First a sort of disclaimer: I grew up on a steady diet of Corbett’s tales of the man-eaters he had encountered and bested; and later on, I grew to really like Stephen Alter’s accounts of life of men and mountains.
So this was a double delight for me: Stephen Alter in the voice of Jim Corbett. In the Jungles of the Night contains three stories, rather experiences, that Corbett lived through. All three of them feature big cats, of course, but also delve into the psyche of hunter-hunted, marauder-victim, and indeed, of society at large.
‘The Fern Collector’ alludes to the young schoolboy that Corbett was in Nainital, in 1888. A serious boy with a fondness for solitude, a very keen eye and a sort of fearlessness even then, the young Jim roamed the forests that skirted the St John in the Wilderness church, seeking ferns and suchlike plants and things, and came upon a grave robbery. It was that of the unfortunate Cindy Bertram believed to have fallen prey to a wandering leopard years ago. Why was her coffin now opened and by who? The town is all abuzz with the most unsavoury rumours, a suspect is caught, a dissolute white man by the name of Murchison, but the schoolboy Jim is more than a bystander who had just happened to stumble on the opened coffin; he is carrying out his own investigations discreetly, trying to tie up the loose ends.
The story opens out the Naini area of the late 1880s for us, a place of much serenity and beauty, of untrammeled forest and a less rushed pace of life. It tells us of Corbett’s friendship with the boy who brought milk to the house .
In `The Man-eater of Mayaghat,’ there are two females that sit centre-stage of the story: an old wounded female tiger who has developed a taste for human beings, and the enigmatic forest- dweller Kaiyu with whom Corbett, a loner like her, forges a curious if necessarily furtive relationship. Into the mix is added a blundering forest officer named Kincaid, a Gandhian, the Banrajis who live deep in the jungles, fear, suspicion, violence.
In the concluding story ‘Until the Day Break,’ we see Corbett in 1953, an old man whose reputation as a famed hunter and naturalist precedes him in Kenya where Maggie and he have chosen to settle, after leaving India when that country attained its independence from the British in 1947. In the twilight of his life, Jim Corbett looks back: at his days on the frontlines at Artois in France during WW2, his ruminations on leopards and tigers, his meeting QE2, then the Princess Elizabeth, who turned out to be quite a fan of his.
The book shows us a more vulnerable side to the intrepid hunter; there is virtually none of the inevitable braggadocio we came to associate with Jim Corbett. This is a Corbett nervous about ghosts, anxious about the mortality of his loved ones, with a fear of snakes (later on, he converted that fear into a superstition: if he killed a snake before setting out to kill a man-eater, his chances were bright). It tells us once again that Corbett respected the animal, knowing that a tiger unless provoked, would do a human no harm; which is probably why the man who never killed animals gratuitously, later traded his gun for the camera and became one of the first wildlife photographers in India. It gives us a glimpse of the affectionate relationship he shared with his sister Maggie; both of them never having married, they lived together till the end of their days.
Alongside, we are also shown familiar glimpses: how he could sit still in trees when stalking the tiger, motionless for hours on end; how he liked to set out on a hunt with the mindset of an ascetic, shorn of everything but his purpose. How he came to walk in the steps of the tigers he stalked, recognising that man-eaters played by different rules than the rest of their species, and how this second-guessing stood him in good stead. How pretty much nothing fazed him, not even locking eyes directly with the tiger he was hunting. How sometimes his phlegmatic Englishness slipped away from him, leaving him exasperated by both the obdurate locals and the Englishmen who sought to run roughshod over them.
Sometimes, as in the descriptive passage of how Corbett maps the topography mentally as he sets out in the man-eater’s steps, it’s the voice of Alter rather than Corbett. We see the ring of huge stones, much too heavy for men to have positioned them in a circle thus; we admire the massive pipal tree clearly a hundred years older than the other trees in the vicinity; we notice the barberry shrub, the hill shaped like a kneeling elephant.
Corbett aficionados, and there are so many, will love this volume and thank Stephen Alter for it.
In The Jungles Of The Night-A Novel About Jim Corbett
By Stephen Alter
Aleph Book Company
Sheila Kumar is an independent writer and manuscript editor, as well as author of a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin Chronicles of a Clan (Rupa Publications). She blogs at bindersfullawords.blogspot.com, themelekatbook.blogspot.com and bindersfulla.blogspot.com