Book Review

Whispers in the Woods

-- Binoy Bhushan Agarwal

Stephen Alter's In the Jungles of the Night: A Novel about Jim Corbett

Publisher: Aleph

Genre: Fiction

Extent: 193 pp

Price: Rs 499

Stephen Alter's In the Jungles of the Night is a fictionalized account of the life of Edward James Corbett famously known as Jim Corbett. Divided into four parts the book maps the trajectory of an inquisitive young boy, Jim, whose love for enigmatic forests and a penchant for hunting finally transforms him into a legendary wildlife photographer and a conservationist.   

The novel opens with Book I titled 'The Fern Collector’ that has a precocious fourteen year old Jim growing up in Nainital who has gone visiting a graveyard to collect specimens for his botany collection. This visit however leads him on a trail of murder mystery of Cindy Bertram who when alive was the toast of the town. However, as fate would have it, the man with whom she was officially engaged, much to her chagrin, disappeared. She was soon killed and her death remained shrouded in mystery until Jim even though a teenager begins to solve it.

With Book II 'The Man-Eater of Mayaghat' we move to the foothills of Kumaon where forests are being cleared out to make way for the expanding colonial business by way of extending networks and accessibility. At the heart of this section is the chase and killing of a tigress, the man eater of Mayaghat, that has the labours of the forest department petrified thus bringing any work to a halt. In between, the chapters also illuminate his personal and social relationships with people of different strata and race. Consequently, Corbett comes across as a man full of empathetic understanding for forests and of its human and wild inhabitants. Even when it is a novel about a hunter, it lacks the conventional display of machismo that is often associated with the image of a shikari. Corbett could not only feel the pulse of his subject but also felt acutely for them. Perhaps it is not surprising then that Alter is also able to focus on the tenderness of his character's relationship with forests, the wild animals including the fiercest of all -- the tigers and the leopards as well the indigenous forest dwellers for whom forests have been the home and the world for generations.

The third section titled 'Until the Day Break' marks a very prominent turn in the life of Corbett. In 1947 when India regained its freedom from the British colonialists, Corbett and his sister set out for Kenya. Marking a change in the narrative voice and geographical location, this section is more of reminiscences of his life in India than in Kenya. So we have an aging man ruminating on his actions and meditating on his unacknowledged desire for Kaiyu, a local woman who lived in the forests and who was as much a child of nature as an enigma. In fact, while one does not know much about Corbett's intimate personal life, in Alter's imaginative world, Corbett has a chance sexual encounter with Kaiyu, and an intensely fulfilling one at that, the memory of which has an embalming effect on him in his later years for she thrives in his memory even when she is gone.

By and by it also brings to the fore Corbett's perspective on poverty, morality, humanity, civilizations and its lies. A note of sadness that becomes prominent in this final section of the novel is a result of not merely a poignant sense of loneliness but also a sense of despair at having witnessed violence and loss of lives from close quarters as a result of the war and destruction unleashed by the European nations. Amidst all this, the India where he was born and grew up never leaves his mind. The nostalgia for 'homeland' keeps recurring with a certain degree of persistence.

Finally, in the last section titled 'In Memoriam' the author steps in provide a brief note on his death and the inscription on his grave.

What is commendable about the book is its ability to seamlessly weave in Jim's critique of colonial progress that had unwanted ramifications on local modes of subsistence and a system that gave way to a culture of racial discrimination. However, at the same time, the author is also able to retain a certain kind of ambivalence that Corbett, perhaps, experienced thus bringing out the complexities of the man. Corbett who was himself a third generation of white settlers while at home in India is not sure of his future in a post independent India. Even as he wishes and struggles to keep the verdant forests in its primal and sacral form he seems to be kind of torn between this and an inherent sense of  loyalty to the British Crown that demanded that they be felled in order to make way for the advancement of  Indian Railways and consequent trade and mobility.   

For those adventurous fans interested in knowing the legendary Jim Corbett In the Jungles of the Night will prove an interesting rendezvous.   


Binoy Bhushan Agarwal is an Assistant Professor of English at Aryabhatta College, University of Delhi.