‘Stranger Things Have Happened in India’ : Goose Chase Is Long and Wild in Search of the Wolf Boy
The wolf boy’s name was Ramu, The Times of India said. He died at Prem Nivas, a home for destitutes run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
In 1976, when he was a young boy, he was found on all fours in the company of wolf cubs. He had evidently been raised with them, and had matted hair and claw-like nails. Under the care of the sisters, he learned to bathe and dress but not to speak. At night, he would sneak out and raid the chicken coops.
Skeptical scholars said people just wanted to believe a preposterous Tarzan myth. The wolf boy was simply retarded, they said. But his obituary appeared on the front page, right under the story about Rajiv Gandhi’s planned trip to Moscow.
The gray and somber Times of India sometimes carries stories like this one, stories that sophisticated Indians read over their morning tea and then discuss as matter-of-factly as the sweltering heat. It is not so much that they believe the stories--many don’t--it is more that they calmly accept the unknown. In this country, with its vast numbers, high mortality rate and belief in reincarnation, the culture is unfettered by the tyranny of Western logic. “Stranger things have happened in India,” people will often say.
So the search for the wolf boy begins in Lucknow. It is the capital of Uttar Pradesh, one of this country’s poorest states, part of the populous, rural “Hindi Heartland.” The wolf boy died in February here, and it seems as good a place as any to explore another mystery of India. The sister at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity says on the phone that Mr. Anand knows everything about Ramu. It is a 50-minute flight from New Delhi and a short drive to the home. A watchman opens the big iron gates, his hands in the prayer gesture of Indian greeting.
“ Namaste ,” he says.
Then the strangeness begins.
Mr. Anand, it turns out, is Anand Ralla Ram, a 63-year-old man who is not, as advertised, the director of Prem Nivas, but an intelligent, refined lawyer who once argued before the High Court in Allahabad to the south. He is terribly thin, with sunken eyes, bony fingers and frayed Western clothes that he must have worn in more prosperous days. He spends his time reading, writing and walking in the garden near the gravestones of an old English cemetery. He is the first key to the mystery.
Not a Unique Story
The story to be unraveled here is not unique to this time and place. Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, were suckled and raised by a she-wolf. The central figure in “The Jungle Book,” by Rudyard Kipling, is the boy Mowgli, who got lost in the forest and was sheltered and nursed by a mother wolf. But that was the stuff of fiction. This wolf boy was real.
Across an old wooden table Anand Ralla Ram listens politely to a question about Ramu and answers politely.
“Oh, it wasn’t Ramu who died,” he says.
The question is repeated in case he misunderstood.
“No, no,” he says. “It was Bhaloo. Ramu died many years ago, not here, but at Balrampur Hospital.” Who was Bhaloo then?
“He was a wolf boy too,” says Anand Ralla Ram.
But The Times of India . . .
“They got it wrong,” he says.
(An editor at the Times of India verifies his newspaper’s account over the telephone. Back when Ramu was found, an “experienced reporter” from the Times went to see him, and was convinced that he had been raised by wolves. Ramu died in February, the editor says. Bhaloo, he says, is “a myth.”)
Another Wolf Boy Tale
He begins his tale about his wolf boy, Bhaloo. Some 10 years ago, maybe more, a farmer named Narsingh Bahadur Singh who lived in the village of Narayanpur, in Sultanpur district, was coming home through a wooded area on his bike. Suddenly, he stopped, amazed. There among the trees was a human child, about 5 years old, romping on all fours with some wolf cubs. Singh parked his bike and captured the boy, who couldn’t run as fast as the wolves. The boy gave him a tough fight, scratching, howling and biting, but Singh opened his turban and wrapped him up. He brought him home, and raised him as his own.
It was a nearly impossible task. It took months to wean him off raw meat. The boy went into a frenzy at the sight of blood, and took to stuffing himself with brown earth.
“This chap didn’t show any interest in human company,” says Anand Ralla Ram. “But in the night, he used to steal out of the house, get a hold of the fowl, and eat them raw.” The neighbors complained bitterly, particularly those who owned chickens. After five years, Narsingh Bahadur Singh gave up. He took his wolf boy to a convent, and, a short time later, the sisters sent him to Prem Nivas.
How does Anand Ralla Ram knows the story of Bhaloo’s discovery? “I talked to Narsingh Bahadur Singh,” he says.
When was that?
“Oh, years ago, maybe nine, maybe 10.”
Does Narsingh Bahadur Singh still live in his village?
“I don’t know,” he says.
How do you get there?
“It’s far from here,” he says.
No Word of Ramu
In fact, it is almost 100 miles, a good three-hour drive along a bumpy road that frequently deteriorates into a cow path. There is still no word of Ramu, the original wolf boy who inspired this journey. In India, searching for one thing often means finding something else.
In Narayanpur, a 23-year-old local sportswriter is enlisted as interpreter. He is a Bengali, the son of a retired army colonel, whose dream is to leave journalism and fly commercial jets in America. A driver arrives with a rental car. Both the driver and the sportswriter are certain that children can be raised by wolves. “Stranger things have happened in India,” the sportswriter says.
The day is off to a good start. The land is beautiful. A canopy of old mango trees shades the road, parting the fields of wheat, mustard and sugar cane.
After numerous wrong turns, the car pulls up to a cluster of mud homes with thatched roofs. You ask for Narsingh Bahadur Singh, wondering how long and wild this goose chase will be.
Over there, says his friend.
Time Is Forgotten
Narsingh Bahadur Singh is right at home, of course. He invites the visitors in for tea and sweets and tells, almost word for word, the same story of the wolf boy as did Anand Ralla Ram. He is not too sure, though, how long ago he found him. “I lose track of the years,” he says through the sportswriter, who says, yes, villagers often forget the time as one harvest melts into the next. Narsingh Bahadur Singh is not sure how old he is, either. Maybe 50, maybe 60.
He is tall and wiry, with big, rough hands. He is dressed in a dhoti, the cloth that Indian men wear when relaxing at home. He loved the wolf boy as his own, he says. After he sent him to the sisters, he missed him at first, but not so much now. He heard about his death when a newspaper carrying his story fell from a passing train. A friend read it to him.
But no, his name was not Bhaloo, he says. It was Shamdeo, although he understands that Bhaloo was the name given to him by the sisters at Prem Nivas. He knows nothing of Ramu.
The return to Lucknow takes what seems like an eternity. The sportswriter is dropped off at the local newspaper and a picture of the wolf boy, Bhaloo, that they used with their obituary the month before is picked up. It is ghastly. A skeletal boy of about 15 lies with his hands crossed and eyes half-open on a cot, staring straight up at the ceiling.
He appears to have slanted eyes, but no matted hair or claws. He looks dead. “No, he’s alive,” says the editor. “The picture was taken a few hours before he died.” He and the other reporters are young and well-educated, pencil-editing on deadline the latest news of a Soviet defector in New Delhi. They all believe that wolves can raise children.
The next morning at Prem Nivas, Anand Ralla Ram, the friend of the wolf boy Bhaloo, is shown the picture.
Is he dead or alive?
“Dead,” he says. “It was taken 24 hours after he passed on.”
What did he die of?
“I don’t know,” he says. “He developed stomach cramps and didn’t respond to the treatment.”
Who was his doctor? “Dr. Mittra,” he says, “but he doesn’t know anything. I took him to his office once, but he only gave him some massage oil for the cramps.” Dr. Mittra’s house, he says, is next door to the cinema, but it is all boarded up. A man on the street says Dr. Mittra has gone away.
Wolf Boy Cremated
There is no body. The wolf boy, a good Hindu, was cremated. It begins to feel that it is time to leave Lucknow. What does it matter how he died. He died. He was raised by wolves, he was not raised by wolves, his name was Bhaloo, his name was Shamdeo, his name was Ramu, and what does it matter in the end?
Back to New Delhi is one last hope--Dr. D.N. Sharma, the former director of the Balrampur Hospital. He lives in Lucknow but is visiting his daughter. He was the doctor for the other wolf boy, Ramu, who he says died in the early ‘60s. Dr. Sharma, perhaps, will clear all this up.
Dr. Sharma turns out to be 71, retired, an imposing, white-haired man in an extravagantly draped shawl, with a cigarette he holds cupped in his hand. He settles into his daughter’s couch, the shades drawn to keep out the light. He makes sure the reporter’s pen is poised, takes a deep drag on his cigarette, then slowly begins.
“Ramu was what we call a feral child,” he says. “Feral children are those human children who are reared by animals. Only three animals in the world can raise human beings. No. 1, wolf. No. 2, bear. No. 3, baboons.
“Now, this Ramu was a small child, he must have been 3, 4, 5--I don’t know exactly. Now, the points were: No. 1, he wouldn’t drink water like a human, but if water was kept in a pot, he would lap it like dogs do. No. 2, his liking for raw meat. No. 3, his walking on all fours. Fourth were the scars on his body. And No. 5, we experimented with his liking for Alsatians. When an Alsatian dog came into the room, he caught hold of it and started liking it.
“Now. The point comes. Which feral child is this? In India, you have the wolf. These wolves live in the big ravines in the rivers. So we came to the conclusion that this child had been reared in an animal environment -- possibly wolf. Because in Uttar Pradesh there are no bears and no baboons -- only wolves.” And how can wolves carry off babies without killing them?
“Laborers leave their children in the fields when they cut grass,” he says. “If a she-wolf who is rearing her own cub, and who has a maternal instinct, comes by, she just lifts these small babies.”
“They just lift the child,” he says. “I don’t know.”
Stranger things have happened in India.