Writers for Conservatives, 66: The Men and the Man-Eaters
Jim Corbett (1875-1955) is known as the author of The Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944), an account of the author’s hunting of man-eating tigers in Northern India, but he wrote other books just as interesting: The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag (1947), My India (1952), Jungle Lore (1953), The Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1954). At first we are absorbed by the details of the hunt — stalking alone a man-eating tiger in the jungle — but before we are done we realize that Corbett’s character is just as interesting as the hunt. There is a directness, a modesty, and a simplicity of character here that is immediately appealing.
The Kumaon book (as I shall refer to it) begins with a note explaining why tigers, whose natural food is not human, turn to man-eating: usually some injury that makes it very difficult for the tiger to kill its normal prey. He goes on to acquit ordinary tigers of their supposed blood-thirstiness by telling how he has, since boyhood, roamed the jungle without fear, knowing that tigers that are not man-eaters and will not bother humans unless molested.
He begins with the story of the Champawat man-eater. It must be understood that this is extreme northern India, the foothills of the Himalayas, so there is much hiking up and down hills, and Corbett thinks nothing of walking 20 miles from his home to get to the scene of action. By the time Corbett arrives on the scene, the tiger has killed over 400 people. Many hunters have tried their hand. Evidently Corbett is regarded as the consummate expert (although the author modestly says nothing about it) because the government calls on him to hunt down the man-eater. Corbett is always thorough in his descriptions of the pains he takes to locate his prey in the jungle, and the details of climbing up and down, of edging through a field of nettles while listening to the growls of a wounded tiger certainly give the reader a vivid sense of the experience. Because the author always hunts alone, we are focused exclusively on his movements and perceptions, enhancing our knowledge of the man — and a very attractive man he is: modest, unassuming, immensely knowledgeable about the life of the jungle, a real friend to the poor hill people in the scattered settlements, the victims of the man-eater.
There is a delicacy in his dealings with the villagers that is remarkable. Approaching a woman filling a pitcher from a trickle of water by the wayside, he is careful not to frighten her by a silent appearance, but coughs to warn her, and then stays while she fills the pitcher, amiably answering all her questions about himself and his mission there. Afterwards, he points out that by patiently answering her questions he has gained an ally and the acquiescence and cooperation of the villagers. His sensitivity to the country people is exquisite.
As we eagerly follow the hunt, we begin to realize that the character of Jim Corbett is a great part of the attraction of the narrative. That we know this, that we sense the nature of his character, is due to his writing skill that makes us fearful when Corbett is fearful (as he often is) and relieved when the task is accomplished.
The Temple Tiger (1955) is like the earlier book in its descriptions of the terrain, of the villages, of all the incidents of the hunts, including a hair-raising account of a fight between a tiger and a bear. Corbett has some interesting ideas about fear. He says that because of his wide experience he now “knew where to look for danger, what sounds to ignore or pay attention to.” And of course he is a much surer shot. “Experience engenders confidence, and without these two important assets the hunting of a man-eating tiger on foot, and alone, would be a very unpleasant way of committing suicide.” There is a scary incident when he unknowingly sleeps in the domicile of a leper (very contagious) and another when he has a very painful abscess in one of his ears that bursts when he is on a hunt.
The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag (1947) is an account of another hunt, this time for a leopard, but in addition to the details of the hunt, he tells some of the stories of the victims, which are really hair-raising, telling of the leopard entering houses at night to kill and carry off victims. How would you like to have a leopard trying to tear down your door?
There is much fascinating detail about fishing, about the imitation of jungle calls, about the habits of the leopard (toward the end of the hunt it stalks him).
My India (1952) is Corbett’s account of his life in northern India, told along with the lives of the poor villagers around him. The book is largely organized by chapters featuring a character, usually a local Indian known to the author. He relates accounts of their activities, giving us, incidentally, a good picture of Indian village life in those far northern forests. There is a chapter about his long employment in the railway, supervising the transshipment of freight from one railway to another, and much of the book concerns people he met there or incidents relating to the job (as when he encountered a cobra in his bathroom).
It is a rare reader, I think, who will confine his attention to the hunts and will fail to feel the attraction of the author’s character and his observations aside from the hunt. *