jungle—noun

Origin: 1770–80;  < Hindi jangal  < Pali, Prakrit jangala  rough, waterless place
—an equatorial forest area with luxuriant vegetation, often almost impenetrable
—any dense or tangled thicket or growth
—a place of intense competition or ruthless struggle for survival: the concrete jungle

In the way that an idea chases and mows you down for reasons you do not initially understand, the word “jungle” has been haunting me this month.  And somehow everything that happened in the last few weeks seemed to allude in some way, literal and metaphoric, to the jungle.

The word splattered on my forehead when I looked up from right outside my daughter’s apartment on East Ohio Street in Chicago. We had just arrived there for her graduation.

I felt I was among a dazzle of zebras when I got out of the car. I was mesmerized by gleaming glass and soaring steel. Suddenly, all those bodies in black and white locked together and bent over my suburban self, smothering and pressing me into the earth that was, at that given moment, smelling strongly of pee. A dog was being dragged away fast by his owner, after the dog, and I do believe it was the dog, did the deed. I was indeed in the middle of a concrete jungle and the word had coincidentally arrived like a bold raindrop in the Amazon.

The word “jungle,” which means an area of land overgrown with dense forest and tangled vegetation, originated in the late 18th century, via Hindi, from the Sanskrit word jangala which means “rough and arid (terrain).” But the word has begun to apply metaphorically in many ways. For instance, it often alludes to any “situation or place of bewildering complexity or brutal competitiveness.”

It was only natural then that I would use the word to refer to downtown Chicago, the heart of the city that is a humid thicket of buildings, zebra crossings, unending streams of traffic, territorial parking spots and an endless, snarly maze of impenetrable roads even as late as midnight. It seemed no accident that the show that we ended up watching one evening during the graduation trip was The Jungle Book, the story that had entertained our family for many consecutive years in the early nineties.

One evening in 1991, when our daughter was fifteen months old, a friend handed us the VHS cassette of a Disney movie that he had just watched with his son. He claimed that the film would hypnotize and hook us, the parents, as much as it would entertain our toddler. And thus, father, mother and baby daughter would watch, over and over, the Disney interpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s enormously entertaining story about a little baby boy, Mowgli, raised by wolves, who grew up knowing that his life in the jungle was threatened by a man-eating tiger, Sher Khan. When the time was right, but only after some fearful skirmishes with many wild animals such as Baloo the bear, Kaa the Snake, the Monkey King Louie and the Vultures, Mowgli finally went back to the Man-Village where he really belonged.

That evening at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, I sat in the audience juggling the memories of the past with the emotions of the present. I reminisced about a daughter whose greatest joy every evening was to dance with Baloo and giggle with Mowgli when Baloo shook his booty.

Mostly I remember her eyeballs. They grew rounder and whiter as Kaa hypnotized Mowgli and slimily coiled around his torso. And then, of course, I must mention the one expression that came to hold special meaning in our lives, even after 22 years, when she would tell me, in her baby voice, to “Go-Away-Leave-Me-Stop-it” in the way Mowgli told Baloo to please “Go away, Leave Me Alone” whenever Baloo reminded him of reality and coerced him to do the right thing.

All that magic rolled to a stop one day when our daughter outgrew The Jungle Book. Suddenly, there was homework to do and music to practice. I suppose, like a small old pond in a forest slowly overrun by algae and creepers, the growing anxieties of our daily lives had snuffed out the old wellsprings of fun.

On graduation morning I lamented the loss of a beautiful period in the life of our family. It had come and gone in the time it took a crow to eat a fruit and spit its seed.  We watched our child walk up to the stage to receive her degree. It seemed that unlike Mowgli, our little woman-cub was leaving the Man-Village for the Jungle. There she would learn that real life was about living with people of different hides and stripes.

She was about to enter the world of the eternal chase. Like a cheetah up in the umbrella tree, she too would learn stealth. She too would scan the horizon. She would grow to roar in a place where the survival of the fittest was the name of the game. I realized that there, in New York City where her dreams would be made, the law of the jungle would haunt every job hunt: the principle that “those who are strong and apply ruthless self-interest will be most successful” would forever hold true.

I prayed, and I suspect most parents would agree with me on this, that on my daughter’s wildest, hairiest days, she would also remember to let Baloo’s advice to Mowgli boom in her ears.

So just try and relax, yeah cool it
Fall apart in my backyard
‘Cause let me tell you somethin’, little britches,
If you act like that bee acts, uh uh
You’re workin’ too hard
And don’t spend your time lookin’ around
For somethin’ you want that can’t be found
When you find out you can live without it
And go along not thinkin’ about it
I’ll tell you somethin’ true
The bare necessities of life will come to you

Against the backdrop of her graduation and her fear that her chosen profession, journalism, would never assure her a life of great material comfort, I figured that both my daughter and I had a lot still left to learn from Baloo, the bear, about the bare necessities of life.

Kalpana Mohan writes from Saratoga. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.org and http://saritorial.com.

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