Review of The Corbett Papers: ‘Carpet saab’ of Kumaon

The life and career of Jim Corbett, the naturalist-hunter, through his writings, and reminiscences of his sister and others

Updated - January 27, 2023 09:16 am IST

Published - January 27, 2023 09:02 am IST

The Jim Corbett Museum in Choti Haldwani, Kaladhungi, Nainital, Uttarakhand, was once the house Corbett built in 1922. The single storied bungalow served as a winter residence for him and his sister Maggie. Before leaving India in 1947, he sold this property to a friend Babu Chiranji Lal. Later, in 1965, it was sold to the forest department for setting up of the museum.

The Jim Corbett Museum in Choti Haldwani, Kaladhungi, Nainital, Uttarakhand, was once the house Corbett built in 1922. The single storied bungalow served as a winter residence for him and his sister Maggie. Before leaving India in 1947, he sold this property to a friend Babu Chiranji Lal. Later, in 1965, it was sold to the forest department for setting up of the museum. | Photo Credit: Anuj Arora

Ever since the publication of Man-Eaters of Kumaon in 1944, its author Jim Corbett, called ‘Carpet saab’ by locals, has passed from life to legend. His death in Kenya a decade later did little to dim his appeal. Not only was the prose gripping, but ironically the person who pursued tigers and leopards that had lost the fear of people and turned on them as prey stood out for his humility as much as his courage.

Jim Corbett

Jim Corbett | Photo Credit: The Hindu photo archives

The Corbett Papers, which collects the biographical, legal and contextual material on the life and career of Corbett, brings the man back to life and in doing so evokes the unique milieu that shaped him. There is so much in the book that is familiar. “There is no more terrible thing than to live and have one’s being under the shadow of a maneater,” he famously wrote.

Advocate of big cats

Yet, he was one of the early admirers and advocates of the big cats as being relatively harmless if only left alone. It is easy to forget how often leopards, even more than tigers, were killed as vermin in his heyday. He warned those who had never seen one in the wild that they “can have no conception of the grace of movement and the beauty of colouring of this, the most beautiful of all the animals of our jungles”.

Pug marks of the tiger along a riverbed at the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand.

Pug marks of the tiger along a riverbed at the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

This work itself is tribute to the dogged persistence of not only the editor duo of Akshay Shah and Stephen Alter, but to the veteran journalist-turned-Corbett aficionado and scholar par excellence, the late D.C. Kala. It is unique in that it includes Corbett’s first-ever unpublished collection from 1935 titled Jungle Stories. There’s also an extract from The Taming of the Jungle, a book his half brother Charles Doyle, who also lived in India, wrote. Most riveting is our first acquaintance with memories of Corbett by his sister Maggie, who accompanied him on most shoots and fishing trips though not on man-eater hunts.

Corbett remains unique in that the park he lobbied to create in 1935, the Hailey National Park, was renamed after him in 1957. To name a park after an Englishman who had never held office was testament to the regard Corbett was and is held in Uttarakhand.

Affection for the land

There was more to this man than memory of hunts for big cats that lifted cattle or killed humans. Corbett, as this work reminds us, was one of the domiciled British with a lineage going back before the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 1840s and the uprising of 1857. By the time he bought the rights to the village of Choti Haldwani in 1917, the 42-year-old was as much a hill man as any of his tenants or labourers. His sometimes paternalist view of labourers, cattle grazers and tenants was part of the Raj tradition.

The Jim Corbett Museum captures moments of his life with the villagers.

The Jim Corbett Museum captures moments of his life with the villagers. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

But close ties with successive Governors and Viceroys should not blind us to the fact that domiciled whites were only a rung above Anglo-Indians in the hierarchy of the British Indian Empire.

Nowhere is his deep affection for the land more evident than in the brief appeal on rural wildlife reprinted here. D.C. Kala did more than memorialise Corbett: he put him back into history as a local lad, later landlord, contractor, soldier and big game hunter, but till his departure for Kenya, very much a man of his place and day. This book reminds us how he is relevant to our time.

The Corbett Papers; Compiled and edited by Akshay Shah & Stephen Alter, Black Kite/Permanent Black, ₹699.

The reviewer teaches History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana.

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