Corbett's India: My India
The Second Jim Corbett Omnibus: ISBN 9780195629682
Published in India by Oxford University Press 1991; Price INR 395
Those of us that gripe about starting their creative life very late should consider the case of Jim Corbett. He was the one who wrote his first book "The Man-eaters of Kumaon" in 1944 at the age of sixty-nine. Yes, he wrote it when he was sixty-nine years young and then he did not look back. The last one he gave to his greatly enthralled readers was "Tree Tops" dated 6 April 1955, recounting his experience of living in the forest of Kenya with Princess Elizabeth a day before she became the Queen of England. This one he completed just thirteen days before he breathed his last. So, it validates my thesis: writing follows experience. Probably, the later one starts the more enduring stuff he or she produces.
Mention of another point may be relevant here. Corbett was born only six years later than Gandhi was and as such had seen the growth of Indian national consciousness and the birth of the nation. Before expanding on my point, let me define nationalism: it is the manifestation of one's love for one's fellow beings. Gandhi's love for the downtrodden made him Mahatma. What about Corbett? Did he love India, the place of his birth? I'm lucky that I read Jim Corbett's "My India" before I could mature with my ignorance about the great soul.
Here is what Corbett wrote in the dedication of his book "My India".
If you are looking for a history of India, or for an account of the rise and fall of the British raj, or for the reason for the cleaving of the sub-continent into two mutually antagonistic parts and the effect this mutilation will have on the respective sections, and ultimately on Asia, you will not find it on this pages; for though I have spent a lifetime in the country, I lived too near the seat of events, and was too intimately associated with the actors, to get the perspective needed for the impartial recording of these matters.
In my India, the India I know, there are four hundred million people, ninety percent of whom are simple, honest, brave, loyal, hard-working souls whose daily prayer to God, and to whatever Government is in power, is to give them security of life and property to enable them to enjoy the fruit of their labours. It is of these people, who are admittedly poor, and who are often described as India's starving millions', among whom I have lived and whom I love, that I shall endeavour to tell in these pages of this book, which I humbly dedicate to my friends, the poor of India.
So, what does he highlight here? Sure, a son of a postmaster as he was, Corbett was an unassuming person. But he was also conscious of his nearness to the seat of events and he did not want to chronicle history for the stated fear of going biased. He was probably acutely aware of the ten percent of opportunistic Indians of his time who were different from the ninety percent-yes, the ninety percent who were simple and honest. He knew who deserved his love and affection.
He has been eloquent when he is to praise the simple souls. In "The Queen of the Village", he extols the faith the people of Bhabar reposed on him and he uses the phrase "with an Indian's trust". Stressing this he writes,
'After a very generous, and a very welcome meal-for I had eaten nothing on that day-I picked up the plates with the intention of washing them in a nearby spring. Seeing my intention the three girls ran forward and relieved me of the plates, saying, with a toss of their heads and a laugh, that it would not break their caste-they were the Brahmins-to wash the plates from which the White Sadhu had eaten.'
In "Kunwar Singh" Corbett reconstructs the endearing portrait of the eponymous character of his story. A renowned shikari, a respected headman of the village Chandni Chowk, Kunwar Singh was Corbett's teacher-companion in the jungles of Garuppu. How the shikari himself fell victim to the addiction of opium and how the illness on account of such lethal addiction brought the fellow on to the brink of death are the charming narratives to read, but what makes the story memorable is the way Corbett de-addicted the fellow and saved him from the hellish habit. It was quite intelligent of him to have used a method that was sure to work-he made Kunwar Singh take a vow. To quote:
" 'And now, here is in the hut, with the sacred thread round your fingers and a pipal leaf in your hands, you must swear an oath on your eldest son's head that never again will you touch the foul drug. And this time you will, and you shall keep your oath….' "
"Mothi" is a story of many characters-Mothi the struggling orphan boy shouldering the responsibility of the family, Punwa the fatherless boy of the generation next struggling to exist against all vagaries of a poor existence, Punwa's mother the lady with sharp tongue but indomitable survival instincts, Sher Singh the boy of the jungle ever singing with gay and abandon, Lalu the bull courageous and confident, Kunthi the village girl trained in accomplishing thousand and one chores, havildar the wise old soldier with an eye on the lion's share of the community kill-and they strive to live their respective lives gathering pleasure of living that come their way. The defiant pig lives his life, to the best he can manage doing all the damages to the crops and disregarding bullets that are fired at him, and finally succumbs to the bullet of Corbett. His love for the poor of India is evident from the concluding lines of the story:
'During the war years Maggie had spent the winters alone in our cottage at Kaladhungi, without transport, and fourteen miles from the nearest settlement. Her safety gave me no anxiety, for I knew she was safe among my friends, the poor of India.'
"Pre-Red-Tape Days" is a moving story of human adjustment, almost rendering the justice delivery system useless. Somebody elopes with the wife of his fellow villager and the matter is brought before Anderson, the Superintendent of Terai. The elopement is given the stamp of approval with the return of bride price by the new husband to the loser one, and when such adjustment is through, the existing wife of the eloper comes forward to complain. She cries bitterly that with her diseased body she is sure to face neglect as her husband has taken a new wife. Now there is a twist in the story: the new wife embraces the old one with sisterly affection, declaring that she would not allow her to feel neglected. This alone does not end the drama; the truth that looks more improbable than drama is the loser husband returns the money he has just now extracted from his rival, for he now realizes that his rival with two wives to feed has the need of money more than he himself has. At the end of the day, not claps but tears of solidarity give this exceptional human adjustment the applause it deserves.
Corbett is at his humane best when he mentions his wish-list about the dacoit who is a dreaded fellow just brought to law, tried and sentenced to death. He concludes "Sultana: India's Robin Hood" as follows:
I could have wished that justice had not demanded that Sultana be exhibited in manacles and leg-irons, and exposed to ridicule from those who trembled at the mere mention of his name while he is at liberty. I could also have wished that he had been given a more lenient sentence, for no other reason than that he had been branded a criminal at birth, and had not had a fair chance; that when power was in his hands he had not oppressed the poor; that when I tracked him to the banyan tree he spared my life and the lives of my friends. And finally he went to his meeting with Freddy, not armed with a knife or a revolver, but with a water melon in his hands.
There are two more chapters in this book I'd like to make special mention of, viz., "Loyalty", and "Life at Mokameh Ghat". Here we get his account of managing the transshipment of goods from one gauge of railways to the other across the Ganges. What made him successful was the inspiring leadership that he provided by personal example and through basic honesty in dealing with the people he supervised. But Corbett credits his success to the discipline of Indian workforce of those days. And he concludes "Loyalty" with his unreserved statement of conviction:
Those who visit India for pleasure or profit never come in contact with the real Indian-the Indian whose loyalty and devotion alone made it possible for a handful of men to administer, for close on two hundred years, a vast subcontinent with its teeming millions. To impartial historians I will leave the task of recording whether or not that administration was beneficial to those to whom I have introduced you, the poor of my India.
Finally I mention about "Chamari" who defies the disability society has imposed on him from his birth because he is just from the depressed class. Like the great saints of the middle age who preached that God is nearer to devotion not the monopoly of any class or caste, Chamari proves he is the most accomplished devotee of Parmeshwar or the supreme God. He dies of cholera, despite efforts from Corbett and his friends to keep him alive and while he leaves this world he has the name of supreme God on his tongue. What a great occasion it is! Even a priest from the great Vishnu temple at Kashi pays his obeisance at the foot of Chamari! I would like to quote the final two paragraphs from the chapter which are nothing but inspiring; as if reading from a spiritual text:
There will never again be a funeral like Chamari's at Mokameh Ghat, for all sections of the community, high and low, Hindu, Mohammedan, Untouchable, and Christian, turned out to pay their last respects to one who had arrived friendless and weighed down with disqualifications, and who left respected by all and loved by many.
Chamari was a heathen, according to our Christian belief, and the lowest of India's Untouchables, but if I am privileged to go where he has gone, I shall be content
The above are just a few quotes I incorporate here to highlight what Jim Corbett meant while he wrote his endearing dedication of his book "My India". In fact, there was always a writer in him, and it jumped out into light in 1944 when he was in need of money to contribute to the funds of St. Dunstan's which had opened a training school for blinded Indian soldiers. He wrote his magnum opus, "Man-eaters of Kumaon" in response to that humanitarian impulse.
So, Carpet Sahib remains and will ever remain a Sadhu in the consciousness of his friends, the poor of India.
A. N. Nanda
Labels: Book Review