Jim Corbett, a household name in most of India, literally shot to fame with his legendary Man-eaters of Kumaon and was the author of several other works. At least two biographies have been written about this somewhat enigmatic ‘country-born’ Englishman who roamed the forests of Kumaon alone, seeking to destroy man-eating tigers and leopards that had terrorised the region. But he was also a conservationist and later, a wildlife photographer. His private life has always been bit of an enigma (probably because he never married), and his upping sticks to leave for Kenya when India got independence has never really sat well.
There was enough happening in Corbett’s life that would make for excellent fiction, and this is what Stephen Alter has done in this book. Three episodes from Corbett’s life are taken, and ‘fictionalised’ and Alter sometimes slips so much into the Corbett style and lore that you tend to wonder who the author really is! In the first, the young Corbett discovers a freshly dug old grave, with the body missing. That body belonged to a young flirtatious English girl who was ostensibly killed by a leopard many years earlier. There are however suspicions over whether the real culprit was indeed the leopard, or if the girl (who was found to be pregnant) was murdered. Alter evokes the misty, rain-drenched mysterious hill-station mood strongly in this story, and Jim Corbett, all of 13, comes across as a very self-possessed young man, keen on natural history and already wise to the ways of the wild.
The second story deals with the man-eating tigress of Mayaghat that terrorised labour gangs brought from Bihar to cut down the forests for the railways. Here we meet the typical obnoxious red-faced Englishman in charge—who has complete contempt for the ‘natives’—and plays the hectoring bully and coward to perfection. There is the fervently patriotic nationalist (‘Gandhiwalla’) flying the flag for independence and trying to organise the petrified labour gangs into getting a better deal for themselves. There’s a mysterious forest sprite too —a young pretty lass who lives alone in the jungles, who is thought by many to be a witch, and uncannily who seems to know what the tigress is thinking and doing. She befriends Corbett, teases him—and more (wonder if Maggie would have approved!). There are tribals, who move around like smoke amongst the trees. And there is the man-eating tigress herself, old, wounded and in pain. Alter describes Corbett’s pursuit of her, just as he might have done so himself: the physical description of the geography of the region is as precise and real, it’s like every leaf blade in the landscape has been observed and accounted for—as are the changing moods of the hunter. The final episode is about Corbett’s life in Kenya—where he lived till his death in 1955 and took to photography in a major way.
Corbett’s life as mentioned earlier has potential for great fiction (because as we know, the truth is often stranger!) though one has to take care one does not sully or distort the character in question (like some sections of the press are wont to do). Alter certainly hasn’t done that, Corbett comes across in fact, more human than his own writings might suggest—more of a normal human being rather than someone who usually remained so buttoned up about his personal life.
But would Corbett have approved? That’s the question you’re left with after reading this addition to the Corbett legacy. Perhaps we should think about our own lives and wonder what a fictionalised version of it might be like!