Interview: Stephen Alter, author, Feral Dreams; Mowgli and his Mothers
In his new novel, Stephen Alter takes the story of Mowgli, the protagonist of Kipling’s classic Jungle Book, forward in time and into fresh terrain
What informed your decision to revisit Mowgli’s life? What memories do you have of the time you first read Jungle Book?
The Jungle Books have been part of my imagination since childhood when my parents first read the stories to me and then later, when I began to read them myself. Having always had a fascination for wildlife, Mowgli’s world appealed to me on many levels. Initially, when I conceived of Feral Dreams, I thought I would rework the story of the man-cub as a children’s book, updating it but keeping the focus on younger readers. However, as I began the process of writing, it struck me that there were a number of adult themes and situations that would interest a more mature audience. So what I ended up with is a modern fable that I hope will entertain readers of all ages.
The law of the jungle, something Kipling propounded through Jungle Book, is often interpreted as a British imperialist projection. How far do you agree with this perception?
I’ve always been puzzled by the phrase “the law of the jungle” because it suggests a human, magisterial perspective on nature. In Kipling’s books there is certainly a colonial voice at the heart of the story imposing British ideas of morality and discipline on the Indian jungle. The whole idea of a wolf-child becomes a metaphor that’s loaded with imperial prejudices. In some ways, I hope that my book questions and overturns some of these colonial perceptions by giving Mowgli a different set of problems and opportunities.
A primary character in the book says that “the truth is that a child of his [Mowgli’s] age would have been more likely to be eaten in the wild by any number of predators, rather than nurtured”. What is your take on nature versus nurture?
Obviously, a human infant surviving in the jungle on his or her own is impossible and the idea that other creatures might adopt a foundling like Mowgli is absurd. Nevertheless, this primal story is part of the mythology of many cultures, from the character of Enkidu in the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh to Romulus and Remus in ancient Rome. Episodes in the Ramayana and Mahabharata also recount human and divine characters exiled in the forest, living in harmony with wild beasts. In each case, there is an underlying notion that nature is a nurturing force and our survival in the wild depends on making peace with other species, including predators. What fascinates and inspires me most is that this mythology provides a potent narrative for environmental conservation in our world today.
Kipling reportedly drew on his personal experience of being fostered in Jungle Book. How much of the personal have you drawn from in Feral Dreams? Especially given the similarities in background - Christian missionary etc - between one of the lead characters in the book and your parents/grandparents, who were also missionaries.
Every work of fiction contains elements of the author’s own experience. In Feral Dreams, Mowgli ends up being sheltered and adopted by an American missionary in India. Obviously, I was drawing upon my own memories of growing up within that community. At the same time, there is both a sense of nostalgia and alienation that I couldn’t avoid weaving into the story because of my own sense of ambivalence regarding missionary motives. As a counterpoint to the pieties and dogma that have never appealed to me, I introduced a character who is a “Christian dacoit,” partly because I wanted to tease my readers with that phrase.
How much do you relate to Mowgli himself, specifically when it comes to navigating questions about identity - something you must have had to grapple with, too, growing up as an American in India, just as Mowgli struggles with it when he goes to the US? You’ve mentioned in the past about dealing with the question, “Where are you from… originally?”
Feral Dreams is, on one level, a book about identity and I’ve tried to explore how we are shaped by the stories we tell about ourselves, many of which are fictitious. If Mowgli were to be asked, “Where are you from?” he wouldn’t be able to honestly answer that question. Instead, in my book, he makes up several explanations about his origins based on his imperfect memories, desires and dreams.
How has your childhood in Landour influenced you as a writer? Did you share many commonalities with your cousin, the late Tom Alter?
Tom was a very important influence on my life. His choice to return to India from America encouraged me to do the same. We shared a common sense of humour and a love of language. At the same time, he was much less cynical than me and I will always miss his exuberance and enthusiasm for the drama of life.
Your book Wild Himalaya began with a vivid chapter on the history and architecture of your ancestral home, Oakville. Growing up, were you keenly aware of your surroundings?
I’ve always been fascinated by places that contain multiple layers of history and lore. Growing up in Mussoorie it was impossible not to appreciate the many ways in which the mountains and forests were as much a part of our home as the bungalows we occupied. My curiosity for nature extended to everything from botany to birds and reptiles. I’m still learning as I go along, identifying different species and reading about their biology, distribution and behaviour. The Himalaya are the largest university on earth and it offers as many paths to knowledge as there are trails through the mountains.
There’s an academic rigour with which you contextualise the history of the mountains in Wild Himalaya. At what point did you transform your love for the hills into a serious endeavour?
Wild Himalaya is a book that I’ve been writing all my life because it reflects an accumulation of stories, facts and images gathered on numerous journeys through the mountains. It’s nice of you to say that it reflects “academic rigour” though I didn’t approach the book as a research project but rather a compilation of natural history from a very personal perspective. Of course, I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can be in terms of empirical facts and have cited my sources with as much diligence as possible for someone who is allergic to academic prose. But, at the end of the day, it’s a book of stories that blends together mythology, folklore and geography, as well as various scientific narratives.
Coming back to Feral Dreams, Mowgli’s transformation from a wildling with no religion to Daniel post-adoption seems to align with long-held notions of the West “civilising” the “savage” by introducing God in their lives. Is that a premise that played in your mind?
My goal as a novelist is always to tell a story in a compelling manner and help my readers look at the world through a fresh set of eyes. I don’t consciously begin with themes or big ideas but rather with characters. At the same time, Feral Dreams does explore the idea of religion as a means by which human beings control each other. Anyone who reads the book can take from it what they wish but it’s certainly not an endorsement of faith or doctrine. If there’s a spiritual element in the book, it’s the presence of elephants, whom I have always considered as close to being sacred creatures as my doubts permit.
The name Daniel itself; is there an allusion to Danyal/Daniel of Islam and the Bible who was unaffected by lions in their den?
Yes, the missionary who gives him his Christian name chooses Daniel because of the story of the lion’s den (though in his case it would be tigers).
There’s a passage in the book: “Facing the roaring flames, I imagined that the fire protected me from hidden tigers crouching just out of sight.” Is this a nod to the first Jungle Book where Mowgli saves the day by scaring Sher Khan with burning branches?
Camp fires have always had a hypnotic effect on me and the scene you mention from Kipling’s book is a very powerful moment in that story. I didn’t consciously try to replicate that moment but there is something magical about flames burning in the dark, which creates a dancing circle of light that often dispels our fears, whether it’s of tigers, ghosts or the seeming emptiness of the night.
The location of the book, the Hathi talao, is it somewhere in the Eastern Ghats… maybe the Chandaka elephant sanctuary?
The location and name of Hathi Talao sanctuary is entirely fictional, though I placed it somewhere in Rohilkhand, between Bareilly and Pilibhit.
Asad Ali is an independent journalist. He lives in Delhi. He is @AsadAli1989 on Twitter.