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The Jungle Book | Context


The British Empire

In Rudyard Kipling's time, India was part of the British Empire, which sought to bring together the entire subcontinent under one rule of law and had a great deal of influence on cultural and political norms there. The English slowly took over India, beginning with the establishment of the East India Tea Company as early as the 1600s. By the time Kipling was writing, the British had established rule over India, which lasted formally from 1858 to 1947, and India continues to be part of the Commonwealth today. The British Empire, during the time of colonization and expansion of the empire, encompassed a wide range of countries. It made no sense to force each country to adopt British culture, though most countries in the empire adopted the parliamentary system of government. However, British citizens were favored over natives, and the laws were usually created for British benefit. India managed to retain its range of languages, religions, and customs while having England's cultural and religious influences, including the English language and select forms of Western dress such as blouses or petticoats, forced upon those who worked as servants.

While English became the language most used in schools and in the political arena, many Anglo-Indians learned the native languages, the most prominent of which was Hindi. Though he wrote in English for Anglo publications, Kipling was armed with a facility for the local language and an interest in the lives of all classes of Indian society. He used his knowledge of the people of India as well as the natural world there to inform his articles as a journalist. Later, this same knowledge was reflected in his stories, poems, and novels, which began with a collection of 40 stories called Plain Tales From the Hills and included The Jungle Book and the novel Kim, among many others.

Today, however, when people mention Rudyard Kipling, controversy ensues. It is certain Kipling's writing is remarkable for its consistent quality and popularity, but Kipling also had a hard time staying out of politics and out of the news, to his detriment. He coined the phrase, "the white man's burden," meaning the role of white British society to bring so-called civilization to other nations. This idea puts him in a category of writers from imperial Britain whose political views were not just conservative but remain extremely disturbing to the reading public and are now considered to be racist. Although reviews at the time of publication were positive, readers and writers today often dismiss Kipling as a racist without reading his works, which, according to English author Neil Gaiman, is an unfortunate turn of events. Gaiman credits Kipling's stories for introducing him to some of the finest horror and fantasy stories ever written in English, regardless of Kipling's political views.

The Real Jungle

It was first claimed by biographers that Kipling modeled The Jungle Book setting after photographs and descriptions of the "Seonee" jungle (Seoni, in the Central Provinces, now the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh), courtesy of his friends Professor Aleck Hill and his wife, Edmonia Hill, with whom he lived for a short time in his early 20s. However, the original manuscript referred to the jungle as the hills of Aravulli (now Aravalli) in Rajputana (now Rajasthan), which is a state in India just northwest of Madhya Pradesh, and it was an area with which Kipling was very familiar.

Kipling changed the location of the jungle just before the first Mowgli stories were published. The proximity of each location in the first and second The Jungle Book was fictionalized, as Seoni was nowhere near the Northern Forest Reserves. In addition, while Kipling was writing these stories, he had left India and was living in Vermont. Kipling stated in autobiographical writings that he used reference books to help him describe the fictional setting, including Beast and Man in India by his father, John Lockwood Kipling, and Seonee or My Life on the Satpura Range by Robert Armitage Sterndale. What began from his actual experience in Indian forests was transformed by his imagination and a lot of hard work into a setting that has captured the attention of readers, young and old, ever since.

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