Jungle Studies

My copy of Kipling’s Jungle Book begins with Lisa Makman’s pithy (even pith-helmeted) passage on jungles. It well deserves citation:

‘The term “jungle”, derived from the Hindi word jangala, entered the English language only in the eighteenth century; today it evokes dangerous terrain: impenetrable equatorial forests, menacing urban landscapes, and overall mayhem [as in, “it’s a jungle out there”]. Even as jungles have gained a new designation – rain forest – and we have learned of their life-sustaining role in the biosphere, the word continues to conjure images of imperial adventure: the white man cutting his way through the bush to hunt big game, or Tarzan swinging from a vine. We owe our deep associations of jungles with mystery, threat, and the struggle for survival in large measure to Rudyard Kipling (Makman, intro to Kipling 2004:xv)’

I want to suggest that the stalking metaphor for the trinket collecting word-play of storytelling dialectics might be Kipling’s character Kaa, who also had some wisdom, let us not forget: ‘The jungle is large and the Cub he is small. Let him think and be still’ (Kipling 2004:33). Kaa is a storyteller too, not just an old snake: ‘I also have known what love is. There are tales that I could tell that…’ (Kipling 2004:42).

There is much to learn from the names that populate the jungle city. I also note, from my copy of Hobson-Jobson – that amazing compendium of Anglo-Indian loan words, without which neither Midnight’s Children nor Merchant Ivory – that the word ‘Jungle’ is derived from Sanskrit, chiefly used in medical discourses, ‘the native word means in strictness only waste, uncultivated ground’. In the great H-J we read a citation from Valentia, in the year 1809: ‘The air of Calcutta is much affected by the closeness of the jungle around it’ (Yule and Burdell 1886/1996:470). We should be much amused to hear yet again the repetition of this undeservedly bad press for the city, and must surely reject such characterizations, with Kipling in mind, remembering the city he called ‘dreadful night’ was also ‘a city of palaces’ (for discussion see Hutnyk 1996:7). From the silted swamp and urban jungle we move on to horror stories, always evocative, we go to battle the elements together: ‘for we be of one blood, ye and I’.

Hutnyk, John 1996 The Rumour of Calcutta: Tourism, Charity and the Poverty of Representation, London: Zed books.

Kipling, Rudyard 2004 The Jungle Books, New York: Barnes and Noble.

Yule, Henry and A.C.Burnell 1886/1996 Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-English Dictionary. Ware:Wordsworth Editions.

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Comments

  • robertanthonyford  On 07/11/2012 at 12:51

    I remember Kipling’s poem which has the repeating phrase ‘it’s pretty but is it art’. I think more to the man than some give him credit for, when not Disneyfied!

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