My Shikayat with Shikaar


My Shikayat with Shikaar

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

The first book I ever took out from my school’s library was The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag by Jim Corbett. The way Corbett wrote, the act of hunting felt like the noblest of pursuits. He wrote about the quiet grandeur of the Indian forest and the savage beauty of its wildlife. As an animal-crazy 11-year-old kid growing up in a city, I was hooked. I went on a spree, devouring one dusty, worm-riddled, paperback hunting tale after another. For me, it was like the legendary hunter was imparting jungle lore to me through the pages.

It was also the start of a long obsession with hunting that culminated, to put it in a nutshell, disappointingly.

The reason I reached for the Corbett novels on my school library’s shelves was because my head had already been filled with tales of shikaar from my Rajput family. Back when shikar was a tradition, my ancestors probably bagged everything from big cats like lions, tigers, and leopards for trophies to big game like chital, sambar, and wild boar for dinner.

Naturally, Corbett’s hunting tales were irresistible to me. In between his edge-of-the-seat storytelling, and being regaled with stories of close shaves and near misses by my uncles, I began to want a hunting story of my own. I said as much to my dad, who promised to give me an authentic shikaar experience on our next winter holiday. I couldn’t wait. October 2003 was going to be epic.

The holiday we were going on was a long one – we were starting out in Lucknow, heading to Kashipur, spending a few days in Jim Corbett National Park, and hitting up Nainital before catching a train to Rajasthan, where I would finally get a taste of shikaar. I packed my bags with great excitement that year, the most important item being a dog-eared copy of Corbett’s Man-Eaters of Kumaon.

In medieval times, it was a proving ground of martial skill for nobles and a means of sustenance for all. With the advent of firearms, hunting was no longer only for procuring food, but also extirpating dangerous predators.

I barely registered the first few days when we were visiting relatives in Lucknow and Kashipur. The call of the wild was echoing in my ears, and I couldn’t wait to visit the same jungles I’d been reading about in the novels for years. For the three nights and four days we spent in Corbett National Park, I don’t think I slept a wink. I was too excited to see a tiger. Unfortunately, despite attempts from the back of an elephant, a jeep, and a hide, the closest I came to seeing the big cat was a pugmark. It was a disheartening blow to my shikari spirit, but then we reached Nainital and The House with the Trophy Room.

I found myself alone one sleepy afternoon, wandering the corridors of a house that an 11-year-old boy would describe as a manor. I climbed a flight of stairs, and found myself on a landing that led to a set of double doors. An earlier room had contained a sweet pair of swords and a shield, so I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see what these doors hid. I pushed them open, and nearly pissed myself with fright.

The tiger was standing mere feet away, his four-inch-long canines gleaming in the sunlight, his whiskers all angry and stiff. He seemed ready to pounce, until I saw his glassy eyes. It was a tiger alright, but taxidermists had had their way with it. Beneath it was an inscription written on a paper scroll in a glass frame. “Nanosa’s Fifth Tiger.” The stuffed tiger shared the room with several other tigers of a less impressive size, two stuffed leopards, and the heads of the entire cast of The Jungle Book mounted on the walls. Apart from the mounted trophies, the walls were also covered in a mind-boggling amount of black-and-white and sepia-toned photographs of proud, moustachioed men standing over the downed body of a wild animal, and a few coloured photos from the more recent past as well.

It was the holy grail of trophy rooms, and just like that, my shikaar fever was back.

The first thing I did when we got to Rajasthan was test fire the old 12-bore shotgun. Apart from startling a few peacocks, I can’t say I was a great marksman, which is probably why I was assigned flashlight duty when we went out for shikaar that evening. My role was to sweep the bush with the flashlight beam from the open-top jeep, trying to catch the eyes of any animal unlucky enough to run into our hunting party.

As dusk began to gather, I began mentally flipping through the pages of Corbett’s books again. The thrill of the hunt, the sounds of the Indian jungle, the intimate knowledge of the wildlife and their ways, the tense wait for your quarry to cross your sights – it was all churning and heaving in my brain as I hopped onto the jeep with my uncle, who was carrying the shotgun.

That evening did not live up to the grand fantasy I had built up in my head. Our prey wasn’t a man-eating tiger, but a brown hare. I was the one who spotted him with the flashlight and pointed him out to my uncle. The driver killed the engine, and rolled the jeep a little closer. My uncle raised the shotgun and brought the hare in his sights. I had to keep the flashlight steady. The hare just sat there; the bright light flooding its pupils rendered us invisible. When the shotgun went off, its reaction time was amazing. It actually began to hop to safety before the buckshot caught it mid-leap, tossing its body back to the ground.

At that moment, the grand finale of the shikaar I’d been clamouring to experience for weeks, I felt nothing like my hero Jim Corbett. The only thing I felt was regret.

The guilt was enough to temporarily turn me vegetarian, but it also prompted me to think about shikaar, and why it’s such a big deal. In medieval times, it was a proving ground of martial skill for nobles and a means of sustenance for all. With the advent of firearms, hunting was no longer only for procuring food, but also extirpating dangerous predators.

But now, with meat freely available, high-powered rifles and shotguns, and our wildlife population plummeting, it seems like an exercise in vanity, albeit one that ends in a life being taken. When the odds are stacked so heavily in your favour, it stops being fun to play.

Even Corbett forsook hunting in his later days, opting to devote his energy to raising awareness about forests, their wildlife, and the urgent need for their protection. It was during these twilight years of his life that he wrote the books that sparked my love affair with the jungles that endures to this day. And if I were to take that same hunting trip I took in 2003 today, the only thing that will be the same is the book in my backpack.