Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696
Yolen’s postscript at the novel’s end gives credit to her research on feral children, Indian folklore, and jungle life after her discovery of the diary of a Mr. Singh. Her genius lies, however, in the well-turned tale, excellent characterization, and exceptional themes. Readers readily empathize with Mohandas’ efforts to create...
(The entire section contains 696 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Yolen’s postscript at the novel’s end gives credit to her research on feral children, Indian folklore, and jungle life after her discovery of the diary of a Mr. Singh. Her genius lies, however, in the well-turned tale, excellent characterization, and exceptional themes. Readers readily empathize with Mohandas’ efforts to create a social and ideological identity. He must reconcile his Bengali past with his British present, his Hindu beliefs with Christianity and his admiration for the Reverend Welles, and his social inferiority with his intellectual and imaginative superiority. Many young people have also encountered a Rama, the always-better-at-everything charmer with a winning smile; a Mr. Welles, the patient taskmaster whose aloof idealism does not fit life’s reality; or an Indira, the fathomless and furious bully.
What Mohandas must acknowledge is the power of language and action, a major theme of the novel. He has, after all, the soul of a writer, the imagination to see possibilities and to spot the inconsistencies and ironies of life. Yet, until he has the courage to act, he cannot capture the power inherent in words. As he watches, Kamala learns to speak, only to be subjected to the other children’s cruelty; she is different and therefore rejected by the orphanage society. He feels a kinship with this abandoned orphan and her wildness, seeing “my other self, different, full of unspoken words, and alone” mirrored in her. Until he can accept and name this side of himself, he cannot be transformed. When he does, the story reaches its climax: He goes alone into the dark jungle to search for Kamala, realizing at last that he is both beast and human, belonging to this world and yet living beyond it.
Another quiet theme in this book is the necessity of creating one’s own self. Mohandas scorns his countrymen when they torment the captured wolf-girls and is disappointed in Rama’s lack of courage on the jungle trek. Yet, he cannot totally identify with British culture either. Caught between two cultures, he can neither escape his Indian terror of the manush-bagha nor dismiss the ghosts as impossible through Christianity. (The ghosts in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol confuse him.) Since he is empathetic to the girls—who, like him, inhabit “an alien world”—he agrees to serve as their gillie, or animal-tamer, for Mr. Welles. Mohandas is seeking acceptance from his Indian culture, from Rama, and from Mr. Welles. He remains powerless to act except on Mr. Welles’s suggestions and yet questions his wisdom; “Perhaps . . . we should never have taken them from the jungle.” When they bring Kamala out of the jungle the second time, it is finally Mr. Welles who seeks advice from Mohandas, and it is Mohandas alone who carries her back, with Rama and Mr. Welles holding back the thorns and bushes in the path. Mohandas’ quest for identity is over: He is complete, and the others recognize his transformation.
Mohandas’ journey of self-discovery is symbolically a writer’s journey. Early in the novel, he senses that power over another can come from owning that person’s words, and he is frightened when Rama reads his journal. He creates his own private cipher to keep his journal private and will share only translated pieces with Mr. Welles. Rama is more at ease speaking Bengali; Mr. Welles, English. To survive, Mohandas combines the two languages, thus defining his own culture and inventing his own stories to dream from and remember back to; he fashions his own past and his own mythology. This is Yolen as folklorist and fantasy writer; this is the creed of the storyteller and the power of the word. If the story is well and rightly told, its magic will touch others through the ages. This story explores the importance of language to memory, culture, and humanness itself. The feral child deprived of language and human contact—whether living in the jungles of India or modern-day suburbia—cannot become enculturated or experience full humanness without words or memories of a cumulative past. Yolen’s ultimate message is that Mohandas learns, grows, and survives only because he “had the words to tell of it.”