Jim Corbett’s Man Eaters of Kumaon is a remarkable sort of book. It’s written in a matter-of-fact style that seems almost impossibly authentic. Corbett was a hunter, later conservationist, specializing in man-eaters, including the Champawat Tiger which killed over 400 people before Corbett brought it down (imagine! four hundred, the terror that must have inspired). He died a decade before I was born, but nonetheless I can’t help but feel like I know the man. His personality — stout, indomitable, utterly British — shines through the text. He doesn’t shy away from recounting his fears, the hardships of the hunt, but it’s with an air of danger long past, a detachment only available to those who have stood in the face of death with great fortitude (another wonderful instance of this sort of tone can be found in Junger’s Storm of Steel). It’s an excellent book, well worth a read, but what I’m most interested in is a single passage which Corbett nonchalantly lets drop in the first chapter. Corbett had been fruitlessly pursuing the Champawat tiger during the day and stopped to rest at a bungalow constructed in the jungle. His native guide refuses to stay the night, choosing instead to walk home alone through the jungle (which in addition to all the regular nasty things that are found in the jungle, definitely contains a tiger which has killed more than 400 people). Corbett tells us:
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. (14)
How remarkable! The utter sobriety of Corbett’s writing makes this comment so impossibly fascinating that I can barely stand it. As far as I know, he does not explain this incident in any of his other books, although his first book of which very few were printed does contain the chapter (at least according to wikipedia, the font of all knowledge): “The Terror that Walks by Night”, but I have no idea if this recounts the story of that night and there seems to be no way to get my hands on it. Thus, it remains a mystery, possibly an intractable one, but how can anyone’s imagination not be stirred by the image of Corbett, alone in the jungle heart, watching night creep round the walls?