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The story is notable for its frightening and serious tone. It has often been anthologised and has also been published more than once as a short book in its own right. The story was also adapted into an animated TV special by American animator Chuck Jones in May 1975. That same year the story was adapted as a Russian animated short film.
The story follows the experiences of a young mongoose named Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (for his chattering vocalizations) after his adoption into a British family residing in a bungalow in India, both as a pet and as protection against venomous snakes. After becoming acquainted with some of the other creatures inhabiting the garden, Rikki is warned of Nag and Nagaina, a pair of cobras angered by the family's presence on the territory which they had previously dominated. Nag enters the house's bathroom before dawn but is attacked by Rikki. The struggle that ensues awakens the human family and Nag is killed by the father.
A grieving Nagaina attempts revenge against Rikki's human family, cornering them as they take breakfast on an outdoor veranda. While Nagaina has been distracted by the wife of a bird named Darzee, Rikki has destroyed the cobra's unhatched brood of eggs except for one. He now carries it to where Nagaina is threatening to bite the child Teddy while his parents watch helplessly. An enraged Nagaina recovers her egg but pursued by Rikki-Tikki to the underground cobra's nest where an unseen final battle takes place. Rikki emerges triumphant from the hole declaring Nagaina dead. His future role is to protect the family by keeping the garden free from any future intrusion by snakes.
- In George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman the character Octavius is given the pet-name Ricki-Ticki-Tavy by Ann Whitefield.
- In Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible, a girl named Ruth May Price befriends a mongoose and her sister Leah suggests she name it "Ricky Ticky Tabby", but instead Ruth chooses to name it after a rodent from a different piece of literature, Stuart Little.
Film, television, audio and video
An animated Russian film adaptation was produced by Aleksandra Snezhko-Blotskaya with a change being that Rikki's adoptive human family are native Indians as opposed to the original story's British family. Another change was that there is no Karait; there is only Nag and Nagaina. In 1975, Chuck Jones produced and directed an animated adaptation of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.Orson Welles provided the narration and some of the voices, based on a previous recording. In the anime television series, Jungle Book Shōnen Mowgli, a major family of native supporting characters have a mongoose companion named Rikki who is a fearless guardian of his human family.
The Donovan song "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" (1970) makes use of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi as a metaphor for several political organizations. The song makes references to the literary piece, as well as the Disney film, The Jungle Book, even though Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is not mentioned or seen in the film. The song also makes a commentary on the environmental movement with the fact that the Mongoose were diminishing the population of the snakes, no matter how dangerous they are.
In the film Legends of the Fall, Colonel Ludlow is shown reading the story aloud before the three boys go to war.
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- "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi"—Full text from e-books at the University of Adelaide in Adelaide, South Australia.