Corbett tales: Review of ‘Hero of Kumaon’ by Duff Hart-Davis

This new book on Jim Corbett should hopefully help new fans set off on a discovery of his thrilling jungle stories.

Published : Oct 19, 2023 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

Jim Corbett with the slain Bengal tiger known as the Bachelor of Powalgarh, in 1930.

Jim Corbett with the slain Bengal tiger known as the Bachelor of Powalgarh, in 1930. | Photo Credit: WIKIPEDIA

For the purpose of this review, I would like to separate readers into two categories: passionate fans of Jim Corbett, the legendary slayer of man-eating tigers, and those who are yet to discover the addictive lure of his thrilling jungle stories.

Hero of Kumaon: The Life of Jim Corbett
By Duff Hart-Davis
HarperCollins Publishers India
Pages: 260 (Paperback)
Price: Rs.399

While Hero of Kumaon: The Life of Jim Corbett, by the veteran writer Duff Hart-Davis, has enough to offer the former, revealing as it does many little-known biographical facts about their hero, does it have what it takes to entice new fans into the Corbett fold?

To help the uninitiated decide why they should take an interest in the life of an angrezi hunter from the early 20th century, here is a glimpse into who Corbett was and what makes his story and writings so enduringly appealing.

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Enduring stories

Visualise this scene: It is the early 1900s in the Himalayan foothills around Kumaon, in present-day Uttarakhand. A farmer is walking home through the jungle after visiting relatives in the next hamlet. His path, though lonely, is familiar, and one that he has traversed many times. As he passes through a particularly dense patch of vegetation, his ears pick up a faint rustle. But before he can look around, he is violently knocked down by a heavy beast, which then seizes him by the throat. As his life is ebbing away, the last thing the man sees is the fearsome face of his nemesis: a tiger.

This tragic incident marks the beginning of a hellish period of suffering for the people of several small forest villages in the region. From that fateful day, routine activities such as working in the fields, grazing cattle, collecting firewood in the nearby jungle, or even answering the call of nature become fraught with peril. A pall of doom descends on the populace as the hidden killer picks off more victims with alarming regularity.

After several men, women, and children have fallen prey to the big cat, the government officer in charge of the district sends an SOS to a renowned hunter, beseeching him for his help to end the reign of terror. From 1907 to 1938, the saviour who unfailingly answered these pleas was a soft-spoken white sahib called Edward James “Jim” Corbett.

Six feet tall, wiry, and possessed of tremendous stamina, Corbett had tramped up and down the forests of Kumaon and knew them intimately, having grown up in the region. Fluent in the local dialects, he also understood the language of the jungle and the ways of wild animals. Yet, even for him, hunting down a stealthy man-eater that ranged across vast forested hills and valleys was no easy task.

Determined to free hapless villagers from the ravages of a man-eating tiger or leopard, Corbett often spent weeks, months, or even years patiently pursuing his quarry, frequently putting his own life at great risk. Over the course of three decades, he is credited with having shot at least 10 man-eaters, which, between them, had killed an estimated 1,200 people. These thrilling exploits, which he chronicled in later life, are what made Corbett the legend that he remains so many decades after his passing, and still a subject of books and films.

Remarkably, although Corbett started writing years after he had given up the pursuit of man-eaters, and apparently never kept a journal, a near-photographic memory allowed him to recount even his earliest experiences in vivid detail, with intricate descriptions of the landscape, people, situations, and nature. Never one to sensationalise, he clearly explains in his books that tigers and leopards are not cruel or blood-thirsty creatures and that they invariably take to killing humans only when injury or old age prevents them from hunting their natural prey.

Corbett’s first book,Man-Eaters of Kumaon, published in 1944 when he was 69, became an instant best-seller and continues to be sold all over the world in multiple languages. His entire collection of books, including The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, The Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon, Jungle Lore, and My India, can be savoured repeatedly without losing any of their magic. Masterfully narrated, they transport you to another time, when India’s wilderness had not been entirely tamed, nor utterly fragmented by our insatiable appetite for development.

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A beloved figure

It may seem odd today to heap praise upon someone who killed tigers and other wild animals. However, what makes Corbett a beloved figure in the eyes of so many is the love for nature that permeates his writing. In fact, it was he who admiringly described the tiger as a “large-hearted gentleman of boundless courage”. He felt deeply for India’s dwindling forests and wildlife and devoted the latter days of his life to photographing and filming tigers and advocating for their conservation.

In recognition of his service to wildlife, and the high esteem bestowed upon him by the people of Kumaon, the Hailey National Park, which he had helped establish, was renamed Corbett National Park in 1956, a year after he died.

Although Corbett wrote much about tigers and leopards, he revealed little about his own life outside the jungle, probably considering it of little interest to his readers. Indeed, only a few snippets can be gleaned about his private life from his own books, leaving fans thirsting for more. Hero of Kumaon helps fill this void, with 11 chapters devoted to biographical facts and insights into Corbett’s family history, professional life, business ventures, and involvement in both World Wars.

While this is sure to please fans, what many may find baffling, if not dismaying, is the literary sleight of hand in the other 12 chapters of the book. These bear the titles of Corbett’s stories but turn out to be versions of the originals as retold by Hart-Davis, albeit with excerpts from the original texts. It would have served new readers better if the book had featured the stories as written by Corbett himself, even if only in an abridged form. For, as Hart-Davis himself says of Corbett in his introduction, “…. because it is his skill with words, combined with his extraordinary prowess as a naturalist and hunter, that has enthralled many million readers”.

So, if you are learning about Corbett just now from this review, here is my advice: Treat yourself first to the unalloyed pleasure of reading Corbett’s incomparable books in the original. Then read Hero of Kumaon. You will thank me later.

Shekar Dattatri is a wildlife and conservation filmmaker.

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