Rikki-tikki starts the story as a young and inexperienced mongoose, which this means he has only one place to go from there: up. Yes, like many coming of age stories, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is about a boy who grows into manhood by having himself an adventure. The adventure tests him every step of the way, and by overcoming the trials, the boy mongoose learns about himself, develops his skills, and discovers his reason for living to become a man mongoose. Sure, Rikki-tikki is a little furrier than our usual coming-of-age hero, and his journey only takes him as far as the backyard. But trust us. There's some major maturation going on.
Coming of age is the major theme tying "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" to the rest of the Jungle Books stories.
Rikki-tikki doesn't actually come of age in the story. As the narrator points out, he's a "true mongoose" (7). This means he's not maturing so much as doing what a mongoose does best, snake killing.
"Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" shows man (and woman) in a really awkward place within the natural world. On the one hand, Teddy and his family are obviously super into nature. Teddy plays in the garden and the family takes in Rikki-tikki—a wild creature, mind you—without much hesitation. On the other hand, nature just seems out to get them. Three snake attacks in less than three days? That's got to be a record. Then to further complicate matters, the only way the family can protect themselves from nature as represented by the cobras is by domesticating a natural creature like Rikki-tikki. Perhaps the story's view of nature can best be summed up as: "Wow, isn't nature wonderful? Sure hope it doesn't kill us."
In "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," the division between man and the natural world is also a division between Imperial Britain and India, with the British Empire and civilization on one side, and India and nature on the other.
It's possible to read "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" as arguing that the man's ownership of the garden is a result of survival of the fittest (a relatively new idea when Kipling was penning the story).
"Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" comes down pretty hard on the whole good versus evil thing. In this corner, wearing his fur raised, we have the valiant, the fearless, the good Rikki-tikki. He fights to protect the innocent people of the bungalow, especially their boy, Teddy. In the other corner, wearing scales black as onyx, are the evil, vicious, and downright nasty cobras, Nag and Nagaina. They want to kill the humans so they can become the undisputed rules of the garden. Between these corners is a middle ground where no character can survive. Seriously, you're either with the good guys or you're the evil ones here. Get off the fence and pick a side.
The characters aligned with good in the story are action-oriented.
The only evil characters in the story are cold-blooded snakes. The good characters are all warm-blooded animals.
Bravery sets Rikki-tikki apart from the other characters. Darzee isn't brave; he just cowers in his nest, hiding from Nag and Nagaina. Chuchundra isn't brave; he comes out at night to avoid danger. But Rikki-tikki, oh yeah, that guy is brave. He fearlessly jumps into a battle with Karait to save Teddy from certain death. He follows Nagaina into her cobra den to bring their battle to a permanent close. With the story presenting a type of moral lesson through talking animals à la an Aesop fable, one thing becomes clear: in the garden of life, definitely be the mongoose.
Rikki-tikki isn't a brave character. Since it's his nature to fight cobras, his fights are less about courage and more about natural instinct overriding all else.
Chuchundra knows about Nag and Nagaina's temperament. So, his helping Rikki-tikki is actually a brave act despite his overall cowardice.
Postcolonialism can be seen as a philosophy, a reconsideration of history, or a method of cultural studies. In short, it's a field with its work cut out for it. For our purposes, we can think of postcolonial readers as those "concerned with literature produced by colonial powers and works produced by those who were/are colonized" (Source). The basic idea is to read between the lines of the stories written by history's winners and see what may have be left out. With "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," what does the story leave out of its presentation of India? And once reincorporated into the story, does this ignored history change the way we perceive and find meaning in the story? Only one way to find out: we're going to have to shake things up a little.
Kipling snuck support for India into "Rikki-tikki-tavi" by giving the cobras motivations and feelings.
The story sees the cobras as evil not because of the postcolonial view we're proposing here but from of Rikki-tikki's youthful, immature life view. See "Coming of Age" for more.