Jim Corbett couldn’t have been more elusive when he wrote in Jungle Lore that only thrice in his lifetime did he hear the scream of the chudail (banshee) — always at night — and only once caught a glimpse of it. Corbett, India’s most famous wildlife hunter-turned-conservationist, said the sound could “curdle one’s blood and arrest one’s heartbeat”.
Having spent his entire life in Kumaon, and hundreds of nights alone in the forest among man-eating tigers, leopards and other beasts, he not only had infinite wisdom on the laws of the jungle, but he could identify every bird call in the region. He could even tell if a tiger was closing in by sensing the distress in the chirp of the birds. This year marks his 137th birth anniversary: while his stories of the wild are well-known, tales of his experiences with the afterlife are equally gripping, more terrifying, and relatively unknown.
One evening while having dinner with his sister Maggie, Corbett stepped out to the veranda of his home in Kaladhungi after hearing the call of the chudail. The sound was coming from a Haldu tree, and with his binoculars, Corbett discovered that it was a bird no smaller than a golden eagle. Though it was out of shooting range, and much too dark to take aim, he claimed he had never seen such a bird or an owl before. The next time he heard “the scream of a human being in mortal agony” was on a machan waiting for the Thak man-eater. This time the piercing shriek came only once, which he described as a long ‘Arr-Ar-Ar’, from a village he knew was deserted.
Chudail, Corbett wrote, is one of the most feared evil spirits found in lower reaches of the Himalayas. It appears in the form of a woman. Having cast her eyes on a human, this woman whose feet are overturned the wrong way, mesmerises her victims, as a snake does a bird, and walking backward lures them to their doom. When danger of seeing the woman threatens, the only defence against her attack is to shield the eyes with the hands, any piece of cloth that is handy, or, if indoors, to pull a blanket over the head.
Such fears of the unknown and the darkness are still prevalent today as it were then. Anyone who has travelled in the mountains or grown up in its embrace, will have either heard of the it, or know someone who has either had a hairy encounter, or been victimised by the chudail. The locals consider it as much part of life as death.
Another scary episode took place when Corbett was on the hunt for the Champawat man-eater — the first documented one in Kumaon in the 20th century. He reached a rest house close to the village following the suggestions of the tehsildar who claimed the tigress had returned to kill in the area. After a day spent in a wild goose chase, Corbett returned to the bungalow to find the tehsildar waiting for him. They spent the evening discussing his future course of action, but at night the tehsildar began to insist on returning home through an area infested with leopards and tigers, along with the infamous man-eater on prowl. Corbett was taken aback by the man’s strange commitment to undertake such a dangerous route; little did he know of the horrors in store for him later that night.
Corbett wrote about that night in Man-eaters of Kumaon: “I have a tale of that bungalow but I will not tell here, for this is a book of jungle stories, and tales ‘beyond the laws of nature’ do not consort well with such stories.” But according to the legend, the next morning he woke up outside the bungalow in the forest shivering in fear and cold. Martin Booth, his biographer, describes it as an eerie experience: “Quite what happened was something about which Jim was forever reticent. That he had a night-long brush with the supernatural is without doubt for...”
While Corbett was not known as a superstitious man, he would often term such experiences as mental aberrations. But in life, he came to have many such brushes with the supernatural during his stays at dak bungalows while pursuing the hunt of tigers and leopards who had turned into man-eaters after getting injured, or slowed by age. He also had similar experiences in the notorious dak bungalows of Ramgarh and Nainital. Many of these rest houses were built across India during the British Raj, and used by civil servants, forest and police officials while travelling, and public as well. Most of them are still functional today, keeping their past well hidden within its walls. As Booth records: “Many of the old Indian houses in the foothills are haunted by spirits both friendly and antagonistic. Most seem to be varieties of poltergeist which are capable of moving objects, including men.”
While most of these stories find brief mention in Corbett’s beautifully chronicled tales of hunting, much remains unclear as to why he chose not to delve in them, or whether he was asked to refrain. Perhaps it has to do with a warning a local poacher gave to a young Corbett: “When in the jungles, never speak of a tiger by its name, for if you do, the tiger is sure to appear.” For the same reason, he would say, the villagers never talk about the chudail. Neither would he.