Born in Nainital, the first home I knew was a little English cottage called Gurney House. I now own this 140-year-old house that once belonged to conservationist and naturalist Jim Corbett. He sold it to my grandfather, SP Varma, before leaving India in 1947. Today is Corbett’s 133th birth anniversary. For me, it is time to reflect on how a man I know only by reputation played such a huge role in the shaping of my family’s and my identity. I am in the process of restoring Gurney House and collecting more Corbett memorabilia to protect his legacy and my family home.
Corbett is a phenomenon in this part of India. His books are must-reads and the people of Kumaon speak of him with reverence. The game sanctuary at the foothills of the Kumaon had been named Corbett Park and his Kaladhungi winter abode, Arundel, is now a museum.
I wonder why Corbett chose to sell the house to my grandfather. I have vivid memories of my grandfather as a simple man at home, clad in a lungi and kurta and the perfect Sahib in the evenings, draped in a suit, with his walking stick and torch. His Cambridge University background and my grandmother’s westernised upbringing may have given Corbett and his sister Maggie the feeling that their home would be in good hands.
Jim and Maggie were the children of Mary Jane and Christopher William Corbett. The family moved to Nainital in 1862. In September 1870, the Corbetts watched with horror as a massive landslide missed their house on Alma by just a few hundred yards. When Christopher died, the family moved across the hills to Ayarpatta. The Alma house was dismantled and the Corbetts renamed their new 1.7-acre estate Gurney House.
Jim and Maggie loved Nainital but neither wanted to live in the hills after the other’s ‘death. Jim and Sharda Prasad met after World War II and there was an instant spark. So, when the time came to leave India, Jim only wanted to sell the house to my grandfather.
The house has been with my family for 60 years, and continues to reflect the common English lifestyle of the Corbetts and the Varmas. Even today, it stands largely unchanged and is one of the very few houses that have not been converted into a modern cottage — or, worse, an apartment complex.