Mowgli and Me: How 'The Jungle Book' Shaped My Indian-American Life

05/05/2016 04:31 pm ET Updated May 06, 2017

This past weekend, I was one of the 100 million moviegoers who went to see The Jungle Book. It's a story close to my heart. And as a kid growing up in India, it's the story of my childhood. No, I wasn't a human cub raised by wolves in the Indian jungle. But I was raised in Mumbai by my grandparents. And I did have a bowl cut, red underpants and a penchant for being shirtless and barefoot as a kid. Mowgli was my celeb spirit animal, if such things exist for children.

The tale of Mowgli is probably India's greatest modern fairy tale. Sure, it might've been written by a British man while he lived in Vermont, but Kipling, who was born in India and spent a good portion of his life there, is considered one of India's literary darlings. And Indians consider Kipling's Jungle Book to be their story. It's the fabric of every Indian kid's upbringing.

I distinctly remember the ads on Indian television promoting the original movie. Gold Spot, the Indian orange soda brand, advertised that they would be putting Baloo, Bagheera, Shere Khan and Mowgli on the insides of their bottle caps. And so, every time a Gold Spot bottle was opened for me, I said a silent prayer for a Mowgli cap. I usually got Baloos and Bagheeras, and an occasional Kaa, which I kept in my growing stash.

When I got a Shere Khan, I gave it away to my boy cousin. I never ended up getting a Mowgli from an actual bottle. My first Mowgli I got in a trade. It cost me three Baloos and one Kaa. And it was so worth it. As we bartered and haggled with each other, we sang the songs, danced the dances, and reenacted scenes from the movie. It was a glorious time in our childhood.

The following year, I moved to America. I forgot all about the Jungle Book and my bottle cap collection and gradually became an American girl. I drank Capri Sun, traded Barbie outfits, and sang the songs from Jem and the Holograms. Mowgli and his friends were a distant memory, until last year when my boy cousin, who had played Baloo in our re-enactments and now lived in New York, sent me a text saying: "Do you know there's a new Jungle Book movie coming out next year? We gotta see it."

And so here I was, sitting in a plush IMAX 3D movie theater in Boston, where I now lived, far from India's jungles and my Mumbai childhood, though ironically, not that far from where Kipling first realized his story to fruition.

It was instant recognition when I saw them all. My old friends Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, Kaa, and even the menacing Shere Khan were exactly how I remembered them. Just bigger, better and brighter this time around. Their renderings were so real, so tangible, that I felt my childhood springing back to life. Like that visceral moment in Ratatouille when food critic Anton Ego eats his favorite dish. My adult life zoomed back fast on rewind and there I was -- five years old, in my grandparent's living room in Mumbai, sprawled across the cold linoleum floor, convincing my boy cousin that three Baloos and one Kaa really was a fair trade for one Mowgli.

When I saw my buddy Mowgli's easy gait and lighthearted grin again after 30 years, I felt the pangs of nostalgia. He was just the same, but I had changed. When we first met, we were both wide-eyed scrappy Indian kids, insatiably curious, ready to befriend anyone, and not yet socialized to man's workings of the world.

But a lot can happen to a human cub in 30 years. I was now a fully grown adult. I had traded in my bowl cut for highlights, swapped out my red underpants for a wardrobe of niceties, and couldn't remember the last time I had walked barefoot on the grass. I had become a highly socialized member of man's world. What a trip.

We had so much catching up to do, my old friends and I, but the gap in time and geography closed like magic. Their sense of wonder, fearlessness, and purity of heart emboldened me just as they had as a child, and the time spent with them quickly filled up those parts of me that I had long since forgotten. As I left them again, sitting in the banyan tree, I said a silent prayer of thanks -- mystified and grateful for our effortless reunion in this often complicated jungle book of life.