Saturday, February 19, 2011

Just So-so Story

A lightly-edited version of this appeared in today's The Hindustan Times


A classic 1920s postcard featured an illustration of a bespectacled youth with a cloth-bound volume in his hand asking a simpering young woman whether she liked Kipling. Her reply: “I don’t know, you naughty boy, I’ve never kippled”. When it comes to The Jungle Book, among those who’ve kippled are Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book) as well as the writers at Disney. Now, there’s Samrat’s The Urban Jungle which, as the title indicates, transposes Kipling’s characters to a metropolitan setting. An interesting premise, but one that’s let down by fuzzy execution.

Prepare, then, to meet Jimmy Mowgli, grandson of the original feral child. This naïve lad leaves his family in Haripur, next to the Seeonee jungle, to arrive in New Delhi for a job with an environmental NGO. Being an alienated, sensitive sort of fellow, he finds it hard at first to blend in, and this leads to moments of gentle satire on the ways of those in the metropolis.

Soon enough, Jimmy makes both friends and foes. Among them, the panther-like Heera, head of a security services firm; the affable Balu, photographer and man about town; the lone inspector A. Kala; and the menacing Shamsher Khan, poacher and arms trafficker. Jimmy’s allies also include a local faction of the Bandar-log, with whom he has the ability to communicate, and whose president lives in Rashtrapati Bhavan, no less.

The prose, and the telling, is pleasant enough, barring the occasional sentence such as “His hormones started shaking and his heart started quaking”. Jimmy, alternating between innocence and violence, sometimes comes across as a bit of a prig, especially when he utters lines such as: "The people of Haripur are not junglis. They are not beasts. They have manners, they have morals, they are in touch with our culture and nature, and they are not forever in a race to show off their money or earn more of it."

Along the way, the focus on the urban jungle dissipates, and the location shifts to an actual jungle. The narrative strand of Jimmy’s being a “star spy in the employ of the monkey republic” peters out, and there are other blind alleys, such as devoting time to his flailing attempts at wooing women.

It all comes down to a drawn-out dénouement: a character introduced almost at the last minute, the sleek Kaushal Acharya, a hypnotic yoga guru-cum-intelligence analyst known as KA, sets out with Heera and others to rescue an abducted Jimmy. The original Mowgli, too, gets into the act with a little help from a band of primates, to make the bad guys stop their monkey business. Taking another cue from Kipling, one could say it’s a Just So-so Story.

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