The last time I read Jim Corbett’s writings on tigers (The Man-eaters of Kumaon) was when I was in school — and, of course, it absolutely had me by the throat from start to finish. Just recently, I re-read some of his man-eating tiger stories in Just Tigers (Aleph). Yet again, I was enthralled. There are just so many astonishing aspects to the man it kind of boggles the mind.
Take the writing itself. Corbett must have had a photographic memory of locations and events. His descriptions of locale are like a sort of running commentary given by a Google street-level camera as it trundles along, complete with directions and distances, not to mention the lay of the land. Just try this for yourself: Take a walk in a park or even a mall, come back home and write a detailed description of the place, as you observed it. Then revisit the place with your description and see how accurate you were (and how many details you forgot)! I doubt Corbett would have taken notes in the field — not while being on the track of a man-eater! Notes must have been made after the hunt. As we all know, memory can play strange tricks while recalling an event that fizzed with high-voltage danger and excitement. Of course, you can ask, how do we know he was accurate in his descriptions? The attention to detail is enough to suggest that it was impossible to “make up” a scenario as it were. He wrote down what he saw.
Then there’s the physical fitness of the man: Up and down rambles in the mountains, down steep ravines and over high ridges, for 10 miles or more, seemed to him like a stroll around a park. He walked everywhere. Modern-day highly trained “survival experts” make a big deal if they have to sleep rough overnight. Corbett spent innumerable nights perched on trees (or flimsy machans) and usually climbed down bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning, ready to continue his pursuit. No fuss, no whining, no complaints about flies and mosquitoes.
In one of the stories, he does mention having a burst eardrum in one ear due to the too-close firing of a gun, and suffering from a hideous abscess, which gave him hell. But there’s no nakhra. He quotes a writer who said there is nothing more relieving for a person than the sudden cessation of great pain, which is what happened when his abscess burst — and he’s right as rain immediately after it, and raring to go.
As if tracking a man-eater on foot during the day was not dangerous enough, he did it at night too — usually moonlit nights. Waiting up in a tree for the animal to step out, sometimes being blind-sided by the tree he was on. Here in Delhi, I make sure I’m not rambling around on the Ridge after sunset — though agreed, it’s not animals I’m wary of here, but feral vagabonds eyeing your smartphone. And no, Corbett wasn’t at all gung-ho. Time and again he admits that he was terrified of his quarry — that he was trembling and unable to hold his rifle steady. There is nothing as petrifying as the deep-seated growl of an angry (and sometimes wounded) man-eater that has spotted you and is closing in.
That apart, he had huge respect for his quarry and empathy too. No tiger would normally hunt human beings and it was usually only an animal that couldn’t hunt its normal prey, due to injury or old age that did so — we were the easiest to bring down. Unfortunate encounters with porcupines were one of the most frequent causes why tigers went “bad”. Bullet injuries were another. Famously, he described the tiger as a “large-hearted gentleman”, who went about its own business and only warned you off if you got too close to its lunch, or took too much of an interest in its cubs. After he took to photography (having put the gun down), he mentions some 200 encounters with tigers in the jungles in several of which, he was, of course, gently reminded to back off! Though he loved hunting, he did admit that in the end a good photograph was a better reward than a “trophy”.
Having spent a lifetime roaming the Kumaon and Garhwal forests, Corbett was an expert tracker, reading the faintest signs left behind by his quarry. The long hours spent in the jungles also gave him a sixth sense for danger: these situations he avoided as if being guided by autopilot — almost without consciously realising it.
It has been said that Corbett’s man-eating tiger stories did more harm than good to the reputation of the tiger. But remember, here he was writing about a tormented, wounded carnivore trying to survive in whatever way it could. Not about a “large-hearted gentleman”.