Though many doubt the authenticity of Amala and Kamala's originsKamala and Amala, in from the wild after living with wolves, sleeping together in Midnapore, India, 1920. (J.A.L Singh/Gesell)
Every night around 10 p.m., the two small girls crawled from their beds at an orphanage near Midnapore, India and howled at the moon. According to their caretakers, they were “wolf-children,” who mysteriously didn't sweat, and only ate entrails and raw meat. Their eyes flashed blue in the darkness people said. They were human — but the didn't seem like it. Their caretakers said they had been raised by wolves.
Or at least that was how the story went. Like all stories of feral children, Kamala and Amala's history was murky, riddled with folklore, and in some cases outright lies. Untangling the fact from fiction would prove nearly impossible as most of it relied on the word of the minister who found and cared for them.
The Reverend J.A.L Singh claimed to have first encountered the girls in October of 1920, while on mission in India near Midnapore, not far from Calcutta. According to Michael Newton, in his book Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children, Singh was approached by villagers while traveling deep into the jungles in the hopes of finding potential converts there, when he was approached by a villager who claimed to have seen a ghost and demanded that Singh come with him to exorcise it. What Singh and his party found instead was an eerie scene. A pack of wolves moving through the jungle, followed by two wraithlike forms, their heads a tangle of dark hair. Then men who accompanied Singh wanted to shoot the whole group on the spot, but Singh stopped them. They weren't ghosts — they were young girls.
The children disappeared with the wolves into a den where Singh and his group attempted to pry them out. A she-wolf snarled viciously while the children and wolf cubs cowered in the corner — clearly this was the mother. While Singh was admiring the wolf's devotion to the girls, the other men in his group shot her full of arrows. Then the two girls were scooped up and eventually brought to the orphanage Singh ran with his wife, the cubs sold to market.
Singh estimated that one of the girls, whom Singh named Kamala was about eight, the other, Amala was one and a half. They decided that the two girls must have been snatched from different families at different points in time. Kamala had likely been living with the wolves for at least seven years, Singh said.
Nearly every story of a feral child is one of being trapped between worlds, the return to “civilization” is devastating, the “rescue” seeming more like a capture. Singh catalogued the girls' inauguration into human life in his journal. They were bathed and matted tangled hair was tamed, but in every other respect, Kamala and Amala seemed like animals. They ran on all fours and “shunned human society altogether,” Singh said. If humans tried to approach them, they bore their teeth, bit, and scratched. Neither could speak. One night, they disappeared into the bushes on the orphanage grounds. It was nearly impossible to find them as they remained perfectly still, locked in an animal silence.
Like many other cases of feral children, they only wanted the company of animals. When a hyena cub was brought to the orphanage, Kamala was entranced and was distraught when she was forced to leave its side. Humans were of little interest to them. The girls appeared at first to befriend another infant, but then one day they attacked him.
Nearly every feral child story is one of being trapped between two worlds. (Maurice de Becque via Wikimedia)
Stories of feral children tend to be riddled with embellishments, if not outright lies. Many were skeptical of Kamala and Amala's origin story. One anthropologist stated in 1943 that despite his desire to believe otherwise, “this account of the 'wolf-children' cannot be accepted as true.” He had many concerns: Kamala had supposedly lived among wolves for seven years — but wolves never kept their own cubs this long. As for the two men Singh said had witnessed their rescue, one couldn't be found and the other was dead. The claims that the children's eyes gave out blue light, and that they did not sweat were too fanciful. In 1959, a sociologist proposed the theory that the girls were actually autistic. Another would suggest in 2007 that Kamala suffered from Rett Syndrome, a congenital neurodevelopmental disorder that results in many of the same symptoms as those found in feral children. That researcher suggested that Singh had made up the girls' stories to raise funds for his charities.
According to Singh, in early September of 1921, about a year after they were brought to the orphanage, the girls got a strange stomach maladie. They were unconscious for days. They appeared to get better and then just as suddenly, Amala's fever skyrocketed. She died on the morning of September 21. According to Singh, at the sight of the body, Kamala “came to Amala several times and tried to wake her up by touching her hand and even trying to drag her out of bed. She touched her face, opened the lids of her eyes with her fingers, and parted her lips … There was something, some change in Amala, which Kamala could understand, and she seemed to come to the conclusion that Amala was dead, and two teardrops fell from her eyes.” It was the only time Kamala was said to cry.
Not long after Amala's death, Kamala crawled over to her things and began to smell them. According to Signh's diary, she “roamed about as if searching for something but not finding it.”
Almost none of the feral children chronicled through the years would live a normal human lifespan. Perhaps the tear from the natural world and was too traumatic. Once thrust into “civilized world” they seem heartbroken and listless. As Newton writes, “They had no sense of humor, no sadness or curiosity or connection to others.”
Over the next few years, Kamala learned to string together some words, but they were often mumbled and difficult to understand. The window for learning language had largely passed for her. She would never emerge into fluency, though language had made an impression on her. One day, Singh observed her standing near a tree, talking quietly to it. Not long after, he observed her singing along in church. Though previously she had gotten into a “singing mood” during services, the sounds she made were shrill and disruptive. Now, her voice was blending in.
In 1928, when Kamala was about sixteen, her health mysteriously began to deteriorate. Doctors couldn't agree on what was wrong. She was invited to New York by the Psychological Society. She had, as Singh said, made so much progress “toward manhood,” been “reclaimed from the ferocious temper, wild habits, and the completely different being of an animal.” Singh turned the invitation down citing her illness. On November 14th, 1929, she died.
After living in wolf den, these two Indian sisters were never able to acclimate to society was originally published in Timeline on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.