Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Reviewing Rudyard Kipling's "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi"

Indian Gray Mongoose

This is the epic story of a brave mongoose protecting his adopted human family against the evil machinations of a family of cobras.  I borrowed Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 short story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, when I was about eight years old.  I read it every night before bed, by the light of the hallway coming into my dark bedroom.  (If I had known about the convention about making a tent out of sheets and reading by flashlight, I would’ve followed tradition.)

In the story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a baby mongoose taken from his family by a flood, and rescued and nursed back to health by an English family.  This sort of thing was probably what made me like the book so much as a child: I always loved animals and wished I could adopt live ones as pets.  Even today if a waterlogged orphan mongoose showed up on my front porch I wouldn’t hesitate in taking it in and giving it a saucer of milk.

The English family is new to these foreign wilds, and there are dangers here behind every blade of grass, mostly in the form of snakes.  Although he is barely out of infancy, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi has a mongoose’s hunting instincts and soon repays his family by protecting their young son from a poisonous snake.  But as with every hero’s rite of passage, our young mongoose’s prowess at killing snakes makes him enemies: two Indian Cobras, Nag and Nagaina, have been living in the deserted bungalow, and know that the English intruders will soon kill them if they don’t make a preemptive strike.  Again it is Rikki-Tikki-Tavi that saves the day.  

Some critics of the Politically Correct Mindset tend to dismiss Kipling as an imperialist puppet of the British Raj, perpetuating racist stereotypes of Indians by his writing.  Such works as The White Man’s Burden (which treats other ethnicities as subordinates or immature cultures compared to European) tend to back up their criticisms.  But Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in many ways contradicts the idea that Europeans are superior caretakers of the earth.  True, he is rescued by the English family, and true, the villains are “native” cobras who must be killed for the safety of the European invaders.  But the hero here is a native as well, and the English family is presented consistently as requiring his protection. 

In the end, though, I don’t think Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a political fable underscoring imperialist ideals.  You certainly can’t enjoy it if you do impose that interpretation.  Instead, I think it’s a story of good verses evil, peopled (and “animaled”) with the creatures Kipling would have known well from living in India.  Any story where good triumphs over evil is an epic, even if it only takes eleven or so pages in the telling. 

Suggested Reading Age: 8+

Parental Notices:  If your child has a snake phobia, this book is tragically not for them.  If for some reason they have a mongoose phobia, then maybe a therapist is in order.

Availability: In addition to being sold separately, Rikki Tikki Tavi is often included in a collection along with The Jungle Book and  other short stories like The White Seal.  It is also available free on Kindle.

Other Notes: In real life, mongooses really do “duel” cobras, as several videos on YouTube such as this will attest.  Also there is a surprisingly accurate animated adaptation (by Tom and Jerry’s Chuck Jones of all people) which is worth checking out.  

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