H. BALAKRISHNAN

The memory of Jim Corbett lives on, 51 years after his death.

FOR those who grew up in newly independent India, Jim Corbett is a familiar name. His books like Man-eaters of Kumaon, Jungle Lore, Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag and My India, read in yesteryear, are the stuff of legend. Corbett was born on July 25, 1875. Young Jim was a hunter and fisherman who lived in the Kumaon region of what is now Uttaranchal. After the first flush of youth and adventure he turned conservationist, vowing never to kill, except when an animal becomes a danger to human lives. As a result, he hunted down several man-eating tigers and leopards. Corbett always preferred to trail the man-eaters alone, since he never wanted others to risk their lives. When he finally hung up his gun, the kills by his man-eating prey had crossed 1,500. Corbett wrote many books on man-eaters, jungle life and simple village folk he loved - stories grandmothers would envy even today. The style was simple, gripping and evocative of the moment. His first book sold 700,000 copies worldwide. Many are textbooks in schools even today - 51 years after his death.

Recent visit

Recently, I visited the Corbett Park as part of a group led by V.R. Chitrapu, an IFS veteran who retired as the top Conservator of Tamil Nadu. The 380-km drive from Delhi should have lasted not more than eight hours. But we lost three hours due to the fog en route. Visibility was often near zero, a surprise in mid-February. Before entering the Park, one has to fill forms, get permission/accommodation and pay the requisite fee at the office in Ramnagar. In Ramnagar, Jim Corbett's name is invoked by every shop or service - eating place, meeting place, cyber café or saloon. Corbett Park is one huge complex of wildlife, woods and water. Originally created by Corbett and his group as "Hailey National Park", this sanctuary (201 sq.m.) was renamed in his honour within a year of his death. Today, 110 species of trees, more than 50 of mammals, about 600 bird species and 25 kinds of reptiles find a home here. At the entrance of the Park, while you submit the tickets, collect literature and instructions, the first to greet you is the unassuming bust of Corbett on a small pedestal. Much like the man, it is not obtrusive but commands attention by its mere presence. The legend simply says, "Jim Edward James Corbett (1875-1955)". There is also an imposing Neelgai that begs for attention and circles around your car, maybe hoping for some food. It refuses to go back to the wilds and seems intent on spending the rest of its life in human company. Once you enter, no horns are blown and you are advised to stop driving by 5.30 p.m. Dikhala, right at the centre, is where we parked ourselves. The Rest House was reasonably clean. The canteen serves good vegetarian fare. Right behind the Rest House flows the ubiquitous Ramganga. On a moonlit night, the feeling is out-of-the-world. Rhesus monkeys, some with babes clutching their bellies, are part of your neighbourhood, as are spotted deer that come to quench their thirst.

Elephant ride

The meandering Ramganga, with its rippling water coursing through boulders and hurtling down the Shivaliks, is a recurring musical companion throughout. Early in the morning, we set out on a jeep with the hope of seeing at least one tiger. Many visitors had written about such sightings on the blackboard. One said, "Saw tiger sitting on an elephant". The mystery was solved when we booked an elephant ride for the evening. Apparently, the visitor had seen a tiger while riding an elephant! The Corbett howdah is the most comfortable, as certified by forest veteran Chitrapu. It is just an upturned charpoy with cushions. Four are allowed, each holding one of the char poys. This part of the visit was the most memorable. Our elephant was Ramkali and the mahout was Ali. Two elephants would go into the thick jungle sans any path but the elephant footpath, converge in a combing operation - smelling tiger. Besides the instinct of the pachyderm, the signal of the "langur watchman" and other alerts of the real forest are interpreted by the mahout to guide the elephant to the tiger.Corbett Park is today a model of biodiversity. Leopard cat, Jungle cat, fish-eating cat, goat antelope, rhesus and langur, sloth and Himalayan Black bears, wild boar and sambhar, not to speak of the gharial and mugger crocodiles and a delightful assortment of birds make it a naturalist's delight.The master storyteller that Jim Corbett was, he could not find a publisher for his manuscript. A "friend", the only one to have published a book, gave strange advice.To quote the master himself, "his verdict was that he did not think any publishing house would look at it unless I was prepared to indemnify against all loss resulting from the publication. With visions of spending my days indemnifying publishers for vast losses, I thanked my friend for the advice and brought the manuscript home." Mercifully, another publisher later found merit in his work. Maneaters of Kumaon sold over 600,000 copies in the first year and was translated into several languages. But for that moment, Corbett would have left "unwept, unhonoured and unsung" by the world. And there would have been no opportunity for this tribute.E-mail the writer at fabalas02@yahoo.com