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Book review

Tiger man, burning bright

Published : Jan 26, 2023 10:25 IST

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Tiger man, burning bright

A fascinating omnibus edition of writings and documents connected to Jim Corbett’s life and work.

“A tiger among men, lover of the underdog, a hero in war and pestilence, a model zamindar and employer, an ascetic, naturalist, and, above all, a hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards for thirty-two active years in the three hill districts of Uttar Pradesh comprising Garhwal, Nainital, and Almora… In the realm of high adventure, he is a man of the five continents where his fans are and will be.”

Few can sum up Jim Corbett’s life and legacy as eloquently, and succinctly, as Durga Charan Kala does in the opening paragraph of his book Jim Corbett of Kumaon.

The Corbett Papers: Biographical, Legal, & Contextual Material on the Life & Career of Jim Corbett of Kumaon
Edited by Akshay Shah and Stephen Alter
Black Kite (2022)
Pages: 264
Price:Rs.699

Published in 1979, 24 years after Corbett’s death, D.C. Kala’s was the first, and arguably the finest, biography on the life and times of Jim Corbett. It is only fair then that these evocative excerpts from Corbett’s first biography should be included in the latest work dealing with his life and career.

Edited by Akshay Shah and Stephen Alter, The Corbett Papers is a fantastic new offering for all Corbett aficionados. The book, as the title lays out, is a motley collection of various writings and documents connected to Jim Corbett’s life as well as the forests—then the Patlidun valley, now better known as Corbett National Park, the sanctum sanctorum of the larger, eponymously named tiger reserve—he primarily operated in.

The book has been neatly segmented into seven sections, each accorded an introduction by the editors. For most Corbett lovers, perhaps the single most important section among these would be the first ever republication of the proverbial “holy grail” of Corbett’s writing: a slim volume called Jungle Stories published in 1935.

Jungle Stories, also consisting of seven pieces, was privately published by Corbett. He wrote it for the consumption of his family and friends, all of whom were great fans of his inimitable style of storytelling, and it was limited to just 100 copies.

Jim Corbett (1875 –1955)
Jim Corbett (1875 –1955)

Corbett wrote, as excerpted by the editors in the introduction to this section, that it took four months to print the 100 copies since it was done at a local printing press in Nainital (curiously named “London Press”) which printed one page at a time (with each page printed 100 times) before the “type” was broken. Evidently, with its paper covers and fragile paper binding, this little book was not meant to last. In fact, most copies of this book were lost during the author’s lifetime itself. Corbett wrote that copies “drifted from hand to hand until the majority had been read to death”.

It is precisely because of this that Jungle Stories is a holy grail; perhaps less than 10 copies survive today, all of them in private collections. The editors, however, inform us that one of the copies of the book “eventually found its way into the hands of the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow… [who] …enjoyed the book and recommended it to the Oxford University Press”. The rest, as they say, is history.

Most of the tales recounted in Jungle Stories found their way into Corbett’s first book, Man-eaters of Kumaon, published in 1944 (not 1945 as erroneously mentioned by the editors), a runaway hit that cemented Corbett’s legacy as a writer. However, since no institutional library across the globe held a copy of the original 104-page book that started it all—a raw proof-version of Corbett’s writings untouched by the deft, even if light, hand of his future editors— Jungle Stories was never republished until now.

The other sections of the book are equally fascinating. D.C. Kala’s excerpt from his biography of Corbett is a wonderful read. What sets his writing apart from many of Corbett’s future biographers is the fact that many of Corbett’s friends and acquaintances were still alive while Kala was drafting his manuscript in the late 1970s. He had direct access to many of these men and women, especially because his father, G.C. Kala, a government servant in Kumaon from 1911 to 1945, had personally known Corbett and many of Corbett’s friends and acquaintances.

Incidentally, G.C. Kala wrote a book titled Memoirs of the Raj: Kumaon (1911-1945), published in 1974, that recounts his varied experiences as a junior civil servant serving under white ICS officers. The editors made a wise call in including excerpts from this book relating to Corbett and his civil servant friends such as Percy Wyndham and A.W. Ibbotson who are familiar names to Corbett readers. As a reader, it was very interesting for me to compare and contrast how Kala Sr and Kala Jr remember and write about Corbett and his peers.

The Kalas take up three of the seven sections of the book, or four if you count the biographical note on D.C. Kala by Akshay Shah that forms the introduction to this book. The last in the trilogy of Kala writings included in the book is a delightful travelogue written by D.C. Kala for The Hindustan Times Weekly in 1954, culled from his archives that were inherited by Akshay when the bachelor passed away in 2007.

An account of his nearly week-long visit in April 1954 to the Ramganga National Park (which would be renamed Corbett National Park after Jim Corbett’s death in 1955), this essay gives fascinating insights into what places like Bijrani, Malani, Dhikala, Patairpani, Garjia, Sarapduli, and Kalagarh—familiar names today to the thousands of tourists that visit Corbett Tiger Reserve—were like back then.

Then there are descriptions of those places that do not exist any more, such as Boxar valley that was drowned by the Kalagarh Dam. Kala’s essay also provides an interesting commentary on the state of wildlife and conservation in the park nearly 18 years after its declaration as the first national park of India. It also includes useful suggestions on developing sustainable tourism in the national park, caveated with a prescient warning: “Too much tourism is as bad for a national park as too little of it.”

A sister’s reminiscences

Jim Corbett’s sister and companion, Margaret “Maggie” Corbett, makes an appearance too. The book’s second section, titled “A Sister Remembers”, is a reproduction of the entire typescript of Maggie’s recollections of Jim Corbett and their family, as narrated to her close friend Ruby Beyts after Corbett’s death in Kenya. Since both Jim and Maggie remained unmarried, they were each other’s strongest emotional and familial anchors, as well as caretakers. As Shah and Alter note in their introductory note to this section, while this typescript was referred to by various biographers of Corbett such as D.C. Kala and Martin Booth, this is the first time it is being published in its entirety.

Few modern scholars and Corbett fans know of the other writer in the Corbett family, so I was quite pleased to see the editors discuss the story of Charles Doyle, Corbett’s half-brother from his mother’s first marriage, in the section titled “A Half-Brother’s Tale”. Charles was not a particularly good writer, not even remotely in the league of Corbett, and the editors are quite scathing in their assessment. They declare: “He aspired to the airy, overblown prose of Rudyard Kipling’s least successful stories…. In essence he was a terrible writer.”

The excerpts from Doyle’s novel The Taming of the Jungle (1899), reproduced in this section, do Jim’s senior brother no favours either. The only takeaway for me was Doyle’s description of a black jungle partridge as the “muezzin of the jungle” for he describes the bird’s morning call as “ Sobhan teri koodruth” (Praise be O Lord for creating this natural world).

The final section of the book is a full reproduction of Corbett’s last will and testament, another first for Corbett-related publications. The editors rightly point out that it establishes, among many other things, Corbett as a thoughtful and fastidious man whose “natural kindness and generosity shows through the convoluted and archaic language of this legal document”. Stephen Alter provides a well-rounded afterword to bring the book to a close.

While scholars and environmental historians will find this book useful, one major constraint for a book of this kind, as I am sure the editors and publishers will be aware, is that it caters to a niche audience outside of academia. While devoted Corbett aficionados, and indeed there are many, may devour this book with great interest, the casual reader of Jim Corbett’s works, or even most wildlife enthusiasts and wildlife conservationists for that matter, will in all likelihood give it a miss.

There are a few other missed opportunities as well. The book could have done with a few photographs, such as those from D.C. Kala’s personal archives, and especially of some pages from Jungle Stories, since for most of us that will be the closest we ever get to seeing what the book looked like. I especially liked the very personal biographical note on D.C. —“old monk drinking Old Monk”—Kala by Akshay, to whom he was a mentor in more ways than one. Consequently, I wish he had fleshed it out with more details on the life story of this remarkable man.

A tiger sighted in Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, on November 3, 2022. Established in 1936, this national park is India’s oldest and was renamed after the legendary hunter-turned-naturalist and conservationist in 1956.
A tiger sighted in Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, on November 3, 2022. Established in 1936, this national park is India’s oldest and was renamed after the legendary hunter-turned-naturalist and conservationist in 1956. | Photo Credit: Sourabh Bharti

Finally, as a wildlife historian, I was a bit disappointed to realise that this otherwise excellent book fails to fill that one major lacuna in all the works on Corbett ever written. This is the aspect of Corbett’s career that is least documented, the details of his efforts towards wildlife conservation and his role and work in creating and running what arguably was the first organisation in India solely dedicated to wildlife conservation. The Association for the Preservation of Game in United Provinces was set up in 1932 by Corbett and his nature-lover friend Barrister Hasan Abid Jafry (Secretary, Mahmudabad Estate, UP). Corbett and Jafry, under the aegis of this association, organised the first ever all-India conference on conservation of wildlife in the Indian subcontinent in January 1935.

Corbett, along with Jafry and R.C. Morris, was also the editor of Indian Wild Life, a short-lived magazine espousing the cause of conservation that was published by the Association from 1936 to 1939. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 1935 conference, Corbett played a key role in lobbying for the United Provinces National Parks Act, 1935, which led to the creation of Hailey National Park a year later. Corbett also played a pivotal role in selecting and demarcating the area of this national park that would be renamed in his honour 20 years later.

Nonetheless, these few misses take nothing away from the sheer amount of fascinating and insightful material that Shah and Alter have compiled. The book’s blurb says: “All readers of Corbett’s compelling corpus will require this book to complete their collection of his inimitable writings.” I wholeheartedly endorse this declaration.

Raza Kazmi is a Jharkhand-based conservationist and an avid collector of antiquarian books on natural history.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 10, 2023.)

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