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Love & longing for Corbett

Preserved with much care, Gurney House in Nainital is a treasure trove of memories

Love & longing for Corbett

Photo by the writer



Aparna Banerji

A short walk up the Mallital end of Naini Lake in Nainital, on way to Sherwood, is Ayarpatta Hill. On a steep incline, nestled amidst the towering oaks and deodars is the home of the fearless hero of Kumaon. Hunter, conservator, author, naturalist, philanthropist, protector of the Kumaon forests, chaser of man-eaters, gentle, yet feisty, Lieutenant Colonel Edward James Corbett’s legacy hasn’t waned in the 68 years since his passing.

Popularly known as Jim Corbett, the cult status of ‘Carpet Sahib’ is no less than that of a folk legend. Even though tourists flock to the Jim Corbett National Park and his Kala Dunghi home-turned-museum in Choti Haldwani, very few know that there exists a time capsule of Jim’s memories and life in the heart of Nainital — Gurney House, his summer home.

In a stroke of luck for the countless Corbett fans, the house was left by the Corbetts to a family which, in their 77-year-old history of ownership of the property (across three generations), has treated it with as much respect as possibly only the Corbetts could have.

The house has been left untouched — with the same furniture and crockery, living rooms and studies. It has a vintage piano (Jim's mother’s), antique furniture passed by the Corbetts, the African drum Jim brought from Tanzania, his sister Maggie’s cross-stitched chair, a library of their books, Jim’s writing bureau, his fishing boat and hordes of deer antlers, an elephant tusk, tiger skulls, and two empty canon shells (World War II vintage). Old photographs of Nainital, then a small colonial settlement where Indians weren’t allowed at the Upper Mall, dot the walls.

Nilanjana Dalmia’s grandfather Sharda Prasad Verma, the youngest Indian barrister from Cambridge at the time, bought the property in November 1947 for Rs 55,000 (a fortune then) when the Corbetts planned to leave India with a heavy heart.

Born on July 25, 1875, Jim Corbett lived almost entirely in Kaladunghi and Nainital, except for his job years in Bihar. A house bookcase even throws up a photograph (recorded by Dalmia’s grandmother) to be possibly that of the mysterious Helen in Corbett’s life, whom he had proposed to but had to withdraw as his mother objected.

Dalmia says, “Having shifted to Ayarpatta Hill after the 1881 landslide, the Corbetts took a call after the communal riots in 1946 that they would leave Nainital. It was very sad for Jim. He loved India and was loved by everybody here, but the Anglo-Indians and the British community were unsure of their plight after the riots. Lots of people left either for the UK or Australia. Jim and Maggie moved to Kenya for the love of wildlife and as they had friends and relatives there.”

Dalmia says the house’s provenance has had a thread of matriarchs running it — Jim’s mother Mary Jane bequeathed the house to his sister Margaret Winnifred and from the Corbetts, to Sharda Verma’s wife Kalavati Verma, on to Nilanjana Dalmia, who was also born in this house on July 24 (a day before Jim’s birthday) and bought it from her own family, in 2006.

Popular as a wildlifer, tales abound of Jim Corbett’s kinder traits for which he is still revered. As a fuel inspector in railways, felling trees for timber, his little tent-dwelling became home to a number of animal orphans displaced by the fallen forest — two broods of partridges, four peafowl chicks, two leverets, two baby four-horned antelopes (one named Tiddley-de-winks who followed him around) and Rex the python, who went out daily for a little time in the sun and returned!

At Mokameh Ghat, Corbett pooled in a greater part of his savings to help rescue the flailing trade of a cholera-stricken stranger. In Kumaon, he stood guard night after night to protect the villagers, terrorised by man-eating tigers. Even when he left India, he continued to pay taxes for the tenants of his Kala Dunghi house. He could mimic countless animals and bird calls, was deft at catapults, bows and was an ace marksman who was also proficient in skinning and dressing his own hunted game.

Dalmia says, “There was a time 70 years ago when everybody knew Gurney House and Corbett. If you ask somebody for directions today, they wouldn’t know. Even these boarding schools should be commemorating July 25th (Jim’s birthday), but they don’t. I find it very sad. Except for Corbett lovers, that old connection isn’t here. At the same time, the government wanted to change the name of the Corbett National Park. They cannot be successful, because the people of Kumaon will not let that happen.”

She is trying to get many of Jim’s belongings, strewn around homes and acquaintances in hills, back to the house. “I am 70, I don’t know how long I’m going to live, but I can say the house is intact as long as I’m here.”

Directions

About 7 hours from Delhi by road, Nainital can be reached through the nearest railway stations at Kathgodam and Haldwani. The nearest airport is Pantnagar. Not open to tourists, Gurney House can be visited on special request. It is on Ayarpatta Hill, a nearly 2-km walk up from Mallital.


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