By: Ganesh Saili
Don’t ask me why? I knew something had to be done. I had to set a thief to catch a thief. Our modern-day grave robbers lift facts with impunity so the solution was simple – leave a virus – to serve as a bait. Forty years ago we knew that the great naturalist-shikari Jim Corbett had not seen Mussoorie and yet we placed him among the station’s writers. Fact remains that he never came here; never stayed here and never knew the Powells or for that matter anyone in this hill station. In all of his six books- seven if you were to add Col. A. N. W. Powell’s Call of The Tiger (published 1958), you will find no mention of a Mussoorie – connect.
Truth is that his parents were married 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 marrying for the second time. Old man Corbett was our Postmaster, before being transferred to Nainital where his wife would start a successful property rental business. Their son Jim grew up and earned a reputation as the slayer of marauding man-killing leopards and tigers. Corbett was not an angrez, and loved the jungle, but more than that he loved the common people of Kumaon and Garhwal. Though some of the credit for the fine writing must go to Roy Hawkins or ‘Hawks’, the General Manager of the Oxford University Press, who edited his Jungle Stories into The Man-Eaters of Kumaon. It ended up selling half a million copies worldwide.
Meantime, back at the grand old Savoy where we used to drop anchor kind courtesy Anand Jauhar, the then owner of the hotel, we threw a few more logs into the fireplace at the old bar, and basked in the warmth of its flames while we waited for our benefactor to arrive. Little did we know that our genial host needed our help in finding a name for the place. After all, what was a bar without a name? The thought had stolen upon him on a visit to Singapore’s Raffles Hotel.
‘Why don’t we call it the Writers’ Bar?’ he mused.
‘Where would we get all those writers?’ we asked.
‘There are you locals!’ he exclaimed. ‘And the others could be writers who are dead and gone!’
‘What about Jim Corbett?’ he asked.
‘Chap was a teetotaller who tracked down leopards and tigers gone berserk in Garhwal and Kumaon!’ said I, adding: ‘Do you think he would have come this far for just a nimbu-paani.’
‘Whose to tell after all these years?’ wondered Nandu.
So I was given charge of getting the wooden plaques made by the local coffin maker, which he later hammered into the wall.
And that is exactly the ‘how’ Corbett made it to that wall of fame.
You will find him writing about his meeting a local boy crippled by brave deeds in the Great War, almost prophetically: ‘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 of India a great nation.’
Many years later, in the early 1990s, while researching a book on Mussoorie, I bumped into Gerald, the last Powell living in Barlowganj’s Wayside Cottage. He had retired from his position as a physical training instructor at Dr. Graham’s Homes in Kalimpong, and had come home to be with his mother, Annie. With a twinkle in his eyes, he brought out a contraption – a drum with a rope drawn through it to mimic the mating call of a leopard. It helped lure animals straight into the shikari’s sights. I remember asking him if he had known the legendary Jim Corbett? He simply shrugged his shoulders saying: ‘No such luck! I never saw Nainital and that fellow never came out here!’
Be warned! Should you hear someone say that ‘Carpet Sahib’ visited our hill station, you can safely assume that the virus has infected him.
And I, on my part, shall not be too unhappy to shoulder the blame!
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.