Edward James (Jim) Corbett was born to English parents in 1875 at Nainital. His father was the postmaster of the town. The family owned a cottage at Kaladhungi, a picturesque village on the eastern fringe of the national reserve that Jim eventually helped to establish to save the magnificent Bengal tiger that he had so ruthlessly hunted all his life! The quintessential ‘White Shikari’ of the colonial era, Jim had his own code of conduct for hunting. He held the rank of a colonel in the British Indian Army and his services were frequently requisitioned to hunt down man-eating tigers that terrorized the hill-dwellers. He was a legend in his times in the Kumaon hills for his hunting prowess but is today remembered for his efforts at saving the tiger at a time when the subject of conservation was little understood.
He wrote six books at the end of his hunting days that were published by the Oxford University Press. Some of them are considered the ‘must read’ shikar books and ‘The Tramp’ decided to review them for his readers.
Man-Eaters of Kumaon; Jim Corbett; Oxford University Press (1944)
This is the first and easily the most famous of the books written by Jim Corbett. The author recounts his adventures in the Kumaon region involving the hunting of a series of notorious man-eating tigers. He successfully recreates for his readers the atmosphere of terror that would invariably pervade the area where a man-eater was active. He would then give a blow by blow account of the exhilarating experience of tracking down and killing the villain.
Each adventure starts with a rather graphic description of a string of grisly killings by the man-eater and the state of helplessness of the locals who were left with little option but to flee or be killed. All efforts by the lesser order shikaris, the bounty hunters, to end the run of the man-eater would have failed. The administration would then seek the services of the very best in the game, Jim Corbett. The man had Hollywood written all over him. His first request would be to call off the public reward. He was a professional, a hunter-tracker par-excellence and he didn’t want to be mistaken for the run-of-the-mill shikari who answered to a promise of a cash reward. For he was in it for the thrill. And the glory. Jim would then proceed to meet the grieving families of the victims and hear the accounts of the gruesome kills. One could feel the blood rushing to his noble head as he vowed to avenge the pitiless killings. He would trek endless miles through thick forests and impossible hilly terrains in search of his foe. He would spend long nights in the cold and the rain on make-shift machaans, sitting over kills, lying in wait for his elusive enemy. He would sleep alone on trees or in tents, unmindful of the prowling predator.
Jim was a ‘lone wolf’ who hunted alone. He didn’t want anyone to get in the way and be harmed! For each hunt was actually a game, a fight to the finish. A battle between the forces of good and the evil, where the hunter and the hunted stalked each other in seemingly endless rounds of near misses until the dramatic climax was reached. The tense, final encounter. It would now be Jim and the beast, eye-ball to eye-ball. Each looking for signs of weakness in his adversary. And then like all happy endings to the Hollywood gunslinger movies of the John Wayne era, the bad guy would finish dead, just a shade slower on the draw than our triumphant hero. There would be wide-spread rejoicing and all troubles would be forgotten by the simple village folk who would celebrate the victory of good over evil. Our gun-slinging Rama, would walk away nonchalantly from this tear-evoking scene, however, not before he had skinned the dead tiger for a trophy!
The Tramp’s take on this most celebrated of the Shikaris amongst the Saheb Log of the ‘Raj’ days may seem blasphemous to his millions of fans across countries and across successive generations. They would arguably label it as an unfair account of the great man’s real-life adventures. That Corbett risked his life on numerous occasions to save the hapless villagers from the wrath of the man-eaters. That he was a living legend in his times and was compared to a ‘Sadhu’ for his remarkable endurance and single-mindedness of purpose when following the trail of a man-eater. That he displayed a knowledge of the terrain and animal behaviour that made him an unparalleled naturalist of his times. But then, The Tramp is merely seeking to pick out the somewhat repetitive script that runs through his stories. Corbett clearly loved telling a good story. He obviously realized that a faithful account of a daring adventure does not always make an interesting read. He does seem to have embellished his accounts with some hard to believe incidents like his killing a King Cobra by hurling stones at it as part of a pre-hunt ritual. He unabashedly goes on to make the preposterous claim that it was a good omen for him to kill a venomous snake before the start of a fresh round of his mortal combat with a man-eater! And then there was this episode when he fires a rifle with one hand, from the hip, while holding eggs in the other!
Corbett did realize the risk that in his endeavour to make his tales more dramatic and readable, he might end up vilifying the majestic King of the Jungle. He takes pains to reiterate on numerous occasions that a tiger is not a bloody thirsty beast that he is made out to be and that contrary to popular beliefs he never kills unless hungry. That man is not his natural prey and unless the tiger is incapacitated by injuries or old age and is unable to run down the fleet-footed Chital or Sambhar, it rarely attacks humans. In fact, it is extremely wary of humans. That very often the injuries to the tiger are a result of the non-lethal shots by novice shikaris.
Like all good Shikaris, Corbett does display a belief in the paranormal. Thus he talks of a ‘sixth sense’ that saved him on several occasions from the prowling predator at the nth hour. Though he proceeded with the hunt after meticulous planning, with extreme caution, leaving little to chance yet there is an unmistakeable underlying belief in an unshakeable destiny that determines the time and manner of one’s death. He expresses surprise that he lived to tell the ‘tales’ despite all the near misses during his three decade long hunting career.
One does wince at his accounts of shooting down of tigers and other animals that posed no threat to man. A bear gets chased and mercilessly hacked to death with an axe. Leopards are shot without a thought. Particularly saddening is Corbett’s account of the hunting down of a magnificently large tiger, one of the finest specimens of the Royal Bengal Tiger, nicknamed the ‘Bachelor of Powalgarh’. The picture of Corbett with the beautiful dead tiger at his feet as a trophy is famous and revolting.
It saddens one to think of the mindless destruction of our wildlife heritage by legends like Corbett. Equally saddening is the wanton destruction of virgin forests for feeding the British Empire’s hunger for timber. Thus as trees get chopped by hundreds of government hired woodmen, Corbett Saheb stands guard to save them from the vengeful man-eater who helplessly watches his habitat getting swallowed by the glory of the Empire.
A question that nags the reader is that when did Jim Corbett meet his Kalinga? Which was the moment that triggered the realization that killing of beautiful wild cats was not quite as brave or noble as he had been led to believe by successive generations of men. That the new age rifles of the 20th century, had tipped the balance unfairly in favour of man. That hunting was a competition no more. That it was more of a systematic and mindless purging of wildlife. The unmistaken admiration and detail with which he describes the magnificence of the 10 feet 11 inch long, Bachelor of Powalgarh, does lead the Tramp to speculate that its killing in 1930 might have been the turning point in Corbett’s hunting career. That the seed of conservation was sown and remorse finally overtook the man eight years later when he hung up his hunting shoes and switched from the rifle to a camera as his favoured weapon of choice. The book ends with how Corbett moved on to hunt with the camera which was decidedly more challenging than hunting with the gun. A peek into the life of the modern day nature enthusiasts and wildlife researchers would easily confirm Corbett’s late in the life discovery. It takes more than a man to go scouting for tigers without a weapon, relying only on the knowledge of the tiger’s behaviour and its habitat to stay out of harm’s way.
On the whole the book is an interesting read for the shikar and nature enthusiasts. It is particularly interesting for those who have trekked through the dense sal forests of Kumaon and Garhwal hills with their quaint forest rest houses and picturesque villages that find a mention in Corbett’s hunting and travel accounts.