Conserving natural habitats and wildlife, protecting forest communities, reducing human-animal conflict, promoting eco-friendly practices these issues are of increasing importance in twenty-first century India. Interestingly, the triumvirate of Jim Corbett, Verrier Elwin, and Salim Ali addressed these concerns in the 1940s, much before they featured on the public radar.
Including rare visuals-photographs, line drawings, and sketches-this illustrated edition brings together the life stories of Jim Corbett (1875-1955), India's most well-known hunter-conservationist; Verrier Elwin (1902-1964), one of the greatest champions of India's tribal peoples; and Sa1im Ali (1896-1987), the celebrated ornithologist. These perennial classics rarely lose sight of the long-term effects of human footprints in the natural world.
The Introduction by acclaimed historian and writer Ramachandra Guha looks at these timeless classics with a contemporary eye. Coloured by the authors' characteristic charm and verve, anybody enjoying good writing will find this book eminently readable, as also those interested in wildlife and conservation, bird-watching, anthropology, ecology, and the social history of modern India.
Indo-Anglian autobiography is dominated by the triumvirate of Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Nirad Chaudhuri. The second was inspired by the first, the last provoked by the other two. Gandhi's experiments were first narrated in Gujarati, but it is the English version (translated by Mahadev Desai, and published almost simultaneously) that has made its mark down the ages. Nehru's autobiography was written as confirmation of his status as the likely successor to Gandhi as leader of the Indian freedom movement. Chaudhuri's autobiography was, among other things, a statement of defiance, its title a means to an ironic distancing from the books of those manifestly public and globally famous Indians.
All three works were written in middle age. Gandhi's appeared in book-form when he was fifty-nine, Nehru's when he was forty-seven, Chaudhuri's when he was fifty-four. The autobiographer had a substantial reservoir of experience to draw upon, and more to look forward to. The books are also united by a shared tone: a curious if characteristically Indian combination of the reflective and the pedagogic. Gandhi's book is aimed in the first instance at the middle class and uncertainly patriotic Indian, whereas Nehru's reach is more international. (The Experiments with Truth was originally serialized in the Mahatma's own journal, Young India, while An Autobiography was first published in London in 1936, to be read by the European torn between fascism and democratic socialism.) Gandhi's meditations are biased inwards, Nehru's outwards. Yet consider how in both works the career of the individual is so inseparably interwoven with the career of Indian nationalism.
Nirad Chaudhuri has never acknowledged that his own book was written in the shadow of those by Gandhi and Nehru. His admirers will probably reject the suggestion on the grounds that his autobiography is intensely personal (politics enters more centrally in its long delayed sequel, Thy Hand, Great Anarch!). But the connections are not hard to make, or to sustain. A thinker detested by Chaudhuri, Karl Marx, once wrote that 'men make their own history, but not in the circumstances of their choosing'. This could well have served as an epitaph for An Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, a book which shows how an individual is shaped by history yet able to (partially) transcend it. In Chaudhuri, as indeed in Gandhi and Nehru, the hope is that the reader will be inspired and educated by the experiences, errors, judgements and actions of the autobiographer. But the teachings are addressed also to oneself. The autobiographer knows that he is not done with life yet. Might he not, in the years that remain, implement with more certainty the credo that he has so strenuously worked out?
Three books do not make a 'tradition'. One might, however, contrast these works with what I shall with more authority call the Western tradition of autobiography. The Western autobiographer does not have to wait till middle age to take up his pen. A Precocious Autobiography is the title of a book written in the 1960s by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. A few years later Dom Moraes (always European by sensibility and, at the time, also British by nationality) published his memoirs, My Son s Father. He too was less than thirty. Long before Yevtushenko and Moraes, Robert Graves had emerged from the trenches of the First World War to write his Goodbye to All That.
The arrogance of these accounts is affecting. Poets, it seems, know all about life as soon as they have fought their first war or divorced their first wife. At the other pole of the Western tradition are the memoirs written in the evening of life. These latecomers are more likely to be scientific men, who turn to autobiography when their real work is done.
Among the great works of this type are those written by Charles Darwin, Bertrand Russell and Benjamin Franklin. Western autobiographies, whether precocious or ripe, tend to more closely scrutinize the self. They can be self-absorbed and simultaneously self-deprecatory. Society is generally kept at a safe distance. There is little effort to hand out lessons. By contrast, the Indian autobiographer is solemn. For all their worth, one cannot recall a witty remark or a joke well told in the autobiographies of Gandhi, Nehru and (it must be said) Chaudhuri.
To the trinity discussed above this Omnibus offers a lesser trinity of Indo-Anglian autobiographies. Lesser, but not necessarily less readable.
Let me take them in order of appearance. Jim Corbett's My India was published in 1952, when its author was seventy-seven. The book is not so much a conventional autobiography as a collection of incidents in the life of the great hunter, placed alongside portraits of men and women he knew. It was written as Corbett prepared to migrate to Kenya which, unlike India, was then still under British rule. Before he went he left behind, in print, fragments of the land he had loved. Beyond its literary purpose the book aims also to pre-empt the imminent nationalist erasure of all that the white man did in and especially for India. Of course My India has many heroes, and not all of them are white. But the presentation compels one to seek out among them, the policeman Freddy Young", for his courage, humour and devotion to duty.
The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin: An Autobiography appeared twelve years later. When he began to write the book Elwin was sixty, and the victim already of two heart attacks. He knew he had not long to live (in fact the book was published three months after his death). Elwin deliberately set about recording the details of his life before a biographer could. There is thus a satisfying completeness about the narrative, which runs from the cradle almost to the pyre. The focus is on his work for the tribal communities of India, among whom he lived for thirty years and of whose culture he became the foremost interpreter. People, incidents, campaigns and books are all described with care and detail. There remains in his book a political purpose, which is very nearly the reverse of Corbett's. The shikari had sought, albeit indirectly, to memorialize the Empire. The anthropologist, on the other hand, shows how it is possible to subordinate one's Englishness to the claims of Gandhian nationalism. He had even wished to call his book Autobiography of a British-born Indian.
Salim Ali's The Fall of a Sparrow was published in 1985. He was then eighty-seven. As a 'last' work it shares some of the characteristics of the Western scientific memoir. The ornithologist knew that his days of original research had passed, much as Russell recognized, when he wrote his autobiography, that he had nothing more to offer to philosophy or social theory. The scientist could, however, recount with affection how the experiments had been conducted and the books written. In his search for new species Salim Ali cut through a wide swathe of the subcontinent, from the arid highlands of Ladakh to the humid tropical forests of Kerala. The Fall of a Sparrow recollects those travels of thirty and forty years ago with a warm nostalgia. The book is remarkable for the absence of even a whiff of politics. Salim Ali had lived fifty years as the subject of an alien empire and nearly forty as a citizen of a free nation. But unlike Corbett or Elwin he sought neither to apologize for the British nor to justify the Indians. His background may explain this silence. He came from one of the most distinguished of Bombay families, which had produced an early President of the Indian National Congress as well as one of the first 'native' members of the Indian.
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