A Large-hearted Gentleman

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 Jim Corbett’s ‘Man-Eaters of Kumaon’ has introduced a large number of readers to the Himalayan jungles. This book, a classic of its genre, contains ten delightful stories of his encounters with man-eating tigers and leopards. These man-eaters had spread such a reign of terror in the Kumaon region of western Himalayas that the inhabitants of its small villages and hamlets were forced to remain indoors much of their time. When Corbett reached a village called Pali, five days after a woman had been killed there by ‘the Man-eater of Champawat’, he found that  “the people of the village, numbering some fifty men, women and children, were in the state of abject terror” and “though the sun was still up when I arrived, I found the entire population inside their homes behind locked doors.” It may be difficult for us, who live in modern times, to even imagine the plight of the people who faced the depredations of these man-eaters. But an idea may be had from the fact that the Champawat man-eater alone had killed 436 people and the Chowgarh tigress had claimed 64 victims over a period of five years before Corbett had shot them.

A famous shikari, and later a conservationist and photographer, he was perhaps the best known among the writers of shikar stories. In his long career-described in his own words as  “thirty- two years of which have been spent in the more or less regular pursuit of man-eaters”-he may have shot many man-eating tigers but that did not diminish his love for them one bit. He called the tiger “a large-hearted gentleman” and the man-eater as “that has been compelled, through stress of circumstances beyond its control, to adopt a diet alien to it.” He did not consider them cruel or bloodthirsty, unlike the then popular belief, for he said,  “I have not seen a case where a tiger has been deliberately cruel or where it has been bloodthirsty to the extent that it has killed, without provocation, more than it has needed to satisfy its hunger or the hunger of its cubs.” scan0002

It was not tigers alone who were dear to Corbett. The simple and hospitable people of Kumaon also had a special place in his heart. “Our hill folks are very hospitable”, he wrote in ‘the Chowgarh Tigers’ and further said that “when the villagers learned that I spent the night in the jungle, and that my camp was at Dalkania, they offered to prepare a meal for me.” In ‘the Mohan Man-Eater’  he described how the Headman of Kartkanoula village thought it was an insult to the whole village that Corbett had to bring condensed milk when the resources of the village were at his disposal. The next day he found “an array of pots and pans of various shapes and sizes on the verandah, all containing milk” and “sufficient milk in fact for me to have bathed in.”scan0010

The times that he lived in were harsh as much of the area was mountainous and covered with thick jungles. There were few motorable roads and people had to depend on kutcha tracks passing through forests inhabited by wild beasts. There were no modes of communication other than climbing a high enough feature and “cooing” across the valleys for other people to hear and pass on messages. Hospitals were few and far between and victims had to be carried on makeshift stretchers for hundreds of miles to reach one. It is no wonder then that man-eaters were able to create such havoc in the area in the early years of the last century.

 His powers of graphic description were truly remarkable. “The sun had just risen one winter’s morning when I crested the high ground overlooking the glade. On the far side, a score of red jungle fowl were scratching among the dead leaves bordering a crystal-clear stream, and scattered over the emerald-green grass, now sparkling with dew, fifty or more chital  were feeding. Sitting on a tree stump and smoking, I had been looking at this scene for sometime when the hind nearest to me raised her head, turned in my direction and called; and a moment later the Bachelor stepped into the open, from the thick bushes below me”-this is how he recalled his first sight of ‘the Bachelor of  Powalgarh’. His appeal lies in the realistic recreation of  the atmosphere of his many hunts. His attention to detail is meticulous and he must have had a fantastic memory to be able to recall the minutest of the particulars of his voyages into the wilds.

scan0005Although a keen shikari, Corbett later took to photography and admitted in ‘Just Tigers’  that “the taking of a good photograph gives far more pleasure to the sportsman than the acquisition of a trophy; and further, while the  photograph is of interest to all lovers of wild life, the trophy is only of interest to the individual who acquired it.”

‘Man-Eaters of Kumaon’ is not about man-eaters alone. It is a classic which displays the deep affection that Corbett had for jungles, animals and the people of Kumaon. The story about how he acquired ‘Robin’, a mongrel who became his companion in big game hunting or how he bagged a 50 pound mahseer which he recalled in ‘the Fish of my Dreams’are as engrossing as ‘the Kanda Man-Eater’ or ‘the Pipal-Pani Tiger’ or ‘the Thak Man-Eater’. He knew even then that the tiger’s days were numbered as he recalled his “wandering through the jungles of the terai and bhabar in the days when there were ten tigers to every one that now survives.” 

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His words may prove to be prophetic as the tiger is indeed on the verge of extinction and if he is exterminated, “India will be poorer, having lost the finest of her fauna.” Then for generations to come, ‘Man-Eaters Of Kumaon’ may perhaps be their only introduction to the natural world of the tiger. 

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2 Responses to “A Large-hearted Gentleman”

  1. Jim Corbett’s illustration and descriptions are one of the most beautiful documentations of Indian forests, wildlife and people. Glad that you chose this subject to blog in. The most fascinating aspect of his descriptions is he treats tigers and wild life as personalities on par with humans. Every tiger describes in his books have a unique personal trait.

  2. Hello Iniyaal

    Thanks for reading and for your coment. You are absolutely right that he had deep affection for tigers and other wild life.

    Salaamreaders

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