The road from Delhi cuts straight through the plains of the erstwhile United Provinces to a village called Kaladungi. Beyond this are sal forests, and the mist enveloped hills of Kumaon. Up there, in Nainital, in a little lane away from the relative bustle of the town, there’s a house called Gurney House where the town’s most celebrated resident Jim Corbett used to stay. This is the setting for what could perhaps be called India’s smallest literary festival.
July 25 is Corbett’s birthday. For the past three years, a small group has gathered here to celebrate the day with literary events dedicated to the memory of the legendary hunter who later became a conservationist and writer.
This year’s event had 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner Rana Dasgupta reading from his book Solo. Last year had seen Namita Gokhale there, reading from Corbett’s The Man Eaters of Kumaon and her own book, A Himalayan Love Story. The year before that, at the first such event, actor Tom Alter had read selections from some of Corbett’s works. The current owner of Gurney House, Nilanjana Dalmia, organises the event. Dalmia’s grandparents Sharda Prasad Varma and his wife Kalavati had bought the house from Corbett in 1947. Dalmia says it is Corbett’s writing that kept his legend alive. “Therefore it is a fitting tribute for us to remember him on his birth anniversary through a celebration of the literary arts.”
‘Carpet sahab’, as he was known in the Kumaon hills where he lived most of his life, from his birth in 1875 till he left India in 1947, is a living presence in these parts.
His name is everywhere, on shop fronts and hoardings selling all manner of things. Local environmentalists still have animated discussions over why, in 1947, Corbett chose to leave India for Kenya. It is a rejection that many people haven’t quite understood or come to terms with.
Conservationist Ranjit Bhargava, who received the Padmashree in 2010 for his work in the area, says he has an answer. “R.E. Hawkins, in his book Corbett’s India, had mentioned that he interviewed Maggie, Corbett’s sister, in London. I found unpublished extracts from this interview in the library of Hotel Treetops in Kenya,” Bhargava said. In the interview, Maggie had mentioned the Partition of India, and the riots that followed, as reasons for leaving.
Bhargava thinks there was also another reason: both Jim and Maggie were unmarried, and Jim was worried about who would look after Maggie should anything happen to him. Their closest relative was in Kenya, so they went there.
Corbett died in Kenya in 1955, and is buried there. On his grave he is described as ‘Jim Corbett of Nainital’.