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In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Mowgli the man-cub is said to be reared in ‘Seeonee hills’ by a pack of wolves. Now a burgeoning township in Madhya Pradesh, replete with schools, banks and markets, present-day Seoni bears no semblance of a jungle. Around 122 years ago when the book first came out, it’s said, the area was part of one big forest. That has now been reduced to the Kanha and Pench sanctuaries connected by a fast depleting forest corridor.

While Kipling’s classic was a work of fiction, it’s said to have been heavily inspired by Sir William Henry Sleeman’s pamphlet, ‘An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens’, and book, ‘Rambles and Recollections of an Indian official’, which describe a wolf-boy captured in Seoni in 1831. Sleeman was a British soldier and administrator and is known for his work in suppressing thuggery in the area. Lieutenant John Moor is said to have camped for almost a month to capture the feral boy “who was caught eating human flesh with his pack”.

It is an intriguing story, one that inspires a trek to Mowgli-land, made even more famous by Disney’s latest take on the classic. While Mowgli is a pervasive theme in the district — from his caricatures on bus stands to an annual Mowgli Mahotsav and even a dedicated statue at the collector’s office, few know of the wolf-boy’s legend. The only clue is talk about a cave on the outskirts of Kanhiwada, a village that finds mention in the original tale.

Sure enough, 3km from Kanhiwada, in a village called Chhui, there’s an inconspicuous forest department board that points towards “Amodagadh, the karmasthali of the wolf-child Mowgli”. Twelve kilometres of dirt track lie ahead. No wonder nobody bothers to find this “tourist spot”. The track twists and turns amid fields, and ends up running straight into the forest corridor.

The search now feels like a Hardy Boys’ unravelling of a mystery shrouded in urban legend. The road poetically ends in a fork. The path to the right, leads to the top of a hillock. A closer inspection reveals the jungle in The Jungle Book. “A hilltop covered with stones and boulders where a hundred wolves could hide,” Kipling wrote. We’ve reached Council Rock — the meeting place of the wolf pack that adopted Mowgli. In the Jon Favreau film, Neel Sethi is not considered ‘wolf’ enough to join the meetings though he tries hard to be as fast and agile as the other cubs. Looking down from the spot where Akela held court, the Wainganga seems to split the mountain in two. Smooth rocks — some the size of cars — dot the ravine trapped between two almost-vertical cliff walls. Look closely, and one can see why Shere Khan couldn’t escape the rampaging buffalo herd led by Mowgli that trampled him to death (in the book). This could be the gorge where it all ended. Could it also be the real wolf boy’s den? Local legend says so, and PRO of Seoni, Babita Mishra, agrees fervently. “That’s the spot where Mowgli was captured,” she says, referring to the 1831 incident. Why wasn’t it developed as a tourist spot then? There was a plan but it got caught in red tape, she says.

Although Kipling never visited Seoni, his book borrowed heavily from Robert Armitage Strendale’s books Seonee, Natural History of the Mammalia of India and Ceylon, and Denizens of the Jungle. Subharanjan Sen, field director of Pench tiger reserve, believes the Amodagadh story is pure conjecture.
In The Jungle Book, Mowgli may have been the target of Shere Khan, but today the tigers of Pench are the ones in danger. Ten tiger deaths have been reported in the past eight months, the last one as recent as March-end when a tigress and her two cubs were found poisoned to death. “Karakal has almost disappeared from this area; about 50 wild buffalo must be left, most of them in Naxal-controlled areas; a concerted effort has helped Barasingha numbers pick up in certain areas of Kanha since the 1960s, when they stooped to a mere 65,” says Sen. Moreover, the corridor is thinning. A comparison of forest cover maps from a 1913-26 survey and recent years shows clear signs of deforestation, especially significant around the western edge of Kanha national park.

We head back to the fork and take the left this time, 45 gigantic stone steps down to the river bank. Questions about Mowgli’s den to the handful of people bathing there draw blanks. “But there is a cave of a Batekhari Baba here,” says a fisherman. The famed Mowgli cave is now occupied by a self-proclaimed godman, who has covered the cliff walls with his preachings. He’s been meditating there since 1977, the graffiti declares. Dressed in all-black, a white mask and goggles, this ascetic is keen to tell stories of his chardham yatra on foot, but the moment I ask him about the wolf boy, his ‘inner peace’ disappears. The choicest of expletives are used to describe Kipling’s saga. “There never was a Mowgli,” he spits.

Whatever the baba’s view, somewhere down the river bend, the legend of Mowgli rustles on the jungle floor.

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