Jim Corbett: The Shikari Who Gave India a Lesson in Jungle Lore


Jim Corbett: The Shikari Who Gave India a Lesson in Jungle Lore


arlier this month, I was driving my family back home to Nainital after an out-of-town trip. As we approached Kashipur, my daughter started chuckling, pointing to a large sign across the road that displayed names of places along with distances. There was Kashipur, Ramnagar, Nainital, and Zim Corbett National Park. I was aghast. In a nation where English wine shops have been selling “child bears” for ages, a mere spelling error is hardly out of the ordinary, but one zimply does NOT misspell the name of Jim Corbett in our part of the world.

Though Jim Corbett’s fame has spread to all corners of the globe, he is truly a larger-than-life presence in his native Uttarakhand. So many places have been named after him – a national park, countless hotels, spas, and restaurants – that, we, the residents of Kumaon and Garhwal, have taken him as one of our own. My personal connection with Corbett is through my grandfather, who knew him well enough to have engaged in regular correspondence. I also happen to live in a house that was once owned by him and is just a stone’s throw away from Gurney House, the house where he lived in Nainital.

Many believe that Corbett’s legacy is his bravery, the 33 man-eaters he hunted. But that’s like saying Sachin’s legacy is leg-spin bowling. Corbett’s legacy is his books, and through them the love he inspires for his beloved jungles. He published his first book in 1944, titled Jungle Stories, which recounted his adventures in the north Indian forests. It was only on the advice of the publisher that the name was changed to Man-Eaters of Kumaon. He would go on to write five more books that would make him an international celebrity and bring the world’s focus on the region I call home.

And yet, very few people realise that the time he spent in the north Indian forests, occupied only a small percentage of his life. He spent 23 long years working as a railways inspector at Mokameh Ghat in Bihar. In his writings, however, Mokameh Ghat doesn’t find the love he lavished on his short but enriching life in the forest. His writings on this part of his life are rich, detailed, and evocative. After Mokameh Ghat, he worked as a house agent and ran a hardware store in Nainital. These businesses too find no mention in his writings. It is important to remember this because his books may provide the impression that he was a man who spent most of his time in the forests. Yet this was not the case. His forest sojourns were brief interludes in an otherwise hectic life, which included active service in two wars and a position on the Nainital municipal board. But to me it seems that the forest was where he drew his life force from.

Jim Corbett was haunted by jungles. He writes of them with an affection and understanding that is as extraordinary as it is infectious. When he was in the forest, he transformed into a gyaan yogi, a man of knowledge. He was adept at deciphering the secret language of the forest that he called “jungle lore”. Having grown up in the jungles around Kaladhungi, he had taught himself to be in constant communication with the forest and this was largely the reason for his success as a hunter. Birds, beasts, plants, and man were continually sharing information.

Later in life, as Corbett gave up the gun for the camera, he appeared to have transformed into a bhakti yogi, a man with an unshakeable faith in the natural world, and one who was totally devoted to its protection. It involved an almost spiritual bond with the jungle and its inhabitants. The transformation of a Jedi Knight to Jedi Master.

The image of Corbett sitting under a tree in faraway Africa, writing of his beloved Kumaon hills, with two little birds for company, has stayed with me.

And yet, back in the world of men, another avatar would take over. Judging his interactions with people and the conduct of his business affairs, I get the sense that Corbett was a practical, and sometimes unfeeling man. “Carpet Sahib” as he was called locally, abhorred sentimentality in daily life and took situations in his stride with the poise and calm of a practiced karma yogi, a man of dispassionate action. Initially rejected by the upper class British because they were “domiciled Indians”, Corbett and his sister Maggie lived insulated lives. As his fame as a shikari grew, he started to make new and some very powerful friends. Yet a sense of isolation remained. Caught in that world of loneliness between upper class British civil servants – in which Maggie, with her “dowdy”, unsmart clothes, stood out like a sore thumb – and the world of the villagers whom they loved (but into which they could never be absorbed), the brother and sister never really felt a sense of belonging.

Their sudden decision to leave India, the only home that Maggie and he had truly known, in 1947 bears witness to this. Corbett feared that their prospects would be greatly diminished in independent India; they would become second-class citizens and move to the “bottom of the queue” as he called it. He refused to inform the people of his village near Kaladhungi about the exact date of his departure, choosing instead to disappear one fine day. Corbett could be as devoid of sentiment in his real life as he was emotional in his forest life.

This contrast in his twin personas is something that amazes people, but that I wholly understand. I understand how the jungle can stay with you and change something inside you, in a way that your life in towns and cities never does. I have been visiting forests since I was a child, thanks to my parents, and it is my most cherished inheritance. No matter how troubled I am, the natural world always manages to lift my spirits. I remember once when in Delhi and deeply distressed for some reason, I found myself in a crowded bus crossing the Nizamuddin Bridge over the Yamuna. I hated everything about the world that evening: the heat, the crowd, the traffic, and the city. And then I spotted a flight of 10 to 15 Pintail ducks flying low over the river. They approached the bridge and flew over the bus. Everyone else was either oblivious to their presence or indifferent, but in an instant all my worries vanished. I followed their flight until they disappeared from sight.

It is almost as if the natural world plants a seed in some people – a seed that keeps growing and transforming the internal landscape of that person throughout his life. Some lucky ones are able to find work that keeps them within the forest. Yet I know many people who live normal urban lives, but have this almost mystical connection with the forest. Within the sacred space of the jungle, they transform into entirely different people. For them, visits to forests are the pilgrimages that make the rest of their life tolerable.

I’m not in any doubt that the forest continued to change Corbett throughout his life. On the outside, he changed from a hunter to a conservationist, but I think there must have been a far more profound change within. The forest gave him a modicum of sentiment that was otherwise not evinced in his life or his departure from India.

Just before leaving the country, he and Maggi sold their childhood home, Gurney House, to Mr Varma along with all the fittings, furniture, and curios that the Corbetts had kept in it, including the hunting trophies, gorgeous wooden cabinets from Mokameh Ghat, Maggie’s chair. Yet, just before departure, Corbett requested Mr Varma’s permission to take one particular rug with him all the way to Kenya. Mr Varma gave his consent. Carpet Sahib was a private man, so the reason for this request is not known but the rug was taken. Sentimentality, however small, was eventually embraced.

A few years ago, Corbett’s grand-niece visited Nainital from British Columbia. I had the good fortune of meeting her and she shared her most vivid memory of Uncle Jim from a childhood visit to Kenya. No longer a resident of the forests, he would place a table and chair under a tree in the garden and would spend much of the day working on his books on an old typewriter. A pair of birds, thrushes of some sort, would sit on his typewriter while he worked. When he would reach the end of a line and move the stem of the typewriter back, the birds would fly up into the air and then settle back on the typewriter. The image of Corbett sitting under a tree in faraway Africa, writing of his beloved Kumaon hills, with two little birds for company, has stayed with me. He carried these forests in his heart long after he left them.

Today, there is no better way to remember Corbett than to step into the hallowed forests of his memory and attempt to learn its secret vocabulary through his words. To begin to learn the nuances and rhythms of “jungle lore”. He is an ideal tutor and accepting his tutelage would be a perfect birthday gift to him. From the great beyond, Master Jim may well encourage his Padawans to fulfil their sacred trust with the words, “May the forest be with you!” And long may it be with us.