In Kipling's footsteps... the Jungle Book

| September 10, 2016

Ahead of the new Jungle Book film, the Daily Telegraph’s Stephen McClarence explores Rudyard Kipling’s India.

Bengal tiger, Ranthambore National Park

Seven thousand feet up in the Himalaya, Raaja Bhasin is giving us a guided tour of Shimla’s Gaiety Theatre. This, he says, pointing through a doorway, is the room where the Viceroy used to host suppers in the days when Shimla, most famous of India’s hill stations, was the summer capital of the British Raj. This, he says, is the newly restored Victorian auditorium, all green and gold, seating just 310 and exquisite with plaster cherubs. And here are framed photographs of long-past productions by the Amateur Dramatic Club: Miss Muspratt Williams and Miss Wogan Bronne in The Yeomen of the Guard; Mr Otto and Captain Coffin in The Adventure of Lady Ursula; Mr Crookshank and Mrs Barrows in A Country Mouse. “Britishers come and say: ‘That’s my great grandmother there,’ ” says Bhasin, an authority on Shimla and historical consultant for Channel 4’s Indian Summers, which is set in the town. 

Sadly there are no pictures of the most famous person to tread the Gaiety’s boards: Rudyard Kipling, the writer who perhaps more than anyone moulded British perceptions of India, in all its imperialism and exoticism, for half a century. 2015 was the 150th anniversary of his birth – in Bombay (now Mumbai) – and my wife and I are on the trail of the man and his books. For several years, as a young newspaper reporter, Kipling covered ‘the season’ in Shimla – or Simla as this eyrie of the empire was called in the days when the British fled the scorching summer plains and ruled one-fifth of humanity from it for half the year.

Kipling’s brief involved, he said, “as much riding, waltzing, dining out and concerts in a week as I should get at home in a lifetime”. It gave him plenty of material for Plain Tales from the Hills, his sometimes wry, sometimes tragic stories about the idiosyncrasies of British India and the uneasy relationship between rulers and ruled. Easing himself into Shimla society in 1887, he acted in a farce at the newly opened Gaiety Theatre; to no great acclaim. The Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, found his performance “horrid and vulgar”. It wasn’t the last time such criticism was thrown at Kipling. George Orwell named him “a jingo imperialist, morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting”, while Oscar Wilde called him “our first authority on the second-rate.” Many others have questioned his populism and his paternalistic belief that the British Empire (if well run) was “a good thing”. To set against that, Kim, partly set in Shimla, was Nehru’s favourite novel.

Shimla Toy Train

Shimla Toy Train

Kipling generally travelled here in a tonga, a horse-drawn carriage, along roads that were, he wrote, “just ledges”. My wife and I have travelled by the toy train, a narrow-gauge railway opened in 1903, some 15 years after his last Shimla season. We’ve been staying in Delhi and are up at 5am to drive through the foggy dawn and catch an express train up to Kalka, where the toy train is waiting. It’s ineffably quaint with its half-dozen boxy carriages, each seating 30 passengers (snugly). With much hooting and tooting, it edges out of the station at the start of its 60-mile journey. It’s a slow-motion switchback ride, a good 5 hours of viaducts, bridges (845 of them) and tunnels (much shrieking from the children on board). The line zigs, it zags, it double-backs, it triple-backs, and we eventually emerge through the mists into afternoon sunshine, high enough to be flying. With its sheer drops, the Slow Train to Shimla is not for the vertiginous or the impatient.

From time to time, it stops at trim stations where passengers pile off to buy cheese patties and cardboard cups of tomato soup. Gradually Shimla unfolds in the distance, sprawling over the hillsides, houses clinging to the slopes by their fingernails, with vast snow-covered mountains glistening behind. The sun sets behind the pine trees, the train pulls in, and we drive a few hundred yards to our hotel. The scrupulously plush Oberoi Cecil – where the house pianist is playing My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean – is furnished in luxury Raj style and has its own Kipling connection: it is built on the site of The Tendrils, one of his homes. Many of its rooms offer panoramic views over the mountains, with ranges silhouetted against each other. At night, the house and street lights far below stud the darkness – “a double firmament”, as Kipling wrote in Kim.

Oberoi Cecil Deluxe suite

Oberoi Cecil Deluxe suite

Shimla has expanded hugely since his day; with its many modern buildings, it’s no longer a half-timbered Haslemere in the Himalaya. His “crowded rabbit warren” of bazaars, which inspired some of Kim’s most magical passages, now cascade down the hillsides, with monkeys clattering over the corrugated iron roofs. Here Kipling met AM Jacob, a mysterious, almost mystical jewellery and curio dealer who inspired the character of Lurgan Sahib and his room “full of things that smelt like all the temples of all the East”. Over two days of crisp winter sunshine, we find plenty of charm, particularly along The Mall, still the town’s social focus, and around the central piazza on The Ridge with its holiday atmosphere: horse riding, balloons, candy floss and much promenading. At one end is primrose-yellow Christ Church, looking airlifted straight from the Cotswolds and retaining a potent Raj atmosphere. Memorials remember Assistant Adjutant-Generals, Commissary-Generals-in-Chief and Directors General of Ordnance. Screwed to the front pews, a small brightly polished brass plaque announces proprietorially: ‘HE The Viceroy’.

At the other side of town is his old home: the Viceregal Lodge. Lodge? This is a vast baronial barn, with a teak-panelled entrance hall big enough to accommodate most common-orgarden stately homes. Once full of tiger-skin rugs and brocaded chairs, it’s now an academic institute, but guided tours take visitors round some of the rooms to stare at the table where India’s independence was hammered out. The British employed 800 staff here, including 40 gardeners. An official still hovers outside to blow a warning whistle whenever anyone dares step on the lawn. We stroll back to The Ridge, passing retired military-looking men, spruce in tweed caps and sports jackets, dark blue blazers and cravats. In this Brigadoon for brigadiers, they sometimes meet in the dim, muggy Indian Coffee House, where white-uniformed waiters with Nehru caps serve ‘finger chips’, mutton noodles and ‘jelly with cream’.

Viceregal Lodge, Shimla

Viceregal Lodge, Shimla

The elite club based at the Gaiety Theatre keeps up strict standards. Lounge suits and leather shoes must be worn after 7pm, though “turtle necks with jackets may be worn in winter”. On the terrace, the ultra-urbane Raaja Bhasin discusses Kipling. Where, I wonder, might a visitor to Shimla sense his lingering presence? “You might feel it just walking along The Mall, where he did so much of his people-watching, even though the rickshaws have gone,” he says. “But the general attitude to ‘ ‘ Kipling, the writer who perhaps more than anyone moulded British perceptions of India, in all its imperialism and exoticism... him in today’s India is that it’s all part of history, that we should leave it at that and move on.”

We do indeed move on – to Kanha National Park, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, in pursuit of Kipling’s The Jungle Book, still widely read (and watched) by Indian schoolchildren. The Kanha area is often cited as the inspiration for the landscapes in these animal fables. The honest truth, however, is that Kipling never visited this part of India and based his jungle descriptions on other books, photographs and conversations. But it’s the spirit not the letter that counts and any excuse to visit Kanha’s 750 square miles is a good one. We’re staying at Banjaar Tola, a luxury ‘tented camp’ run by Taj Safaris. With its bamboo floors, sturdy canvas roof and walls, and decor modelled on tribal art, our suite, with its treetoplevel veranda overlooking a river, is to tents what Chatsworth is to detached houses. And it has electric blankets.

Banjaar Tola, Kanha National Park

Banjaar Tola, Kanha National Park

Kipling’s Bombay

Rudyard Kipling was born in Mumbai, or Bombay as it was called at its Victorian height (and is still called by many of its citizens) in 1865. His Yorkshire-born father, John Lockwood Kipling, was an architectural sculptor who became the first principal of the Jeejeebhoy School of Art in the centre of the city, and settled in a whitewashed bungalow where Rudyard was born and spent his first five years. The bungalow was subsequently demolished and replaced by an elegant timber building with a trim veranda. Recent plans to turn it into a Kipling museum have foundered due to fears that his imperialist image would cause a political storm and the now-empty building is reportedly “close to collapse”. Kiplingites will have to make do with Mumbai’s St Thomas’ Cathedral, where the author was christened. Its walls are crammed with grieving marble memorials to servants of the empire who “fell sacrifice to the climate” or were “treacherously deprived of life”. At Crawford Market, piled high with fruit and vegetables, cross-legged stallholders supervise perfect pyramids of tomatoes and artfully displayed potatoes. Lockwood designed the market’s busy friezes of Indian rural life and a fountain decorated with a harmonious jungle of carved animals and birds. It’s often slung with drying washing.

The surrounding area is the heart of Victorian Bombay, with the university, whose bells used to play Home Sweet Home and Rule Britannia, and the Victoria (railway) Terminus, renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus but still most commonly called VT. As India’s architectural answer to St Pancras, it seethes with three million passengers a day. Most guests come to see tigers: the Shere Khan of The Jungle Book. Hunting reduced India’s tiger population from an estimated 100,000 at the start of the 20th century to 1,400 by 2008. The latest estimate, however, is more than 2,200, and 80 of them may be at Kanha. Once every guy wanted to possess a tiger skin: it was a symbol of power and bravery, says Nagendra Singh Hada, Taj Safaris’ general manager. Now, he says, the trophy is spotting one. With that in mind, we set off on a jeep safari with Sadhvi Singh, an engaging 24-year-old naturalist. As we drive along tracks through dense forest of sal trees and bamboo, Sadhvi reckons we have a one-in-three chance of spotting a tiger. That would be nice, we say, but we’re quite happy just seeing some of the other animals and the 200 species of birds.

We see swamp deer strolling with stately unconcern, yellow-footed green pigeons, and jungle cats. Sadhvi’s eyes dart through the trees. “Racket-tailed drongo over there,” she says, “Rufous treepie there. Red-wattled lapwing. Scops owl gazing down from that branch.” A distant flock of dots flies across the horizon. “Mynahs,” she says. She could probably spot a sparrow a continent away. It’s been a wonderfully calm afternoon, unstressed by any imperative to see a tiger. Nor do we see one next morning, when at 6.30am a grey scarf of mist swirls over the forest and dew clings to spiders’ webs. There’s frost on the grass, porridge and whisky on the terrace and hot water bottles in the jeep. Even we non-tiger-centrics feel a momentary frisson of excitement when Sadhvi spots tiger tracks and we join a convoy of jeeps playing hide and seek with an animal that may or may not be there. No joy, but the dew on the spiders’ webs has been enough. 

A version of this article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph, January 2016

Recommended C&K tour: Golden Triangle & Shimla: 13 Days & 11 Nights from £1,795 per person
Including 3 nights at leisure at the Oberoi Cecil in Shimla, this group tour includes a ride on the toy train and takes in all of the highlights of the Golden Triangle. Speak to one of our India experts to find out more. 

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