Corbett and more...
We, of this age, can, however, ill afford the time it takes for such judgment to take shape.
More so, if the compilation is on one of India’s legendary hunters and naturalists Jim Corbett, best known for killing a number of man-eating tigers and leopards in the foothills of the Kumaon, in northern India.
And so, when Stephen Alter’s In The Jungles Of The Night appears on the horizon, chatter bubbles grow bigger and bigger in the publishing circuit, leaving enough room to rediscover this well-known personality who has been turned into a character in the novel.
Shorn of all spin, the book highlights three episodes from Corbett’s life. In the first story, the protagonist visits a cemetery where his father was buried seven years ago with the intention to collect ferns for his botany collection and accidentally stumbles upon a freshly dug old grave, with the body missing.
It was that of Cynthia (Cindy) Lily Bertram, an attractive, flirtatious English girl pursued by most of the bachelors in town. Though she died more than 10 years ago, plenty of people in Nainital remembered her.
There are, however, suspicions over whether the real killer was indeed the leopard, or if the girl, who was found to be pregnant, was murdered.
Depicting a hauntingly picturesque backdrop of this north Indian town, the author deftly deals with the 13-year-old Jim whose inquisition, coupled with his morbid curiosity, leads him to his unflinching determination to find out what actually happened to Cindy and why she met with such a fate. After all, he remembered what his brother had told him the other night: ‘Cindy Bertram wasn’t an innocent victim, if you know what I mean.’
In the second story – “The Man-eater of Mayaghat,” there are two females taking the centre stage of the story. One of them is an old, wounded and man-eating female tiger who has developed a taste for human blood and the other is an intriguing, lonely forest-dweller Kaiyu with whom Corbett forges a curious and furtive relationship from the very moment they meet.
Many consider her to be a witch but interestingly, she always seems to know what the tigress is thinking and doing.
There is also a typical repugnant red-faced Englishman filled with complete contempt for the “natives”. And of course, Bimal Swadeshi, a Gandhian and a staunch patriot who had come to work with the Banjaris (tribals) but has now been attracted to the labourers’ plight who have been brought there by the forest department from Bihar to fell trees in the nearby areas to lay railway lines.
There are about a 1,000 of them and are really unwilling to carry on any work because of the tiger. Swadeshi features here as the flag-bearer of their protests trying every way out to get justice and a better deal for them.
Jim, at one stage, unable to kill the tigress even after repeated attempts, finds himself in the midst of the labourers’ protest, led by the Gandhian, finding it difficult to accept the political rhetoric.
The hunter’s pursuit of the wounded tiger has been described very extensively by Alter. He also portrays the physical topography of the region with great precision and reality.
In the third and concluding story – “Until the Day Break” – we see Corbett and his sister Maggie travelling to Kenya as “India’s new leaders struggled to forge their independence... It became clear to me (Jim) that I was o longer welcome amidst the clamour of speeches and slogans.”
In the twilight of his life, Jim Corbett looks back at his days on the frontlines at Artois in France during WWII, his reflections on leopards and tigers, his new passion which led him to “abandon” his guns “in favour of the camera, which affords me (Jim) far greater pleasure and a more satisfying sense of accomplishment in the jungle”.
The closing pages of the book also contain his rendezvous with Queen Elizabeth II, the then Princess Elizabeth, who seemed to have read several of his books and was quite a fan of his work.
In the end, many more stories remain to be told about tracking animals with a camera as the protagonist goes on to say “A few of the pictures I have taken might even be worth a thousand words.”
And as he decided to leave the familiar embrace of those jungles where he grew up, he went on to understand that men must essentially live with the choices they make and ‘his’ India had faded long back into memory, only to be reclaimed through photographs.