly popular novel. Cranston invents the whimsical idea of the human boy child being raised by an elephant matriarch, leader of the herd that lives in the park in order to recreate an imagined past life for the waif put into her charge. In a sense, then, Cranston is the mother imagined by Alter, and the elephant matriarch is the mother imagined by Alter’s character, and all of this for a fictional child birthed by a colonial novelist, lending a charming postmodern perspective on the question of parents both real and imagined, who do imprint in many invisible ways their authorship on their wards.
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