The last of a vanishing species - Rags Raghavan
I must have been all of 10 years back then. Most weekends saw a middle class family from Madras, namely ours - which included my parents and my two siblings, drive to a village 90 kms north into Andhra Pradesh. My family owned an estate called Green Thottam, all of 56 acres mostly orchards of mango, groundnut, tapioca, guava, sapota and so on. The estate on its western boundary abutted a reserve forest, on the slopes of the first folds of the holy seven hills of Tirupathi.
These forests in the late ‘60’s were teeming with wildlife and were also the hunting grounds for some my father’s friends who came here to shoot Wild Boar. I remember tales of them bringing down spotted deer but never saw any being shot. As for Green Thottam (Thottam is property or estate in the vernacular), my parents purchased the estate from Russell Green, an old white hunter. A Britisher who ran an automotive garage near Mount Road, Green had no interests in agriculture, as the thottam was a perfect bait for wild boar. You see, there were a variety of mangoes that were so big that the branches sagged downwards with their weight till the fruits were only a few feet off the ground. Wild Boar relished these mangoes - if they had simply eaten one whole mango each, they were not putting a hole in the agri-produce - instead they just nibbled little bit from many mangoes. So old man Green hid in the bushes and pulled the plug on the pigs as they came for the mangoes.
My father and hunting were two opposite ends of the spectrum but those bonds of friendships were too strong and he pretended not to notice or comment in those circumstances. I have been with those uncles on those hunts during those impressionable days - I never hunted and the so called ‘Sport’ or ‘Game’ never interested me - I was simply fascinated by those firearms! Those uncles let a puny kid like me shoot their 12 guage shotguns and 30-06’ rifles at tree trunks - whether I hit anything is unknown, but the recoil from those guns tossed me backwards into the thicket with astounding precision. If hitting the target with your own butt was a challenge, I won the round every time! I enjoyed shooting, especially that defiant recoil and the fragrance of burnt gunpowder! This era was instrumental in sculpting those building blocks that shaped my interests as I matured - my passion for guns, the outdoors, bird watching and observing nature, photography and the list went on.
Then when I moved up to the next class at school, a story in our English non-detail subject was 'The Chowgarh Tigers' by Jim Corbett. Need I say anything more at this juncture? Corbett’s story just took over my life. I was eating Kumaon, breathing through a .275 Rigby and talking man-eater for a long time to come - nothing much has changed today for that matter. Corbett’s writing were so inspiring that In the ‘90’s, I took a trip up to the lower Himalayas and stood by the gravestone of the infamous man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag. Time passed till I went on to own and cherish every one of Corbett’s books and they still make terrific bedside reading - each one reads like I never read the story before!
A day then came in my teens when I stumbled upon Kenneth Anderson and his works. Not sure which book started it all - the story must have had something to do with the Mamandur tiger, an area that was in a way contiguous to the forests near our Green Thottam estate. Anderson shot those man eaters with a .405 lever action Winchester - sacrilege! The archetypical hunter used a big bore double barrel in .470 or bigger Express rifles , or one those high velocity bolt actions, but a lever action? Those guns had a tendency to jam if the lever was not smacked back home to lock the action - especially with a man eating tiger that was breathing down Anderson’s neck, he had to be fast and sure every time he reloaded! Nevertheless, I resonated to Anderson’s work more so as all the action that he described were in areas closer to Madras than those remote Kumaon hills no one ever knew of down south.
Time passed on and the shikar stories became fond memories. Books to carry on holidays, train and plane journeys were invariably shikar stories by authors of yore, both in India and Africa. Even if that meant reading Black Panther of Sivanipalli for 87th time. Sheer serendipity led me to a book called Use Enough Gun by Robert Ruark. Ruark could narrate so graphically and there was much humour in his writings and I was hooked. You must read the bit where Ruark talks of his game guide - Harry Selby, an expert shot with a rifle. Ruark narrates “it is the well known axiom among hunters to aim for the whites of the eyes’ - except Selby, who aimed at the pupils “! Ruark hunted in Africa and for a brief while in India.
It just was not shikar and full stop. All these writers wrote of first hand knowledge of terrain, flora and fauna with uncanny detail that many naturalists and wildlife researchers scoured through these stories for valuable information about animal behavior.
If you read books by Billy Arjan Singh, then you’ll know what I am talking about. He knew every inch of the Dudhwa jungles and had studied tigers and leopards in detail.While you are it, read the bit where he justifies why a man with a gun in dense jungle has an advantage over a photographer with a camera, when faced with the prospect of being flattened by a tusker with a toothache. Debatable yes, but put yourself in the shoes of the man staring open mouthed and wide eyed at certain death.
I could go on for pages quoting from the many shikar books that I had read. But before I end this piece, it was providence that introduced me to Donald Anderson, son of Kenneth Anderson, in 2012. Portly and overweight, pushing the ripe old age of 80, he was hardly the handsome Casanova he was in his early years. Rapidly aging and slowed down by a hernia all set to explode, he still took the trip with some of us to the Biligiri Rangan Hills and the Talavadi jungles that were his hunting grounds in the days gone past. He told me that he would set out from Bangalore (in the 1960’s I should think) on his Norton motorcycle, buy a goat at Kollegal for 25 rupees and ride with it tied to his saddle up to Talavadi. The goat was leopard bait and Don had a deal going with the goatherd - bring the goat back alive without a scratch - that meant Don got the cat before the cat got the goat - and Don would get back 10 Rupees from the goatherd! That was way too funny , even funnier when Don related the story, as his big belly rocked in sync with his toothless laughter! Don and I shared the same date/month of birth - 18th February.
Don went in 2014.
Gone are the days of fine shikar literature. Mercifully, wanton hunting or ‘game’ or ‘sport’, even the licensed death warrants being formally issued for animals had stopped. Like those organised beats we read about - 300 men made all the din they could and drove out animals from the bush. The Maharajas and visiting Royalty waiting on elephant back shot everything that showed up - like balloons in an airgun arcade - and then they all went back to brainlessly sipping tea in between shoots.
Old man Russell Green went after we bought Green Thottam. Green Thottam went too - my parents needed the money for something else. Gone were my parents and the gentlemen you read about here.
Sometimes I wonder, if the term Happy Hunting Grounds, the mythical afterlife concept, was really coined for Corbett, Ruark and the Andersons...I wonder…
Chennai, 9th January 2018
- The Author is Life member of both World Wide Fund for Nature and the Madras Naturalists’ Society.
He was on the Board of Trustees, Chennai Snake Park for 22 years.
- He is a target shooter and member of the Chennai Rifle Club for 33 years. He twice won the Bronze medal for Tamilnadu State, in two shooting disciplines in the years 2000 and 2004.
- He jointly runs a Learning Community space for children and adults at Chennai where he teaches Photography and Guitar, and takes people of all age groups on bird watching outings around the city.
He website is : http://camerags.zenfolio.com/