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Remembering ‘Carpet Sahib’

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By: Ganesh Saili

‘Changing Corbett National Park’s name will severely impact international bookings,’ a concerned friend in the travel trade wrote to me.

The reference is to a suggestion made in the visitors book at the park to drop an Angrez’s name and replace it with its pre-1957 name. How wrong could one possibly get?

Mussoorie though, has a rather tenuous Jim Corbett connection: at Char Dukan’s St. Paul’s Church, his father, Christopher Corbett (a widower) had married Mary Doyle (also widowed) on 13 October 1859. Both were marrying for the second time. On leaving the army, old man Corbett became our Postmaster, before being transferred to Nainital where Mary started a successful property rental business. Their son Jim made his reputation as a slayer of marauding or man-killing animals. Corbett was not typical angrez, though; he loved the jungle, but what towers above it all is his love for the common people of Kumaon and Garhwal.

I think Jim, the self-effacing man that he was, would have chuckled at this hullabaloo, much as the folks around Kaladhungi do when they call him ‘Carpet Sahib.’ Written in his seventies, his six books became best sellers. In numerous acts of philanthropy, he used his share of royalties to help war-widows and the less fortunate around him.

Of course some credit for his writing success goes to Roy Hawkins or ‘Hawks’, the General Manager of the Oxford University Press. He edited the Jungle Stories giving us The Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Writing to Corbett in 1943 he said: ‘The public is hard to please, and – like other game – seldom gives a second chance.’

An initial print run of four thousand copies, sold at five rupees each, became a hit. A bigger launch was planned in New York with Jim as its chief draw. At the last minute, he could not get a seat on a plane, as in the post-war days all flights were full of demobilized troops going home. Realizing the launch would have to go ahead without Jim, the publicist borrowed two twelve-week old tiger cubs from the Miami zoo. Instead of the author, one of the cubs would ‘autograph’ the books.

Fearing that normal printer’s ink might poison the tiger cub’s paw, ink used by meat-packagers was used for the pugmark in the American edition. The sales of The Man-Eaters of Kumaon touched almost half a million copies – making Corbett a household name and an international celebrity.

Many years later Corbett was at a tea-party for wounded veterans, where he chanced upon a young lad seated in a low chair, grievously wounded with two crutches lying next to him on the ground. At Jim’s approach he painfully slid off the chair trying to touch Jim’s feet. But Corbett scooped him up.

The lad said: ‘I was a small boy when you shot the man-eater, and as our village is far from Rudraprayag, I was not able to walk there, and my father not being strong was unable to carry me, so I had to stay at home.

‘I will go back to my home with great joy in my heart, for I shall be able to tell my father that with my own eyes I have seen you and, maybe, if I can get anyone to carry me to the fair that is held every year in Rudraprayag to commemorate the death of the man-eater, I shall tell all the people I meet there that I have seen you and had speech with you.’

Corbett humbly wrote: ‘A cripple, on the threshold of manhood, returning from wars with a broken body, with no thought of telling of brave deeds done, but only eager to tell his father that with his own eyes he had seen the man who, years ago, he had not had the opportunity of seeing, a man whose only claim to remembrance was that he had fired one accurate shot.’

‘It is these big-hearted sons of the soil, no matter what their caste or creed, who will one day weld the contending factions into a composite whole, and make India a great nation.’

And big-hearted people always honour true heroes.

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.