I like old things. Old swords, old houses, old places … I prefer them all over present day fashion. Yes, I need my cellphone, but, consider a hundred year old chair: Someone made that, put their skill and attention into it, and then someone brought it home and used it. And it persisted, decades longer than any “big box” store chair will last. What’s important in thinking about the future is not the present, which by definition is impermanent, but the past, which holds real, enduring lessons.
I especially like old stories, which brings me to my subject for today, a book entitled The Jim Corbett Omnibus. This was a gift from my friend and colleague here in Pune, Bhavuk. The book presents a series of stories, all written from roughly 1945 to 1955 and that speak to experiences form the 1920s and 1930s. The subject of the stories: Hunting for man-eating tigers and leopards.
I know, I know, sounds like Ripping Yarns and Argosy kind of stuff, right? But as I said, I like old stories and I really liked this. A sample:
As the old priest got up to leave me that evening I asked him if it would be possible for me to get some shooting in the locality, for my men had been without meat for many days and there was none to be purchased at Dabidhura. ‘Yes’, he answered, ‘there is the temple tiger.’ On my assuring him I had no desire to shoot his tiger he rejoined with a laugh, ‘I have no objection, Sahib, to your trying to shoot this tiger, but neither you nor anyone else will ever succeed in killing it.’ And that is how I came to hear of the Dabidhura temple tiger, which provided me with one of the most interesting shikar experiences I have ever had.
I love the tone of this writing: Simple, almost reporter-like, but with the understated building of tension that typifies the best pulp stories.
The India that Westerners see today is, for the most part, urban and modern. Yes, you see massive poverty and bizarre forms of infrastructure as the country grows at double-digit rates every year, but the main elements of the cities here would not be out of place in Florida, for example.
Not so in Corbett’s time. The population of India then was 200-350 millions (as compared to 1.2 billion today), and all overwhelmingly rural – today 31% of India’s population lives in cities, while in the 20s-30s the figure was on the order of 13%. People then lived in villages scattered across a challenging terrain – especially in the north – of rocky hills and mountains. The region Corbett writes about is in Uttarakhand, adjacent to Nepal and practically the foothills of the Himalayas. The land then was essentially in its natural state and fish, birds and game – like chital, a small spotted deer, sambhar, a larger long-horned deer, or arna, the wild water buffalo – were abundant. Where you have game, you will have carnivores. In India at the top of the food chain you have leopards, and tigers.
If we are speaking of a time 80 years ago, to the classification of “game” I’m afraid we have to add, well, people. All across the sparsely populated landscape men, women and children of all ages eked out their livings performing the tasks of close-to-medieval farming: cutting fodder, gathering firewood, herding goats, carrying water. These things were done on the edges of, or in the midst of, utter wilderness. For a tiger or leopard that has been diminished by age or wounded – many that Corbett killed carried 20 or more long porcupine quills embedded in their flesh – a 90 pound Indian woman is far easier game than a 500 pound, long-horned sambhar. Here Corbett describes one victim of a man-eater from the district of Thak:
The victim on this occasion was an elderly woman, the mother of the Headman of Sem. This unfortunate woman had been killed while cutting brushwood on a steep bank between two terraced fields. She had started work at the further end of the fifty-yard long bank, and had cut brushwood to within a yard of her hut when the tiger sprang on her from the field above. So sudden and unexpected was the attack that the woman had only had time to scream once before the tiger killed her, and taking her up the twelve-foot-high bank crossed the upper field and disappeared …
Tigers and leopards in those days were responsible for 1,000s of deaths; among the animals Corbett dispatched were a tigress and cub that were thought between them to have killed 525 people. There are over 20 separate stories in this compendium, including the accounts of over 10 man-eating tigers dispatched, and the 2-years long story of Corbett’s pursuit and killing of the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag, a single animal responsible for no less than 125 deaths between 1918 and 1926.
These animals are powerful; Corbett relates how a tiger had carried a full-grown cow over 4 miles. They are also, as you might imagine, wily hunters who naturally stalk anything that tries to stalk them; several times in these stories Corbett makes his way home in darkness only to discover next day the tracks of a tiger or leopard right atop of his own.
I have to say Corbett’s writing is not for everyone. By today’s standards it is by no means exciting. There is a volume of details on hunting procedures, and most of the stories expend significant time on the failures and setbacks Corbett encountered before finally bagging each man-eater. But I greatly enjoyed Corbett’s voice as he related each tale, all of them vibrant and evocative of an India that now only exists in parks, preserves, a few remaining villages, and the memories of the elderly.
Jim Corbett was a conservationist as well as a hunter, and became an adept wildlife photographer. India’s first national park is dedicated to him, the Jim Corbett National Park. My list of places to visit here in India has now gone up. Thanks, Bhavuk, for a wonderful book.
In closing, I can only wonder, what was it like for Corbett, making his way through jungles and over hills, seeking the man-eater but wondering if the man-eater might not be close behind? Perhaps something like this:
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