Anovel? About Jim Corbett? The well-beloved and once extremely well-known hunter-naturalist of India was a real person, after all, and he wrote a number of excellent books about his own illustrious life. So the idea of a novel about him is a little unexpected. But Stephen Alter is a well-known author and old India hand in his own right. His book is a warm, well-researched tribute to a man who knew the forests and hills of Kumaon, as well as “the sunburnt skin on the back of [his] hand.”
There are two stories told as if by a documentary filmmaker, walking alongside the young Edward James Corbett, recording his actions and guessing at his thoughts. A note at the beginning of the book gives us a little background. Corbett was born in 1875, in Nainital, the second youngest of 12 children. Corbett’s father, a retired postmaster, died of a “weak heart” when the young Corbett was only six. When we first meet him, in The Fern Collector, he is 13 years old and collecting ferns on the mist-drenched hillsides near his home, when he comes upon a grave that has been freshly dug up.
It belonged to a young English woman who had died some 10 years ago. In the course of the story, we meet a small cast of English characters who might easily be imagined inhabiting a BBC drama about the late afternoon of the Raj: a pastor, gossiping ladies, a giddy young miss who fell for the lies of a blackguard from the Old Country and a sad old drunk called Murch. The story runs its course with Corbett playing his part as an able sleuth, following clues and keeping his wits about him, in all the time-honoured ways.
The second story, The Man-Eater of Mayaghat, takes place in 1926, some 30 years later. Corbett has returned from the battlefields of Europe, where he served as a loyal British subject along with 500 men of Kumaon under his command. He is a sadder, more profoundly thoughtful person than the fern-collector. The story follows the familiar contours of what might have been one of his own stories, about being called to hunt and kill a tiger that had turned rogue. Being a fictional account, there are masala elements: Bimal Swadeshi, a Congress party-worker recruiting supporters in the jungle; Andrew Kincaid, the brutish British Divisional Forest Officer; and Kaiya, a free spirited forest-dwelling woman who collects roots and has a mystic connection to the wounded tigress.
The final chapter is called Until The Day Break. Told in Corbett’s own words, it is a very moving account of the old hunter’s final years. He emigrated to Kenya after India gained Independence, and died in 1955. We see strands of truth in both fictional stories and also his heartache at leaving the land of his birth. The India he knew and loved has vanished forever now, but this little book is a welcome reminder of that distant glory.