| Prakash Verma and his sister in Gurney House. Picture by Gajinder Singh
|Gurney House in Nainital (centre). A drum used by Corbett during his hunting trips. Pictures by Gajinder Singh
Nainital, June 8: From the veranda at the back of Gurney House, a passage leads in — the drawing room to the left, the dining room to the right — reaching a dead-end in the bedroom. Antlers stick out at odd angles in the passage and above the bedroom door, a deer head stares down.
Prakash Verma says they have been there, as have almost everything else in this single-storeyed house that sits atop a hill on 1.7 acres, since Independence.
In 1947, Jim Corbett, hunter-turned-protecter of wildlife and writer, sold the house and left India for Kenya, where he died eight years later at the age of 80.
It’s hot up here — 1,000 feet above Naini’s tal (lake) — this afternoon. Carpet-sahib, as Corbett was known, used this bungalow surrounded by thick vegetation — oak, fir, deodar, pine and rhododendron — as his summer retreat. The Corbett family built this house and moved into it after Jim’s father died in 1881.
Verma, who owns the house, lives in Delhi and is visiting now with his sister Kiran. She recalls Corbett — tall, slim and blue-eyed.
“He may have portrayed a brute look when he went out hunting, but whenever he came here for his lantern lectures, he was all kindness. I remember the dress he wore when he came for the lectures, khaki shorts, white half-sleeve shirt, a topi and a walking stick.”
Her brother inherited the house from their late father, S.P. Verma, a barrister who paid Rs 50,000 to acquire the property. But Verma himself is into his eighties now and worries that sooner rather than later he won’t be able to look after the house.
“Since my son does not live in India, I am looking for somebody who will preserve it instead of selling the property to land developers who want to build a multi-storeyed complex,” he said.
The uneven approach road to the house is paved only with bricks but the area is much coveted. The DIG’s residence and the National Cadet Corps building form part of the neighbourhood.
But few are aware of Gurney House’s history. Lajwanti, who sits selling vegetables 200 yards from the building, says she doesn’t know who lived here. Nor does Mohammad Alam, who has a photography shop in town that is a tourist hub.
District magistrate Amit Ghosh is an exception. “When I came here I went to see it because I had read Corbett’s books in school. It was something of a dream coming true for me.”
Another and much larger Corbett house, at Kaladhungi, about 35 km from Gurney, has been turned into a museum. Gurney House has enough Corbett memorabilia strewn around its four rooms, including a library, to qualify as the second.
“Nearly 95 per cent of the furniture, wall pictures and paintings, fittings, skins and heads of animals the great man had killed have not been removed from their original places,” Verma says.
The Jim Corbett National Park is learnt to have made an offer. “We know it should be preserved. We have sent a report to the government on the amount demanded by Prakash Verma which is over Rs 1 crore. Something should happen soon,” a senior official said.
Verma, however, says: “It is not the money I am asking for that matters. I want the house to be preserved.”
The library has a number of first editions on subjects ranging from theology to travel, not to mention bound volumes of the satirical Punch magazine, some dating back to the 19th century.
Corbett’s cove reveals piles of sheet music and awards that do not look like they have been won on hunting expeditions. “The only thing I have removed is the piano which Maggie, Corbett’s sister, used to play, to give to my sister,” explains Verma.
By a strange coincidence, as Maggie had been Corbett’s companion, so is Kiran on Prakash’s Nainital holiday. Jim and Maggie had been close since childhood — their mother had named them “jam sandwich”.
“Corbett’s spirit can be seen everywhere in the house. He lives here. When my father told him that he wanted to buy the house, Corbett, despite getting an offer of Rs 60,000 without the belongings, sold it to us for Rs 10,000 less with everything in it. ‘I leave the house as it is for you’ he told my father,” Kiran said.
Verma confesses it was a hard struggle keeping it that way. “I have fought with everyone else in the family, including the children, to keep the house as Corbett had left it to us.”
Kiran, who cherishes a copy of The Maneaters of Kumaon that the legendary hunter had signed and given to her, believes that Corbett would never have left India, if he had not been so unnerved by Independence which reminded him of 1857. The Sepoy Mutiny had left a deep scar in the Corbett clan psyche. In the killings of Christians in Delhi, several members of the family died. On Independence, Jim Corbett feared a re-enactment.
While leaving he took only one thing: a carpet, for which he nearly begged. “My father told him he could carry everything with him if he wished. But he only took the carpet and some small things,” Kiran said.
The Vermas have been trying to sell the house for several years and admit receiving several offers, some even from abroad and from “ruffian-looking gangsters” claiming to represent big property dealers.
Former Uttaranchal Governor Surjit Singh Barnala was interested in the property and had an appraisal done, but he had to leave the state. According to Verma, chief minister Narain Dutt Tiwari is not cold to the idea of the state buying the house.
“(But) Things are moving too slowly for my comfort. I am getting old,” he said.
The proposal is now lying with the state’s chief conservator of forests and is expected to be put up before decision-makers shortly. Corbett park authorities have valued the house as well as the artefacts inside, like porcelain stands and flower vases, some over 250 years old.
The trunk Corbett used to carry on his hunting trips is listed by the authorities as “rare” and part of the hunter’s “legacy”.
Legacy or not, the commode the Corbett family used has not been left out of the valuation either.