The Child in Us All: On Rudyard Kipling's Short Story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi"
“Read it to me again.” Adults are always busy these days. There’s always some place to be, something to do, and something to put off. “When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults and they enter society, one of the politer names of hell. That is why we dread children, even if we love them, they show us the state of our decay.
” Although cynical, novelist, Brian W. Aldiss does speak some truth. What many adults would give these days to go back to childhood heroes, sleepovers, and going days without bathing. There are few things in this world that make a person regardless of age, a child again. The story, “Rikki Tikki Tavi” is one of them.
The tale is skillfully crafted by the master of English writing, Rudyard Kipling. It uses intimate story-telling, a classic good versus evil battle, and a lovable main character, to bring out the child in all of us every time it is read. The story is so enchanting that you just might catch yourself saying, “Read it to me again.” As a child, Rudyard Kipling was an insatiable reader. He was born in Bombay, India and he later moved to Egypt.
Young Rudyard grew up around the Suez Canal, a newly opened port as well as a confluence of cultures and religions. No doubt, those days he spent reading and exploring left indelible images in his heart and brain. The evidence lies in his life as an adult – he spent his days doing the same thing he did as a child, only on a much larger scale. Kipling hopped from city to city, country to country, following where ever his inspiration would take him. One day he would be in the jungles of India. The next day he would be in the crowded streets of England.
In a sense, Kipling lived his childhood every day with that same noetic thirst which could never be quenched. It’s a good thing too. After all, “…no artist grows up. If he sheds the perceptions of childhood, he ceases being an artist.” Kipling not only kept his childhood; he also shared it in his writing. Indeed, when “Rikki Tikki Tavi” is read, a young Rudyard is visible as he silently watches and cheers on Rikki the mongoose as he fights valiantly in the distance.
Rikki’s story begins after a high summer flood. The flood has left Rikki half-conscious, and half-dead in a roadside ditch. The mongoose is found, revived, and sheltered by an English family. As payment for the family’s kindness, Rikki becomes their guardian, protecting them from many dangers that lurk in their very own backyard. The biggest danger of all is a pair of king cobras named Nag and Nagaina.
Soon Rikki, along with two tailor birds and a cowardly musk rat, faces off against the king cobras that plan to dispose of the family and use their house as a nursery to raise a nest of baby cobras. The plot of “Rikki Tikki Tavi” is simple and nothing new – a brave and righteous hero against a wicked and heartless villain – but the execution is witty and laudable. By adding loosely connected tidbits to the story (e.g. Rikki’s family history, Darzee’s song to honor Rikki, the mongoose’s motto), the story is given a friendly and intimate tone. It’s almost as if Kipling is there reading the story out loud to you.
Kipling is a master story-teller no doubt, and a master character creator for that matter. His protagonist, Rikki the mongoose, ascends to become the paragon of a childhood hero. Not only is Rikki strong, courageous, and valiant, but he’s a furry, friendly mongoose to boot. It’s rare to find a character such as Rikki who appeals to not only the younger audience, but to the more mature crowd as well. In the end, “Rikki Tikki Tavi” is a fairy tale for adults as well as children. The reader, regardless of age, is taken back to the time when we believed in knights in shining armor, damsels in high towers, and that everyone could live happily ever after.
The story brings out the child in us all, and if you close your eyes and listen carefully, for a brief moment, you can hear Rikki’s war cry in the distance: “Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!”