Kipling was an Englishman living in India during its period of British occupation. As a result, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and similar stories often portray colonialism as a benevolent force: bringing peace, order, and tranquility to a violent and chaotic world. Such attitudes were common and uncontroversial at the time, but both Kipling and “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” have been criticized in recent decades for “whitewashing” the often-cruel realities of life in India under British rule.
Regardless, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” depicts the British as benevolent rulers, as symbolized by Teddy and his parents. A mongoose is native to India, and the ecology he inhabits is that of the Indian subcontinent. Yet he lives in the home of an English family, who not only grant him his “civilized” demeanor, but represent comfort, intellectualism, and reason’s triumph over the violent killed-or-be-killed world around them. In that sense, Rikki-tikki is a “good” Indian—submitting to the will of his white masters—while the cobras are “bad” Indians trying to undermine the white man’s rule.
Rikki-tikki begins life as a resident of the wild world and is almost killed by a flood. He’s rescued by a white family that appears almost godlike to him, nursed back to health, and given a house full of wonders and comforts to inhabit. He thus quickly learns the benefits of being ruled by the British. Teddy’s father in particular is depicted as being benevolent, wise, and almost all-seeing. He reassures Teddy’s mother than the mongoose is not a threat and rewards Rikki-tikki with food and a run of the house. Perhaps most importantly, Teddy’s father understands the danger of the cobras and the value of Rikki-tikki’s protection.
Under the tutelage of civilization, Rikki-tikki learns to fight for the common good and use his skills for the benefit of all, something he would not have done had Teddy’s “civilizing” family not been kind to him. Similarly, Rikki-tikki’s mother—who lived in the home of a British general—once told Rikki-tikki how to behave in order to be trusted by the British. Together these details suggest that, in time, India will not only accept and embrace Britain’s rule, but will prosper more under it.
Unlike Rikki-tikki, the cobras are unhappy with Teddy’s family in the house, and fight against their rule. As “bad” Indians, they reject the benefits of colonialism and want to return the property to their own control. Kipling links the cobras directly to Indian (as opposed to British) culture when Nag explains how “the great god Brahm”—a Hindu deity—put his mark on the snake’s hood. Unlike the stable and orderly rule of Teddy’s family, the cobras rule by strength and fear, taking what they want and giving no consideration for the other animals sharing their space. They’re shown as being particularly hostile to Teddy’s family and speak about how wonderful it will be when the house is empty.
While the transition from Indian to English is generally shown as being positive in the story, Rikki-tikki retains important character traits from his mongoose heritage. This suggests that the give-and-take between the British and the Indians is not as one-sided as it appears. Moreover, it suggests that Rikki-tikki’s Indian characteristics—his instinctive behavior—can benefit the British if allowed to flourish.
Most obviously, Rikki-tikki uses his wild nature to fight the cobras—moving silently, striking suddenly, and falling back on (Indian) instincts to make up for his lack of experience. As a mongoose, he can move freely and often undetected from the (British) house to the (Indian) garden and back without incident. Teddy’s family, on the other hand, wouldn’t be able to move so freely without attracting attention, underscoring their separation from both the natural world and the Indian society in which they live.
Even though he appreciates all the things the family does for him, Rikki-tikki still considers them strange and foolish sometimes. Kipling presents this as very hard-headed and sensible, rather than arrogant or conceited. For instance, Rikki-tikki is baffled by Teddy’s father’s attempt to beat Karait, since the baby cobra is already clearly dead. Thus, even as “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is definitely pro-colonialism, it also shows a subtlety to the exchange between the occupying British and the native Indians. Both sides benefit from British rule, in the world of the story, but the British can also benefit from Indian culture—often in ways they do not expect.
Of course, Kipling’s attitude toward colonialism in the story was subjected to revision as Indians successfully obtained their independence. That granted them an autonomy that Kipling’s stories implicitly denied and allowed them to state emphatically that they could stand on their own two feet instead of relying on the British to be ruled. In the process, it made the cultural reach of British colonialism clear—showing how its attitudes could be reflected even in a seemingly simple story about a brave little mongoose protecting a boy.
Colonialism as a Benevolent Force ThemeTracker
Colonialism as a Benevolent Force Quotes in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi
It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity. The motto of all the mongoose family is “Run and find out,” and Rikki-tikki was a true mongoose.
“I suppose he’s so tame because we’ve been kind to him.”
“All mongooses are like that,” said her husband. “If Teddy doesn’t pick him up by the tail, or try to put him in a cage, he’ll run in and out of the house all day long. Let’s give him something to eat.”
“I don’t like that,” said Teddy’s mother. “He may bite the child.” “He’ll do no such thing,” said the father. “Teddy’s safer with that little beast than if he had a bloodhound to watch him. If a snake came into the nursery now—”
He sat on all their laps one after the other, because every well-brought-up mongoose always hopes to be a house mongoose some day and have rooms to run about in; and Rikki-tikki’s mother (she used to live in the general’s house at Segowlee) had carefully told Rikki what to do if ever he came across white men.
Then inch by inch out of the grass rose up the head and spread hood of Nag, the big black cobra, and he was five feet long from tongue to tail. When he had lifted one-third of himself clear of the ground, he stayed balancing to and fro exactly as a dandelion tuft balances in the wind, and he looked at Rikki-tikki with the wicked snake’s eyes that never change their expression, whatever the snake may be thinking of.
“Who is Nag?” said he. “I am Nag. The great God Brahm put his mark upon all our people, when the first cobra spread his hood to keep the sun off Brahm as he slept. Look, and be afraid!”
He came down almost across her back, and if he had been an old mongoose he would have known that then was the time to break her back with one bite; but he was afraid of the terrible lashing return stroke of the cobra. He bit, indeed, but did not bite long enough, and he jumped clear of the whisking tail, leaving Nagaina torn and angry.
Rikki-tikki knew he was a young mongoose, and it made him all the more pleased to think that he had managed to escape a blow from behind. It gave him confidence in himself, and when Teddy came running down the path, Rikki-tikki was ready to be petted.
If Rikki-tikki had only known, he was doing a much more dangerous thing than fighting Nag, for Karait is so small, and can turn so quickly, that unless Rikki bit him close to the back of the head, he would get the return stroke in his eye or his lip. But Rikki did not know.
That night at dinner, walking to and fro among the wine-glasses on the table, he might have stuffed himself three times over with nice things. But he remembered Nag and Nagaina, and though it was very pleasant to be patted and petted by Teddy’s mother, and to sit on Teddy’s shoulder, his eyes would get red from time to time, and he would go off into his long war cry of “Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!”
Chuchundra sat down and cried till the tears rolled off his whiskers. “I am a very poor man,” he sobbed. “I never had spirit enough to run out into the middle of the room. H’sh! I mustn’t tell you anything. Can’t you hear, Rikki-tikki?”
Rikki-tikki listened. The house was as still as still, but he thought he could just catch the faintest scratch-scratch in the world—a noise as faint as that of a wasp walking on a window-pane—the dry scratch of a snake’s scales on brick-work.
“It’s the mongoose again, Alice. The little chap has saved our lives now.”
“Ding-dong-tock! Nag is dead—dong! Nagaina is dead! Ding-dong-tock!” That set all the birds in the garden singing, and the frogs croaking, for Nag and Nagaina used to eat frogs as well as little birds.
When Rikki got to the house, Teddy and Teddy’s mother (she looked very white still, for she had been fainting) and Teddy’s father came out and almost cried over him; and that night he ate all that was given him till he could eat no more, and went to bed on Teddy’s shoulder, where Teddy’s mother saw him when she came to look late at night.