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A World So Frail and Faulty?

If a man came to this world from some other world in full possession of his powers he might discuss whether the advantage of midsummer woods made up for the disadvantage of mad dogs, just as a man looking for lodgings might balance the presence of a telephone against the absence of a sea view. But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.

G. K. Chesterton

[The legendary hunter and conservationist, Jim Corbett (1875-1955), was born in India and spent almost all of his life there. At the age of 69 he wrote his first of six books. Published in 1944, Man Eaters of Kumaon made an international reputation for its author and was eventually translated into 27 languages. Together with The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag (1948) and The Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1954) it relates his adventures ridding the hill country of Northern India of a dozen man eating tigers and leopards between 1907 and 1938. Together these twelve animals had killed in excess of 1500 people, with the Champawat Tiger alone being responsible for 436 documented deaths. Somewhat tragically, India’s imminent independence convinced Corbett and his half-sister Maggie—both of whom never married—that they had to leave the country and people they loved and knew so well. Settling in Kenya enabled Corbett to have a final brush with greatness. He was resident “hunter” at “Treetops” (an elaborate guest house built in a giant fiscus tree that overlooked a watering hole frequented by much of Africa’s exotic fauna) when Princess Elizabeth came to visit. She was there when her father, George VI, died, although she only received the news after she had departed. Corbett later wrote sentimentally, ‘For the first time in the history of the world, a young woman climbed into a tree a Princess, and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience, she climbed down from the tree the next day a Queen—God bless her.’ A year after his death India’s first national park, which he did so much to promote, was renamed in his honour.

The following two stories, taken from Corbett’s experience in India, may be regarded as emblematic of millions of other (usually journalistic) accounts that deal with the same theme. The first story describes an instance of evil in nature, impersonal evil. The second gives us an instance of evil in man, moral evil. The fact that both stories reflect favourably on Corbett shouldn’t make us overly wary about his complete truthfulness, for he was by common consent an honest, charitable, unassuming figure, though undeniably proud of his reputation as the most famous sportsman in India. In reading these sombre accounts it might be worth keeping in mind some such questions as the following:


1. Can you imagine either form of evil being eliminated from life without having to relay the foundations of the natural world?


2. Does either form of evil seem inconsistent, as so many unbelievers have asserted, with the existence of a loving purposeful Creator?


3. Both these stories remind us that evil often occasions certain things that we admire and find interesting, such as heroism, compassion, and charity. Could these things still exist, or exist as vividly, in the absence of evil? And if getting rid of evil meant that they too would have to disappear from human life, is that a price we should be willing to pay?]

MAKING AN EARLY start next morning, we halted at Lamgara for a meal, and by evening reached the Dol dak bungalow on the border of the man-eater’s domain. Leaving my men at the bungalow I set out the following morning to try to get news of the man-eater. Going from village to village, and examining the connecting foot-paths for leopard pug marks, I arrived in the late evening at an isolated homestead consisting of a single stone-built slate-roofed house, situated in a few acres of cultivated land and surrounded by scrub jungle. On the footpath leading to this homestead I found the pug marks of a big male leopard.

As I approached the house a man appeared on the narrow balcony and, climbing down a few wooden steps, came across the courtyard to meet me. He was a young man, possibly twenty-two years of age, and in great distress. It appeared that the previous night while he and his wife were sleeping on the floor of the single room that comprised the house, with the door open for it was April and very hot, the man-eater climbed on to the balcony and getting a grip of his wife’s throat started to pull her head-foremost out of the room. With a strangled scream the woman flung an arm round her husband who, realizing in a flash what was happening, seized her arm with one hand and, placing the other against the lintel of the door, for leverage, jerked her away from the leopard and closed the door. For the rest of the night the man and his wife cowered in a corner of the room, while the leopard tried to tear down the door. In the hot unventilated room the woman’s wounds started to turn septic and by morning her suffering and fear had rendered her unconscious.

Throughout the day the man remained with his wife, too frightened to leave her for fear the leopard should return and carry her away, and too frightened to face the mile of scrub jungle that lay between him and his nearest neighbour. As day was closing down and the unfortunate man was facing another night of terror he saw me coming towards the house, and when I had heard his story I was no longer surprised that he had run towards me and thrown himself sobbing at my feet.

A difficult situation faced me. I had not up to that time approached Government to provide people living in areas in which a man-eater was operating with first-aid sets, so there was no medical or any other kind of aid nearer than Almora, and Almora was twenty-five miles away. To get help for the woman I would have to go for it myself and that would mean condemning the man to lunacy, for he had already stood as much as any man could stand and another night in that room, with the prospect of the leopard returning and trying to gain entrance, would of a certainty have landed him in a madhouse.

The man’s wife, a girl of about eighteen, was lying on her back when the leopard clamped its teeth into her throat, and when the man got a grip of her arm and started to pull her back the leopard—to get a better purchase—drove the claws of one paw into her breast. In the final struggle the claws ripped through the flesh, making four deep cuts. In the heat of the small room, which had only one door and no windows and in which a swarm of flies were buzzing, all the wounds in the girl’s throat and on her breast had turned septic, and whether medical aid could be procured or not the chances of her surviving were very slight; so, instead of going for help, I decided to stay the night with the man. I very sincerely hope that no one who reads this story will ever be condemned to seeing and hearing the sufferings of a human being, or of an animal, that has had the misfortune of being caught by the throat by either a leopard or a tiger and not having the means—other than a bullet—of alleviating or of ending the suffering.

The balcony which ran the length of the house, and which was boarded up at both ends, was about fifteen feet long and four feet wide, accessible by steps hewn in a pine sapling. Opposite these steps was the one door of the house, and under the balcony was an open recess four feet wide and four feet high, used for storing firewood.

The man begged me to stay in the room with him and his wife but it was not possible for me to do this, for, though I am not squeamish, the smell in the room was overpowering and more than I could stand. So between us we moved the firewood from one end of the recess under the balcony, clearing a small space where I could sit with my back to the wall. Night was now closing in, so after a wash and a drink at a nearby spring I settled down in my corner and told the man to go up to his wife and keep the door of the room open. As he climbed the steps the man said, ‘The leopard will surely kill you, Sahib, and then what will I do?’ ‘Close the door,’ I answered, ‘and wait for morning.’

The moon was two nights off the full and there would be a short period of darkness. It was this period of darkness that was worrying me. If the leopard had remained scratching at the door until daylight, as the man said, it would not have gone far and even now it might be lurking in the bushes watching me. I had been in position for half an hour, straining my eyes into the darkening night and praying for the moon to top the hills to the east, when a jackal gave its alarm call. Leopards when hunting or when approaching a kill move very slowly, and it would be many minutes before this one—assuming it was the man-eater—covered the half mile between us, and even if in the meantime the moon had not risen it would be giving sufficient light to shoot by, so I was able to relax and breathe more freely.

Minutes dragged by. The jackal stopped calling. The moon rose over the hills, flooding the ground in front of me with brilliant light. No movement to be seen anywhere, and the only sound to be heard in all the world the agonized fight for breath of the unfortunate girl above me. Minutes gave way to hours. The moon climbed the heavens and then started to go down in the west, casting the shadow of the house on the ground I was watching. Another period of danger, for if the leopard had seen me he would, with a leopard’s patience, be waiting for these lengthening shadows to mask his movements. Nothing happened, and one of the longest nights I have ever watched through came to an end when the light from the sun lit up the sky where, twelve hours earlier, the moon had risen.

The man, after his vigil of the previous night, had slept soundly and as I left my corner and eased my aching bones—only those who have sat motionless on hard ground for hours know how bones can ache—he came down the steps. Except for a few wild raspberries I had eaten nothing for twenty-four hours, and as no useful purpose would have been served by my remaining any longer, I bade the man goodbye and set off to rejoin my men at the Dol dak bungalow, eight miles away, and summon aid for the girl. I had only gone a few miles when I met my men. Alarmed at my long absence they had packed up my belongings, paid my dues at the dak bungalow, and then set out to look for me. While I was talking to them the Road Overseer came along. He was well mounted on a sturdy Bhootia pony, and as he was on his way to Almora he gladly undertook to carry a letter from me to Stiffe (the district administrator). Immediately on receipt of my letter Stiffe dispatched medical aid for the girl, but her sufferings were over when it arrived.

BUDHU WAS A MAN of the Depressed Class [the untouchables], and during all the years I knew him I never saw him smile: his life had been too hard and the iron had entered deep into his very soul. He was about thirty-five years of age, a tall gaunt man, with a wife and two young children, when he applied to me for work. At his request I put him on to trans-shipping coal from broad-gauge trucks to metre-gauge wagons at Mokameh Ghat [a hub where people and cargo were ferried across the Ganges], for in this task men and women could work together, and Budhu wanted his wife to work with him.

The broad-gauge trucks and metre-gauge wagons stood opposite each other with a four-foot-wide sloping platform between, and the coal had to be partly shovelled and partly carried in baskets from the trucks into the wagons. The work was cruelly hard, for there was no covering to the platform. In winter the men and women worked in bitter cold, often wet with rain for days on end, and in the summer the brick platform and the iron floors of the trucks and wagons blistered their bare feet. A shovel in the hands of a novice, working for his bread and the bread of his children, is a cruel tool. The first day’s work leaves the hands red and sore and the back with an ache that is a torment. On the second day blisters form on the hands, and the ache in the back becomes an even greater torment. On the third day the blisters break and become septic, and the back can with difficulty be straightened. Thereafter for a week or ten days only guts, and plenty of them, can keep the sufferer at work—as I know from experience.

Budhu and his wife went through all these phases, and often, when they had done sixteen hours’ piece work and were dragging themselves to the quarters I had provided for them, I was tempted to tell them they had suffered enough and should look for other less strenuous work. But they were making good wages, better (Budhu said) than they had ever made before, so I let them carry on, and the day came when with hardened hands and backs that no longer ached they left their work with as brisk and as light a step as they had approached it.

I had some two hundred men and women trans-shipping coal at that time, for the coal traffic was as heavy as it always was in the summer. India was an exporting country in those days, and the wagons that took the grain, opium, indigo, hides, and bones to Calcutta returned from the collieries in Bengal loaded with coal, five hundred thousand tons of which passed through Mokameh Ghat.

One day Budhu and his wife were absent from work. Chamari, the headman of the coal gang, informed me that Budhu had received a postcard the previous day and had left that morning with his family, saying he would return to work as soon as it was possible for him to do so. Two months later the family returned and reoccupied their quarters, and Budhu and his wife worked as industriously as they had always done. At about the same time the following year Budhu, whose frame had now filled out, and his wife, who had lost her haggard look, again absented themselves from work. On this occasion they were absent three months, and looked tired and worn out on their return.

Except when consulted, or when information was voluntarily given, I never inquired into the private affairs of my workpeople, for Indians are sensitive on this point; so I did not know why Budhu periodically left his work which he invariably did after receiving a postcard. The post for the workpeople was delivered to the headmen and distributed by them to the men and women working under them, so I instructed Chamari to send Budhu to me the next time he received a card. Nine months later, when the coal traffic was unusually heavy and every man and woman in my employ was working to full capacity, Budhu, carrying a postcard in his hand, presented himself at my office. The postcard was in a script that I could not read so I asked Budhu to read it to me. This he could not do, for he had not been taught to read and write, but he said Chamari had read it to him and that it was an order from his master to come at once as the crops were ready to harvest. The following was Budhu’s story as he told it to me that day in my office, and his story is the story of millions of poor people in India.

‘My grandfather, who was a field labourer, borrowed two rupees from the bania [a merchant, trader, or money lender] of the village in which he lived. The bania retained one of the rupees as advance interest for one year, and made my grandfather put his thumb-mark to an entry in his bhai khata [register of accounts]. When my grandfather was able to do so from time to time, he paid the bania a few annas by way of interest. On the death of my grandfather my father took over the debt, which then amounted to fifty rupees. During my father’s lifetime the debt increased to one hundred and fifteen rupees. In the meantime the old bania died and his son, who reigned in his place, sent for me when my father died and informed me that as the family debt now amounted to a considerable sum it would be necessary for me to give him a stamped and duly executed document. This I did, and as I had no money to pay for the stamped paper and for the registration of the document the bania advanced the required amount and added it to the debt, which together with interest now amounted to one hundred and thirty rupees. As a special favour the bania consented to reduce the interest to twenty-five per cent. This favour he granted me on condition that my wife and I helped him each year to harvest his crops, until the debt was paid in full. This agreement, for my wife and I to work for the bania without wages, was written on another piece of paper to which I put my thumb-mark. For ten years my wife and I have helped to harvest the bania’s crops, and each year after the bania has made up the account and entered it on the back of the stamped paper he takes my thumb impression on the document. I do not know how much the debt has increased since I took it over. For years I was not able to pay anything towards it, but since I have been working for you I have paid five, seven, and thirteen rupees—twenty-five rupees altogether.’

Budhu had never dreamed of repudiating the debt. To repudiate a debt was unthinkable: not only would it blacken his own face, but, what was far worse, it would blacken the reputation of his father and grandfather. So he continued to pay what he could in cash and in labour, and lived on without hope of ever liquidating the debt; on his death, it would be passed on to his eldest son.

Having elicited from Budhu the information that there was a Vakil (an advocate or lawyer) in the village in which the bania lived, and taken his name and address, I told Budhu to return to work and said I would see what could be done with the bania. Thereafter followed a long correspondence with the Vakil, a stout-hearted Brahmin, who became a firm ally after the bania had insulted him by ordering him out of his house and telling him to mind his own business. From the Vakil I learnt that the bhai khata inherited by the bania from his father could not be produced in a court of law as evidence, for it bore the thumb-marks of men long since dead. The bania had tricked Budhu into executing a document which clearly stated that Budhu had borrowed one hundred and fifty rupees at a rate of twenty-five percent interest. The Vakil advised me not to contest the case for the document Budhu had executed was valid, and Budhu had admitted its validity by paying three instalments as part interest, and putting his thumb-mark to these payments on the document. When I had sent the Vakil a money order in full satisfaction of the debt, plus interest at twenty-five percent, the bania surrendered the legal document; but he refused to surrender the private agreement binding Budhu and his wife to work without wages on harvesting his crops. It was only when I threatened, on the Vakil’s advice, to prosecute for extortion, that he handed the agreement over to the Vakil.

Budhu was very uneasy while these transactions were dragging on. He never spoke to me on the subject, but I could see from the way in which he looked at me whenever I passed him at work that he was speculating as to whether he had been wise in leaving me to deal with the all-powerful bania, and what his position would be if the bania suddenly appeared and demanded an explanation for his conduct. And then one day I received by registered post a heavily sealed letter containing a much thumb-marked legal document, an agreement also thumb-marked, a stamped receipt for the Vakil’s fees, and a letter informing me that Budhu was now a free man. The whole transaction had cost me two hundred and twenty-five rupees.

Budhu was leaving work that evening when I met him, took the documents out of the envelope, and told him to hold them while I set a match to them. ‘No, Sahib, no,’ he said, ‘You must not burn these papers, for I am now your slave and, God willing, I will one day pay off my debt to you.’

Not only did Budhu never smile but he was also a very silent man. When I told him that, as he would not let me burn the papers, he could keep them, he only put his hands together and touched my feet; but when he raised his head and turned to walk away, tears were ploughing furrows down his coal-grimed face.

Only one of millions freed of a debt that had oppressed three generations, but had the number been legion my pleasure could not have been greater, nor could any words have affected me more deeply than Budhu’s mute gesture, and the tears that blinded him as he stumbled away to tell his wife that the bania’s debt had been paid and that they were free.

[This form of economic exploitation continues in India to this day, underwritten, no doubt, by the caste system. A somewhat similar, though milder and much subtler, form of economic fraud occurs here in the form of bank issued credit such as mortgages (“mortgage” is from the French for death grip). Though not widely understood, a bank does not, for the most part, lend out the money its customers have deposited. Rather it lends interest bearing money that it creates out of thin air with a few figures in a ledger—or nowadays, a few taps on the computer keyboard. (Money, essentially, is just accounting). A 25 year mortgage at 6.5 percent more than doubles the cost of a house. It should be noted that the principal on the loan that is paid back with every mortgage payment is an accounting device. It doesn’t get added to the bank’s assets; rather it returns to the thin air from whence it came. The interest, of course, is another matter. It goes into the banker’s pocket. It’s good money for very little work on the part of the bank. But there is no cause here for surprise or indignation. In almost every society since the dawn of history tribute has been paid by the community to an economic, political, or racial elite, and the ingenious device of interest-bearing bank-created money via the fractional reserve system is the primary method employed in a modern capitalist society. For more on this subject click HERE.]

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