Rudyard Kipling: “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" (1836) To begin any tale with an announcement 1) that what you are about to read or hear is a story, with the implication that it is invented, and 2) that the narrator will be an overt presence leading you through the tale, is to set a tone that is decidedly unpopular in contemporary fiction. Most fiction published today tends to rely on the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of readers. The narrative voice attempts to disappear into the background, presenting a story without the filter of the overt narrator. The only times that we are aware of a narrative voice as such is when the author over-writes.
Right from the start, Rudyard Kipling tells us that we are about to hear the story of a brave little mongoose who saves a family from cobras. “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is the most popular tale from The Jungle Book, a two-part collection of stories of humans and their relations with partially-personified animals. The tone is intelligent and playful, ideal for children who might like to believe that animals think like humans do, and enjoyable for adults. Among modern writers, relatively few opt for demonstrative narration to tell their tales, though some do. Salman Rushdie, for instance, is a novelist who feels like a story-teller. The narrator, whether or not introduced formally or speaking to his audience directly, is an overt presence, constantly reminding us that we are reading a work of fiction. In Kipling’s case, the story-teller guise makes the story feel more apt for children, whom we can imagine gathered round the narrator, gazing at his knowing eyes and sweeping gesticulations.
I first encountered Kipling’s story in the form of Chuck Jones’s 1975 animated film version, which I loved. For better or worse, it was with the animated Rikki in mind that I read Kipling’s original version. The tale is of a young mongoose, orphaned from his family when a flood washes him out of his nest. He is aided by a British family, recently moved into a bungalow in India, who find and resuscitate him. The bungalow has been long empty, during which time a pair of cobras, Nag and his wife, Nagaina, have enjoyed complete rule of the garden. The two cobras plot to kill the family, and thereby reclaim their territory.
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, as he is called because of the sound he makes, is partially personified. He has animal instincts, but he appreciates the assistance and affections of the British family in a human way or, to be precise, in the way that we humans would like to believe that wild animals might appreciate our affections. He becomes a sort of house pet, cuddling up to his new family, as well as acting as their bodyguard.
Darzee, a bird in the garden, tells him about Nag who then obligingly arrives. He and Rikki confront each other and then Darzee warns Rikki that Nagaina is about to strike him from behind. Rikki instinctively attacks but, being still immature, doesn’t do any real harm to the snake. The cobra couple escape, leaving Rikki to brood.
Shortly after, Karait, a dust brown snakeling as poisonous as a cobra but more dangerous because more easily overlooked, attempts to strike the boy Teddy. Rikki attacks the creature and leaves him for dead. Kipling’s fight scenes are gripping, with plenty of action clearly described, but with a tone that never loses its charm for children, as when he speaks of Rikki wanting to eat the snake “after the custom of his family at dinner.”
Later, a melancholic musk rat warns Rikki that Nag and Nagaina are up to no good, and in a brief horror-story moment, Rikki hears the distant scratching sound of the snake’s rough body against bathroom tiles. Rikki investigates and overhears Nag and Nagaina discussing their plan to regain control of the garden by killing the family, mentioning as well their eventual offspring from eggs hidden in the garden. Nag hides in the water jar to await the man’s bath in the morning while Nagaina withdraws. Rikki attacks and in a ferocious fight, Nag is killed with help from the father’s gun. Rikki is praised by the man for having saved all their lives.
While Nagaina mourns her dead husband on the rubbish heap where his carcass was thrown, and Darvee sings Rikki’s praises for the deed, Rikki enlists the help of Darvee’s wife to feign a broken wing and distract Nagaina long enough for Rikki to destroy her eggs. The plan seems to work. Rikki rushes to the hidden eggs and destroys them all, biting off their tops and crushing the baby cobras within (in a brief glimpse of something more gruesome than one might expect in a children’s book). But then Darvee’s wife calls to him, shouting that Nagaina has gone onto the verandah where the family is having breakfast.
With one last egg in his mouth, Rikki rushes to the bungalow to find Nagaina dancing before the pale, terror-stricken family. Rikki uses the last egg to lure Nagaina away from the family, but Nagaina grabs the egg and rushes for the hole in the garden that is her lair. Bravely, or foolishly, Rikki chases the cobra into her lair. There is a long wait, as the narrator warns us that few mongooses ever survive an encounter with a cobra in her den, and Darvee sings a song of mourning.
Oddly enough, my recollection of the animated film version of this story was that Rikki kills Nagaina, but is bitten in the process and dies a hero’s death. But in Kipling, Rikki does emerge unscathed from the lair, and has saved the family and the garden from the cobras. The tale is ideal in length, action, exoticism, and tone—just about the perfect short story for children.
Kipling’s sense of local color came to him easily, as he was a wonderfully well-traveled writer. Born in India, he studied in England, worked in Pakistan and India as a journalist, then traveled the world, residing for a time in Vermont and South Africa, before settling in England. He won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, the first English-language writer to win and, at 42, the youngest still.
Some have searched for allegory in “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and, I suppose, we could do the same. A white British family moves into an Indian bungalow and, with the help of an Indian “pet” mongoose, drives out the evil Indian former residents of the area. One might see an analogy to English imperialism, with which Kipling is often identified, notably for poems like “The White Man’s Burden” (1899). We could look to the awful moment when Rikki kills the cobras’ offspring in their eggs, surprisingly graphic, as an image for genocide, and see Rikki himself as a running-mongoose lackey of his colonial overlords. But as Freud once said, “Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe.” Kipling has given us a wonderful children’s story, celebrating the bond between humans and animals, and that’s good enough for me.