I imagine that to most people The Jungle Book reminds them of the cheery Disney animation from the 60s with Baloo the Bear jiggling his generous belly around to The Bare Necessities.
Not to me.
I remember a much older and darker version, a movie from the 40s that I watched as a child, through the little peephole between my fingers because I was too frightened of Shere Khan's stripes brushing past the tall jungle leaves, and yet too involved to pull away. I watched it many times, but only remember doing so bunched up against the wall, snuggled amongst the big TV cushions of my Babaji's sweet old house, that seemed so small for two people and a cat, but always large enough for a family of a dozen.
He would either be sitting on his chair in a corner, watching me make a repeated spectacle of myself, or in his absence his newspaper would sit folded into a quarter on the round glass table with bamboo legs, next to the ringed stain of his teacup.
I don't even know if the table was real, or if it is a figment of my nostalgia. But somehow I feel that there must have been a round glass table with bamboo legs, just as certainly as there was a newspaper folded into a quarter, just as certainly as there was the ringed stain of his teacup, just as certainly as there was my Grandfather.
I bought this book some years ago, and it has sat untouched in the disgraceful pile of unread books on my shelves all this time. I have no idea why I bought it, and no idea why I numbly chose it to read a week ago, drawn only by the orange smudges at the bottom of the cover, which made me think of tea, as did also the first name of the author. I was halfway through the first chapter when I suddenly flipped back to the inside of the dust jacket to remind myself what this book was even going to be about.
Imagine my wonder. It has turned out to be a story that interlaces an escaped tiger from a Balkan zoo during the war... a tiger that becomes known as the magical Shere Khan to a little boy who keeps a copy of Kipling's The Jungle Book tucked safely into his breast pocket... a little boy who grows up to be the grandfather of the girl through whose eyes this story is written... a girl who has recently lost her grandfather and is on a journey of his stories in the days following his unexpected passing.
How strange that this fictional Natalia and this very real me have these unusual threads in common.
A grandfather, a tiger, a journey, and the sudden loss of all three.
How sweet it is that this is the book I happened to pick up, just as my memory of that bamboo table fades.
You know the one... that round glass table with bamboo legs, where his newspaper sat folded into a quarter, next to the ringed stain of his teacup.
The one that is as real to me as he is.
Photo credit to Angad Singh
Love you, Babaji.
In memory of my Grandfather.
Buddy. Provider. Storyteller. Traveller. Joker. Collector. Adventurer. Foodie. All-round super cool guy.