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Stories of a Himalayan Hunter

My friend, the story of my life is that story: story of hunting. . . 
~
Dil Das

The Himalayan hunter today is a mythical character. Half a century ago, however, when Dil Das and others like him were tracking wildlife in the Himalayan forests it was a way of life. Stories have come down to us now about great hunts and great hunters, some of whom will forever have our gratitude for turning big game tracking and shooting into wildlife viewing and filming, and hunting preserves into wildlife conservation areas. One was Jim Corbett, who grew up as a hunter in India but eventually became a great conservationist who campaigned tirelessly to save the Bengal tiger. At the prime of his life Corbett hunted man-eaters. North India’s Corbett National Park, a few miles west of Nepal, was named after him.
There are no parks named after Dil Das. And where Corbett was an Englishman born and raised in north India and was able to pursue his great love of the outdoors as something of a luxury, Dil Das (1926?-1986) was a poor villager for whom hunting was an essential part of life. In his book ‘Knowing Dil Das: Stories of a Himalayan Hunter’, Joseph Alter, an anthropologist and biographer, describes his friend as a farmer who raised buffaloes and sold milk to the missionaries around Woodstock School at Mussoorie in the Indian Himalayas. And as a man who told hunting stories.

His yarns were of great adventures that, as Alter sums them up, were all about –
“Shooting tigers and leopards with kings, princes, and politicians; trekking into the high Himalayas with missionary families; traveling to Nepal to join an American friend [John Coapman] in building and running a luxury resort [Tiger Tops] in a wildlife refuge [Chitwan]; and endless tales about friendship and hunting that seemed to have... a great deal to do with the history of colonialism.” 

As a young man, Dil Das was taught about the forest and hunting by Ernie Campbell, a well known American missionary. Campbell gave him his first rifle. As Dil Das later recalled it –

“I was the hunter. I had the carbine. I even had the license for the rifle. I do not know what sort of arrangements Campbell sahib made, but he gave me the carbine and five hundred rounds of ammunition. He just gave these to me; and I was just a boy!...

“What is the meaning of this? I could not understand. He was my guru. I was his chela, you understand. What!...” 
The “What!” of it is at the heart of the jungle experience and is the basis upon which events of his later life developed. It is what eventually lead Dil Das to come to work at Nepal’s famous Tiger Tops jungle resort. 

Dil Das once asked himself, rhetorically –
“This hunting business, is it important or not; is it a big thing or just a small matter? I think it is important. Big men go into the jungle and do it. And why is that? It is fun, of course! You see, if someone lives in town and cannot even find a place to walk, he will come into the jungle and find peace and relaxation. He will become earnest and reflective. These are ideas which come into my heart. I think about them.”
Part of the story focuses closely on Dil Das’s association with John Coapman, a self-styled big game hunter in the colonial mode. Coapman was one of the first to see the potential and to develop the infrastructure for exotic adventure tourism in the jungles of Nepal. He had lived and hunted in North India for years, and when he came to Nepal he brought Dil Das to help him. 

Dil Das recounted how, at Tiger Tops, the tourists –
“were taken on elephant back for ‘camera safaris,’ and were also provided with other opportunities for seeing animals in their natural habitat. What made Tiger Tops successful, however, was not just the abundance of wild animals, but the exotic disjuncture of elite, postcolonial taste--soft pillows, cool drinks, comfortable chairs, old scotch whiskey, and fine dining--with the untamed, wild, and potentially dangerous environment of uncivilized Asia. To a degree, Tiger Tops re-created the colonial adventure in microcosm by giving those with wealth and power a chance to try and see themselves by looking-from very close up-into an untamed jungle. In this context, Coapman provided the persona of a real-life adventure. He was someone who had not just seen tigers in the wild. He had looked them in the face and hunted them down.” 
And Dil Das was right there with him. 

Joseph Alter was raised in the Indian hills and came to know Dil Das well. His book is part memoir, part hunter’s tales, and part ethnography, brimming with the culture of jungle life and lore and the importance of shikari, hunting, in an earlier time. It is also about the friendship that grew up between the son of a missionary and the village dudwallah (milkman) and fabled outdoors man.

Dil Das talked endlessly about his friendship with the sahibs who hunted. As hunters, he told Alter, it was inevitable that –
“Two people of the same blood will somehow find one another. I have told you, haven’t I, that in the end it all comes back to John sahib [Coapman] and Campbell sahib and Alter sahib, your father. Who knows why this was; why it is? What was there about me? There must have been some sort of kinship between all of us. God only knows.”

“My friend, the story of my life is that story: the story of hunting... I am a hunter and will walk on the cliffs where the forest guard cannot go...”

‘Knowing Dil Das’ and his story-telling is as much about Dil Das’s life as it is about Joseph Alter’s, and of the deep and abiding friendship between them. 

To the end of his life, says Alter – 
“Dil Das was obsessed with hunting and addicted to liquor, but it was talking--the endless process of telling and retelling stories--that kept him alive. What may well have killed him, finally, was that his friends the missionary boys--his complicit interlocutors--bid farewell and abruptly truncated a dialogue by bringing it all back home [to America] and unpacking it as nostalgia, data, and critical self-reflection. We sobered up. We stopped listening. And Dil Das, left speaking a story that no one was able to hear, ended up re-creating a past whose mythic structure progressively undermined his present. He talked himself to death, as it were, by telling stories whose significance could convey only the painful truth of an imagination constantly besieged by harsh reality.”

Joseph S. Alter, ‘Knowing Dil Das: Stories of a Himalayan Hunter’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, and Penguin Books India, 2010). Joseph Alter is a medical anthropologist who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh (USA). He is the author of books (in the South Asian context) about wrestlers’ bodies, yoga, Gandhi, Asian medicine, sex and masculinity .
The writer is a contributing editor to ECS magazine, and can be contacted at don.editor@gmail.com.