Sunday, Sep 21, 2014

Call of the Wild: The idea of India pervades the writings of Hugh Allen and Jim Corbett

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Posted: July 27, 2014 1:00 am | Updated: September 17, 2014 10:27 am

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Rupa Rainlight has reissued The Lonely Tiger (1960), the solitary book of Hugh Allen, David Davidar’s favourite shikar writer. He was convalescing in India from a serious head injury, a memento of World War II, when Independence changed the map. He elected to stay on. His sister and he bought an estate in Mandikhera (now Madikheda, in Shivpuri district, Madhya Pradesh), and sowed peanuts and sesame. It was the 1950s, when owning a gun brought on certain duties: shooting for the pot, and culling agricultural pests and predators to make lebensraum for the burgeoning peasantry, the new poor of colonial India.

Allen is an engaging writer with an easy personal style, conveying with equal facility the hair-trigger tension of tracking big cats and the beauty of the central Indian forests, once the favourite hunting grounds of the Mughals. Overrun by farmland now, they were already dwindling in his time. Allen covers the same ground as Jim Corbett, who is more popular, but perhaps his work feels more intense because he packs between two covers the material that Corbett used to fill out eight books, from Man-Eaters of Kumaon (OUP, 1944) to The Temple Tiger (OUP, 1954).

Similarities in their work are inevitable simply because of geographical proximity. Corbett ranged wider, from the hills of Uttarakhand, where he was born, to Mokama Ghat on the Ganga, where he worked in the railways and as a labour contractor for 12 years, but Madhya Pradesh has similar ecological zones too. And so, while Corbett relentlessly hunted a boar that the villagers had named the Son of Shaitan — and it had the luck of the devil — Allen wrote of lying up in a hide for an unstoppable boar whose body already contained two of his bullets.

In the hide, he heard the most dreaded sound of the darkened jungle, the slither of a snake. Only one thing could be worse — being locked up in a darkened room with a venomous reptile. In Life at Mokameh Ghat (My India, 1952), Corbett wrote of being in a darkened bathroom with a cobra. He had quenched his lantern by accident, splashing water on it in his hurry to get away, and had to wait for half an hour in pitch darkness, naked and absolutely still, before his workers discovered that he needed help.

Like Corbett, Allen was a conservationist born in a huntin’, shootin’ age. “The thrill of hunting vanished the second after I had pulled the trigger,” he wrote. “After that, when I look down at the lifeless body, there comes a pang of remorse and the guilty thought that there, but for me, goes a magnificent animal.” And both books are finally about identity. Corbett’s writing displayed a deep bond with India’s poor, almost nationalistic in tone. Allen, too, was attached to the fields and forests of the country he had adopted, choosing the life of the peanut farmer over the clerical boredom of London, which many demobilised continued…

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