Tyger Tyger Burning Bright
August 31, 2013 § Leave a comment
Edward James Corbett was born in Nainital in India to English parents in 1875. His father, the postmaster of the town, died when Jim was very young. Consequently, Jim dropped out of school at the age of 19 and took up employment with the Bengal and North-West Railway. Over the years, he served them in various capacities – as fuel inspector, assistant storekeeper, and assistant station-master, until he was designated Trans-shipment inspector at Mokameh Ghat, a post that he held with distinction for 21 years. He was particularly proud of having set an all-time record by handling, without any mechanical means, 5,500 tons of goods in a single working day. Like other patriotic colonial men, he took a break from work and enlisted during the World War, seeing action in France and Waziristan, rising to the rank of Colonel in the Army, returning to his job as Trans-shipment inspector at the end of the war, and finally retiring and leaving the country in 1947. If you only knew this much about him, you could not be faulted for thinking of his life and career as mild and borderline mediocre. But Jim Corbett had an interesting hobby, and he was an extraordinary man.
Between the years 1907 and 1938, Jim Corbett shot and killed 33 man-eaters – 31 tigers and two leopards – that had collectively killed over 1200 men and women in the jungles of North India. As a schoolboy, I had read about his exploits in his best-selling book The Man-eaters of Kumaon, and I remember being completely mesmerized. I felt the terror, the suspense and the eventual triumph in every pore. I drew many tigers in my notebooks as a boy. They always had angry eyes, bared canines, ragged claws and snake-like stripes; and I always drew a man with a gun shooting them dead.
Older and wiser as I am now, I had several qualms when I picked up this book. Tigers have been hunted nearly to extinction in India, and while I do not have the supporting data, I have a strong hunch that tigers and men have only clashed over the last couple of centuries, in the face of deforestation and gradual depletion of stock of their natural prey. In addition, tigers only become man-eaters if they are old or carry injuries that prevent them from hunting – such injuries, as Corbett points out, often being caused by hunters and ‘sportsmen’ in their quest for a trophy for their walls or a rug for their floors. Was hunting them down ruthlessly necessarily an act of heroism, I wondered. I also found Corbett cheerfully hunting various other animals– deer, mountain goats, game birds – for sport or ‘for the pot’; as a vegetarian and non-gun enthusiast, I disapproved thoroughly. Corbett also routinely set buffaloes and goats as live bait for the tigers he went after, and his preferred method was to allow the tiger to kill the bait and to shoot it when it returned to feed on the carcass. I cannot pinpoint why I feel queasy about the morality of this procedure, but I do.
Finally, there was ambiguity as well in the way he referred to the Indian villagers among whom he moved like a Colossus. From his account, they seem to have worshipped him, and thought of him as a saint, if not a god. He in turn seems to have genuine affection for them; respect, even – but in an avuncular, protective way, not as equals.
I realize I am in no position to judge. Avuncular or not, he did speak their language, eat their food, and live among them in villages with exotic names like Koi Kindri and Katkanaula at the edge of dense jungles – places that I have never seen. And I have lived my entire life without once feeling the physical fear of being stalked, killed and eaten by a wild animal, or the trauma of losing a family member to that fate, so I cannot estimate the positive value of killing man-eating tigers. From the safety of my home, tigers are cuddly, fluffy big kitty cats. And I must not forget that despite his reputation as a tiger killer, Corbett was a tireless campaigner for the conservation of endangered big cats, and saved more feline lives than he took.
My first -negative- reaction to Corbett was a direct result of who I am – a 21st century vegetarian city-dweller who has never fired a gun in anger (I did fire a rifle once as a youth, but while I clearly remember the pain of the kickback and the shame of missing the target repeatedly in front of my classmates, I don’t remember any anger) and who is still hypersensitive to hints of colonial condescension. Let us just say that some parts of Corbett’s memoirs do not travel well through time. No matter – there is enough that does, and is in fact even more admirable to me precisely because of my urban and coddled upbringing.
The most fascinating things about Corbett’s adventures are his powers of observation and deduction – powers that will seem positively superhuman to a city dweller. We have lost these powers. We have traded them in for the unambiguous clarity of road-signs and traffic signals, of words and numbers that are spoon-fed us so that we are spared the inconvenience of having to listen, see, think and comprehend. It is all very well for Corbett to say:
Few can compile a detective story of fiction, but all can compile jungle detective stories provided they have eyes to see more than the road they walk on
Indeed. Now if I were to take a walk on a jungle path, this is what I would observe.
Trees…Lots of trees. With leaves. Leaves all around.
Whereas this is what Corbett says:
“The forest road was little used by human beings and as there was an abundance of game in the forest through which it ran, an early morning walk along it was of great interest, for on the road, which was of hard clay with a light film of dust on it, was a record of all the animals that had used or crossed it during the night. When looking at tracks on a road or game path, with a trained eye, it is not necessary to stop at each track to determine the species, size, movement, and so on of the animal or animals that have made the track, for these details are subconsciously noted…”
Get it? Subconsciously. If I were to search my subconscious, this is what I would find:
Why are there no animals in this godforsaken forest?
Meanwhile, Corbett continues:
“…For instance, the porcupine that had come out on to the road…had evidently taken fright at something in the jungle on the right of the road and had scurried back. The reason for his fright was apparent a few yards farther on, where a bear had crossed the road from right to left. On entering the jungle on the left the bear had disturbed a sounder of pig and a small herd of cheetal, for they had dashed across the road into the jungle on the right. A little farther on, a sambhar stag had come out from the right and after browsing on a bush had walked along the road for fifty yards, rubbed his antlers against a young sapling, and then gone back into the jungle. Near this spot, a four-horned antelope, with a fawn on foot, had come on the road. The fawn, whose hoof-prints were no bigger than the finger nails of a child, had skipped about the road until the mother had taken fright, and after dashing down the road for a few yards mother and fawn had gone into the jungle. Here there was a bend in the road, and at the bend were the footprints of a hyena who had come as far as this, and then turned and gone back the way it had come.”
I guess I would have noticed the bend in the road as well.
But here was a man who could look at a pugmark, and deduce whether the animal that had left it was a tiger or a leopard, male or female, old or young; at what pace it was traveling, and whether it was carrying a heavy load at the time. Later, he could look at the foot of a dead tiger and confirm if it had been responsible for that particular pugmark. He could hear the bark of a kakar, three times and ending in a “note of enquiry”, and conclude that it must have seen a snake; the sound of a sambhar stag a mile away and know that it is warning the jungle-folk about the presence of a tiger; he could deduce from the chatter of a langur that a leopard was on the prowl. He could walk miles in the forest, and then freeze suddenly at one particular thicket, completely undistinguishable from any other he had crossed, not because he had seen or heard anything, but because of an intuitive premonition of danger.
That Corbett is a fantastic raconteur goes without saying. But the subject matter helps, too. I don’t know what he would have done with Madame Bovary material, but he knows his way around suspense and danger, both as a hunter and as a narrator. Thick jungle, plunging ravines, the single warning shriek of a peahen, a sudden snap of a twig in the inky darkness, a low growl close by, a blade of grass that suddenly bobs up in one’s peripheral vision: here is where Corbett is in his element, and the game is afoot.