I must have been seven or eight years old, I was in bed with measles and
my sore eyes were extremely sensitive to light. My mother, knowing my
love for geography and exotic places, decided to introduce me to the
world of Emilio Salgari (1862-1911) an Italian writer of adventures,
whose books delighted and inspired generations of Italian children and
young adults. Although Salgari, allegedly, had never travelled further
than the Adriatic Sea, he wrote about India, Southeast Asia, the
Caribbean, Siberia, the Philippines and New Caledonia, with a fairly
accurate knowledge of geography and local customs. My mother’s
choice was The Mystery of the Black Jungle (1895) a book that she had
read in her young years. This turned out to be the book which triggered
my interest in India. Because of my sore eyes, she read the story aloud.
The first paragraph of the narrative was a detailed description of the
course of the Ganges from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal dwelling
in detail on the Sundarbans, the locale of the action. The story involved
a snake and tiger hunter Tremal-Naik with his pet tiger, Dharma, his
faithful Maratha servant Kammamuri and other men.
Tremal-Naik is fascinated by the sight of a very young woman whom he
has seen in the jungle. When one of his men is killed by the thugs,
Tremal-Naik accompanied by Kammamuri, heads into the jungle to
retrieve the body. The thugs, however, have been watching their every
move. After a brief skinnish with the thugs, Tremal-Naik alone ventures
ahead, in a remote area, enters a temple dedicated to the goddess Kali
and encounters again the young woman, Ada, an Anglo-Indian, who has
been kidnapped and consecrated to the goddess Kali. He falls in love
with her, they plan to flee, but are discovered by the chief priest, who stabs Tremal-Naik in the hecirt and leaves him half dead in the jungle.
Predictably, he is found by Kammamuri who saves his life. A second
attempt to liberate Ada fails yet again wiien, accompanied by a few men
and Dhamia, the tiger, Tremal-Naik gets lost in the underground of the
temple cUid all are taken prisoners. Impressed by Tremal-Naik’s
prowess, the thugs try to persuade him and his followers to join them.
The chief priest is prepared to give Ada to Tremal-Naik on one condition:
he must kill Captain MacPherson whose main task is to eliminate the
thugs. Tremal-Naik attempts twice to kill Captain MacPherson, before
realising that he is Ada’s father. The two become allies: Ada is saved and
marries the hero, the thugs are defeated, but the chief priest manages to
escape with a number of followers. I was awed by the narrative’s setting;
above all, I was fascinated and at the same time intimidated by the vivid
description of the goddess Kali, of the subterranean temples, thugs, and
the Sundarbans. With a certain trepidation I commenced collecting
information on India.. .the rest is history.