Sunday, February 22, 2004

Men in a Time of Terror

The past, someone said, "is another country", especially when it is also in India. Eighty years ago, the Hindu pilgrim road to Badrinath at the foot of the great Himalayan peaks wound past the headwaters of the Ganges and thence through a landscape of pine woods, terraced fields and swift-flowing icy streams beneath shadowed gorges overlooked by fields of flowers. For eight long years, neither pilgrim nor the inhabitants of this land ventured out their doorway after dark nor even dared cross an alley to their neighbor's once the sun had set.

It was not enough, as one village headman had done, to place his sick wife in windowless inner room in the company of two nurses while he stood guard in the outer chamber, with the door shut and the sole window narrowly open, obstructed by a basin of water. Nor did it help, as one woman thought, to sleep at the closed end of a corridor-like pilgrim shelter, with 50 slumbering men between her and the sole opening. Nor was a man spared as he sat momentarily on the inner side of a door, shut but not fastened, with his friend smoking beside him. Soundless death came to nearly 500 people in the district, and the traces of only 125 were ever found.

Nearly eighty years later a professional hunter in Africa described what it was like to sit in a blind waiting for a leopard. "The alarm bark of baboon or bushbuck, the cackle of a flushing francolin, and the nervous chattering of a monkey or squirrel will all warn you of his approach. One second the bait tree will be empty; the next a leopard will be in it, as if conjured by a wave of a magician’s wand." That apparition would haunt the nightmares of Garhwal district night after night, despite the lavish use of traps, massive beats, the amateurish efforts of British officers on leave and bounties to attract sportsmen from the four corners of the globe, until one day the matter came to the only man it finally could. He later wrote:

"It was during one of the intervals of Gilbert and Sullivan's Yeomen of the Guard, which was showing at the Chalet Theatre in Naini Tal in 1925, that I first had any definite news of the Rudraprayag man-eater. I had heard casually that there was a man-eating leopard in Garhwal ... it was with no little surprise that ... on my return home I found a letter from Ibbotson on the table."

The man to whom this letter came, in that past which is another country, might himself have come from another planet. Edward James "Jim" Corbett was born in 1875 to English parents who had been in India for two generations. Here, after a boyhood spent among books and upland forests, a career in the railways,  the fighting of the Great War and the Northwest Frontier, already a legendary destroyer of man-eaters, the problem had come at last. His ten week pursuit of the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag is the story of a man moving among his own kind, yarning with pundits in their roadside homes, sharing a smoke with farmers, joking with packmen, comforting victims of the predator and wondering with holy men at the clouds over the pilgrim trail. It was the locals at first who believed that Corbett faced not an enemy of flesh and blood but an evil spirit. Later Corbett himself began to wonder about this manifestation of elemental nature. He asked himself why, in a land of abundant game, death should come to a regal old woman who had the right to expect peace in her closing years.

There were no drag marks, but the blood trail was easy to follow, and it led us to a bit of flat ground, four feet wide and twenty feet long. ... Lying huddled up between the steep bank and the rose-bush, with her head against the bank, with every vestige of clothing stripped from her, and with her naked body flecked with white rose-petals that had fallen from above, was the kill -- an old grey haired lady, seventy years of age.

Nor did he have an answer to why a widow had lost her only son, a boy of twelve, on the threshold of their home, walking only a step behind her, in the midst of a village which instantly emptied at her first cry. She could only accuse the men of the village for failing to rescue her son "as his father would have done had he been alive". Corbett had no answer except to sit out each night on a tree branch over bait, or in one memorable case on the ground with his back to a boulder when the rain came, blotting out light and sound in the torrent, until with useless .275 Rigby in one hand and an Afridi stabbing knife in the other, he stumbled for safety to the nearest village. Perhaps an Ahab could have told Corbett why nature in this wondrous setting should have chosen to torment simple men with this sinuous and heartless foe, for people of our own time have forgotten both the beauty and peril of the world, where boys are now encouraged to squat while they urinate and kept from the knowledge that two airliners were flown into skyscrapers in Manhattan. But Corbett met the leopard under the stars, and when at last he stood over his foe, it lay empty of the malevolence he sought to face, as if it had fled before he could reach it.

But here was no fiend, who while watching me through the long night hours had rocked and rolled with silent fiendish laughter at my vain attempts to outwit him, and licked his lips in anticipation of the time when, finding me off my guard for one brief moment, he would get the opportunity he was waiting for of burying his teeth in my throat. Here was only an old leopard, who differed from others of his kind in that his muzzle was grey and his lips lacked whiskers; the best-hated and the most feared animal in all India, whose only crime -- not against the laws of nature, but against the laws of man -- was that he had shed human blood, with no object of terrorizing man, but only in order that he might live; and who now, with his chin resting on the rim of the hole and his eyes half-closed, was peacefully sleeping his long last sleep.

Thousands came from miles around to see the dead man-eater and the man who had ended the terror. "'He killed our only son, sahib, and we being old, our house is now desolate.' 'He ate the mother of my five children, and the youngest but a few months old ... ' 'My son was taken ill at night and no one dared go to the hospital for medicine, and so he died." Many who came had brought a few petals of marigold or rose in gratitude. "Tragedy upon pitiful tragedy, and while I listened, the ground round my feet was strewn with flowers". At the end, we are no nearer to the mystery which each generation must meet in its own time. What did the man-eater represent? And what did Corbett?