Saturday, May 8, 2021

A Mischief of Mongooses

Either a 'business' or a 'rush' can be used as a collective noun for mongooses. 'Mischief' is used for mice or rats, but literary mongooses are sneaky enough to merit that term too. Mongooses made unexpected appearances in five books that I read over the past week. For that reason, I decided to listen to a mongoose story on purpose: Rudyard Kipling's 'Rikki-Tikki-Tavi' ... bringing my number up to six. I hope you enjoy this half-dozen collection of passages, a literary mischief of mongooses.

I'll start with Rudyard Kipling's description of Rikki-tikki:

    He was a mongoose, rather like a little cat in his fur and his tail, but quite like a weasel in his head and his habits.

(By the way, I don't recommend listening to the rest of the Naxos audiobook Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and Other Stories because Kipling's imperialism and racism are in full evidence, such as calling the Aleut unclean people in 'The White Seal.')

The book that started my mongoose streak is Helen Oyeyemi's surrealist novel, Peaces. In it, Otto and Xavier Shin are a gay couple on a non-honeymoon honeymoon train journey with their pet mongoose, Arpad. (Another passenger happens to also have a pet mongoose.)

    I didn't meet Honza's friends, and I didn't get to introduce him to mine; the plans kept falling through at the last minute. Arpad didn't like him, but then Xavier Shin is the only boyfriend of mine Arpad has ever shown enthusiasm for. I could tell from the first night Xavier stayed over at my place that we were in a new era of acceptance; in the morning there Xavier's shoes were, exactly where he'd left them by the door... unchewed and unshat in.
    Honza didn't like Arpad either... I remember he never referred to Arpad by name; it was always "your friend the stoat," "that marten that aspires to mongoosehood," or "the vicious ferret." 

Next up is a despised mongoose in Trinidad, in Ingrid Persaud's memorable novel Love After Love:

    --And you used to have chickens. You still have any?
    --Nah, man. Long time now I stop minding fowl. Too much trouble. Mongoose thiefing the egg and all kind of thing. Take something to drink, nah. You must be thirsty after that long drive.

Then a desire for a mongoose in Thailand, from Brian Brett's vibrant memoir Tuco: The Parrot, the Others, and a Scattershot World:

    Thom called us outside out room and informed us the staff had spotted a king cobra swimming to the raft house, and they'd spent the last day searching for it it no avail. He also said they were worried because they had important guests arriving, and the last thing they needed was a king cobra arising out of the reeds of the raft house. I told him they needed a mongoose or a peacock to deal with the problem. We laughed and left ourselves to our fate.

A mongoose comparison was made by the bedevilled writer enduring his two-month residency at a Canadian shopping mall in Pasha Malla's nightmarish Kill the Mall:

    No, my goal was not personal revelation but to lull the mall into complacency while I marshalled my forces and wits and prepared to strike -- like the mongoose as it seized the ponytail-shaped cobra by the throat and chomped right through to its bitter, snaky bones.

A side mention was made of the etymology of 'mongoose' during a lesson on Dravidian languages in John McWhorter's Languages Families of the World:

    Telugu is barely known beyond India, you may never have heard of it, but actually it is one of the 20 largest languages in the world. And, the word 'mongoose' is from Telugu. I knew somebody who went to India once, one of those people who, you know, goes places just so he can say that he goes places, and picks up women. He went to India and came back and he was talking about having seen the mongeese. And after a while I realized that he meant that straight. He really thought the plural of mongoose was mongeese. (Is it?)
(my transcription from The Great Courses audiobook, read by the author)

And one final quote from Kipling's '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.

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