Before picking up fanfiction, some readers are tempted to first revisit the original work. But since a reworked and retold tale is unlikely to match the power of the original, it may be better to come to Stephen Alter’s Feral Dreams: Mowgli & His Mothers without paying one’s respects to Kipling on the way in. Alter’s sullen young hero, found in the jungle and adopted by a missionary, is nothing like our Mowgli with “a brave heart and a courteous tongue”. Kipling’s vast wilderness surrounded the small villages and their ploughed lands, while the hero of this novel wanders a park infested with poachers in jeeps, and it is civilisation that is everywhere.
In a series of nested narratives, Alter tells us the story of Daniel Cranston, all except where he was born, who his parents were, and how he was abandoned in the jungle. In the first narrative, set in the US, a middle-aged Daniel visits his adopted mother Elizabeth, once a missionary in India, who, in the grip of dementia, no longer knows him. The second is her typed manuscript, her own jungle book, in which she once created a back story for Daniel. That fictional Mowgli, raised by elephants and befriended by langurs in the Hathi Talao forests, runs into wild dogs, dacoits and cobras. Elizabeth’s writing is forced, but, mercifully, doesn’t last forever.
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