Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Dina Sanichar - The Story of Real-Life Mowgli Found Living In Jungle

Dina Sanichar - The Story of Real-Life Mowgli Found Living In Jungle 

Northern Indian jungle of Uttar Pradesh in 1872, a group of hunters stopped in their tracks, bewildered by what they were seeing. A pack of wolves loped through the forest, followed by a ghostly form: a small child, ambling on all fours. The unlikely pack disappeared into a nearby den. The hunters planted a fire at the opening of the cave and smoked the pack out. As the group reappeared, the hunters killed the wolves and captured the boy. The case of Dina Sanichar —supposedly a six-year-old literally raised by wolves — was one of many feral children found over the years in India and beyond — wolf children, panther children, chicken children, dog children, and even gazelle children. Though their stories would be romanticized in myths in both the East and the West, the reality of their lives would prove tragic tales of neglect and extreme isolation. Their return to “civilized” life would pose uncomfortable questions about human development, our relationship to the wild, and what, exactly, makes us human.

After the hunters captured Sanichar, they brought him to a mission-run orphanage, where he was baptized and given his name — Sanichar is Urdu for Saturday. The orphanage was run by Father Erhardt, a missionary living in India, who noted that though Sanichar “undoubtedly pagal (imbecile or idiotic), still shows signs of reason and sometimes actual shrewdness.”

Sanichar shared many of the qualities that child psychologist Wayne Dennis would note in his 1941 American Journal of Psychology paper, “The Significance of Feral Man:” “Feral man is untidy,” and would “eat things that civilized man considers disgusting,” Dennis wrote. Sanichar only ate meat, despised wearing clothes, and sharpened his teeth on bones. Though he appeared to have no capacity for language, he was not mute, making animal noises instead. Feral children were, as Dennis explained, “Insensitive to heat and cold” and had “little or no attachment to human beings.” Sanichar did, however, form a bond with one human: another feral child who had been brought to the orphanage. Father Erhardt said of the pair, “A strange bond of sympathy attached these two boys together, and the elder one first taught the younger to drink out of a cup.” This would prove true for many feral children: after spending their formative years in the animal kingdom, they could more easily relate to animals.

Probably nowhere has the myth of the feral child loomed larger than it has in India, where stories of “wolf children” had been relayed for centuries. But they were not just stories: The country did seem to produce many such cases. Around the time that the hunters found Sanichar, four other wolf children were also reported in India, and over the years many more would emerge. But “wild children” also figured prominently in the Western imagination. When a wild boy was discovered in Aveyron, France he became the subject of much study about development but also a screen onto which Enlightenment figures could debate the differences between man and animal.

These stories particularly fascinated colonizing countries whose missionaries, soldiers, and writers were confronted by questions of personhood as they subjugated the colony’s people. The British obsession seemed to take two forms: some were enchanted by the idea and romanticized it, while many others wanted to reform it. Rudyard Kipling, the British writer who lived for many years in India, would fall into the former camp. Not long after Sanichar’s discovery, Kipling wrote the beloved children’s collection The Jungle Book, in which a young “man cub,” Mowgli, wanders into the Indian forest and is adopted by animals — causing some to suggest the Sanichar was Kipling’s inspiration. It’s a fantasy about reclaiming a lost connection with the natural world and about the end of human isolation. Sanichar’s caretaker, Father Erhardt, would fall into the “reformer” camp, carefully plotting all of Sanichar’s “progress.”

Perhaps the most famous Western feral child myth is that of Romulus and Remus, twin boys who were abandoned on the bank of the Tiber River, suckled and raised by wolves, and later returned to civilization to found Rome, the so-called epicenter of civilization. But Sanichar’s story is the inversion of that wild to nobility narrative. His story revealed that you can take the boy out of the woods, but you cannot take the woods out of the boy. Sanichar and almost all of the feral children would never fully integrate with society, but exist somewhere unhappily in between.

Much of the chasm between wildness and civilization has to do with language. Sanichar never learned to speak. The feral child offers researchers the results of what would — if engineered — be a barbaric experiment in the study of human development. Later, researchers would understand that there is a “critical period” for learning language. If you miss it, you will never fully grasp it. Noam Chomsky wouldn’t publish his landmark Syntactic Structures for more than 80 years; in it, he theorized that language is central to the human experience. If language-less people were abandoned on an island, Chomsky said, in a generation or two, they would create a language of their own. Sanichar may not have spoken his would-be mother tongue, but as Lucien Malson wrote in the psychology book Wolf Children, he had cobbled together other, “cruder, less specifically human” forms of communication, which were often outpourings of impatience and rage. Indeed, many of these children raised by animals would adopt their animal parents’ modes of communication: barking, howling, growling, and lunging.

The subject of the most rigorous study of the silence of isolated children was “Genie,” a Los Angeles girl who was locked in a room for years by an abusive father. Her discovery in 1970, was a tragic case from which we would learn much more about the neuroscience of language development and what happens to the brain and one’s experience of the world if they miss it.

Sanichar is unnerving, perhaps because he lays bare the precariousness of the distinction between animal and human. A few years spent away from homes, cars, showers, and people, and we might more resemble the family dog than our human family. The few images of Sanichar that remain reveal a wild-eyed figure, his body contorted, as though he doesn’t understand how to be in it. The sight of him clothed is even more alarming — the trappings of civilization amplifying his wildness rather than concealing it. The feral child threatens to undo the hierarchy of biological beings where humans are at the top by forcing us to ask what we are. As Malson wrote, wolf children seemed not really like people at all: “The view that men outside society are not really men is lent yet more weight by the fact that peculiarly human traits like laughing and smiling are totally absent in wild children.”

Sanichar would live the rest of his short life in the orphanage. After 20 years of human contact, his list of human behaviors remained bracingly small. Though he could walk erect, he moved much more ably on all fours. He could dress himself “with difficulty,” and managed to keep track of his cup and plate. He continued to smell all his food before eating it, always eschewing anything but raw meat. The only human habit he willingly adopted was smoking, and he became a prolific chain smoker. He died in 1895, some said from tuberculosis.

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