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     Volume 10 |Issue 30 | August 05, 2011 |


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In Retrospect

Recalling a Pucca Shikari!

Waqar A Khan

Tahawar Ali Khan in hot pursuit of the man-eater, Sundarbans, 1967. Photo: courtesy

The ritual mug of morning coffee had yet to perk me up. But, something unexpected did. In fact, it came as a pleasant surprise! As I was casually going through the Daily Star of Saturday, 28 July 2007 my gaze was riveted on to the Star Literature page. Its editor, a contemporary of mine from the Dhaka University days of the early 1970s, had chanced upon a rare find and printed excerpts from a long forgotten book, Man-eaters of Sunderbans, 1961 edition, by the then renowned Pakistani shikari (hunter), Tahawar Ali Khan. Ah! Tahawar has at last been resurrected, I thought. Added to the book excerpt was an interesting article, by one Khaleel Mahmood, a Pakistani expatriate living in New York. He did a brief review of Tahawar's book and drew a comparison with the legendary Jim Corbett. It made my day. I shall tell you why.

Anyone familiar with Tahawar's book will have no doubt as to his role model. Both the caption of his book and the narrative style is reminiscent of Jim Corbett's shikar classic, Man-Eaters of Kumaon, regardless of the difference in context (time) and the diametrically opposite geographical location, terrain and climatic conditions. To date, Tahawar's book remains a unique contribution. It is the only book on shikar written in English by an Asian based on our Sundarbans.

In the early years of our childhood, particularly, before the advent (invasion?) of television into our middle class homes, it was customary to be 'fed' with a 'staple diet' of tales and stories by our seniors. It fired our young imagination, made us daydream and soar. Life then seemed an infinity waiting to be traversed. Amongst all the stories, the favourite with us boys were those of shikar. Once a symbolic Raj institution, Corbett Sahib, the great white hunter, was its natural icon.

My late, affectionate uncle Bulla (Izharul Huq), my father's cousin, a much revered Zila School Headmaster of yore, was an ardent admirer of Jim Corbett, the world renowned hunter and pioneer nature conservationist. Uncle knew of Corbett's hair-raising shikar exploits in Kumaon by heart. It is he who first introduced Corbett to us when we were just children. He was a master story-teller. With dramatic effect, he could build up the stories to a level of high suspense in the evenings to our thrill, chill and fright. As we begged him for more, every shadow in and around the house would take on ominous overtones. The omnipresence of a tiger lurking in the dark, ready to pounce upon us seemed a distinct possibility. It made us dither and shiver.

Tahawar with the partially eaten corpse of a poor
woodcutter, Sundarbans, 1967. Photos: courtesy
Tahawar (left) and friend after shooting the man-eater, Sundarbans, 1967.Photos: courtesy

It is also from uncle Bulla that I first heard of Corbett's famous one-liner which hugged international headlines in 1952. Corbett then in Africa, was escorting the young crown princess Elizabeth (now the gracefully ageing Queen Elizabeth II of Britain), during her African Safari. He had just taken the princess up on a tree 'machan' for a panoramic view of the game-park, when news came in of the sudden demise of King George VI, Elizabeth's father in England. As if to capture the historic moment for posterity Jim Corbett uttered, 'I went up with a princess and came down with a queen'. On to Tahawar Ali Khan again.

The year 1967 has left an indelible imprint in my mind. It was to be a momentous year in global political history. There were ominous rumblings of an impending war in the Middle-East. As usual Arab braggadocio was rather pronounced. However, the Israelis maintained a conspicuous silence. Their calculated response would be a pre-emptive strike. Soon the six day Arab-Israeli war broke out in fully fury. The rest is, of course, history. It was during this period that I met Tahawar Ali Khan, the shikari from Lahore, of the 'Sundarban fame', in Dhaka. He had come to indulge himself in his favourite passion, a hunting expedition to the world renowned mangrove-forest, now an UNESCO world heritage site. He was on call to shoot a man eating tiger that had killed and terrorised people along a vast swath of the jungle. And, he had just succeeded in getting rid of the monster.

It later transpired on inquiry that Tahawar had developed an enduring fascination for the Sundarbans. He was intrigued by its secrets and it too beckoned him. This infatuation with the beautiful, yet, treacherous forest-land, especially, its ferocious Royal Bengal Tiger, a natural man-eater, enticed him as would an elusive muse. Thus beguiled, it would bring him back again and again for more daring adventures.

The National Institute for Public Administration (NIPA), once a premier training institute, housed in a spanking new building, a landmark in modem architecture, was curiously located within the precincts of Dhaka University. It was getting ready to host a much rehearsed 'Foreigners Orientation Program'. The course was designed for and aimed at the motley collection of expatriates then living in Dhaka. It was to be an introduction to East Pakistan – its history, people, arts and culture. My father was one of the main organisers of this programme as a senior official of NIPA. Amina Panni, Aunty to us, an epitome of beauty and grace, always 'mysteriously' clad in elegant white saris, was the programme coordinator. We dubbed her the 'lady in white'. As chance would have it my father decided to invite Tahawar Ali Khan, who was in town, to give a scheduled talk and slide-show presentation on the Sundarbans and share his exploits as a famous hunter. He readily accepted the invitation with pleasure.

On a sunny morning as the disastrous war (for the Arabs) raged on in the Middle East, with our national radio blaring imaginary Arab victories over the Israelis, we drove down to the Shahbagh hotel to meet Tahawar. My father had met him briefly and said enough of him to bedevil me. As a school boy my curiosity and excitement was palpable. After all, was I not about to meet a real shikari who shot man-eating tigers? How envious would that make my friends, I wondered? I could hardly wait.

A jubilant Tahawar (right) and others ferrying the man-eater, Sundarbans, 1967. Photo: courtesy

Contrary to my boyhood expectation, I saw a rather stocky man of medium built sporting a beret waving at us in the hotel lobby. He was waiting for us. My perception then of a big game hunter was of a much larger man. As Tahawar walked up to us, I observed that he had large expressive eyes and a huge disarming smile. He seemed 'gleefully glued' to a small transistor radio. It was obvious what he was listening to. 'Mr. Khan', he greeted my father loudly, 'the Arabs are finally giving those bloody Israelis a good lesson, isn't it? I hear they are only a few miles from Tel Aviv!' My father smiled. He was not so sure. He had heard disquieting news over the BCC.

Pleasantries exchanged, Tahawar patted me on the head and grinned, 'shot your first tiger, yet?' Seeing my embarrassed smile, he quipped, 'don't you worry, we will soon shoot one together.' I felt relieved. We sat for a while in the lobby as my father handed him a sheaf of papers and explained his scheduled program for the coming day. They occasionally conversed in Urdu in which my father was fluent. With a bemused expression Tahawar sheepishly confided that most people here mispronounced his name and called him 'Talwar Sahib', instead. He laughed uproariously and said that he actually took it as a compliment since it rhymed perfectly with Hazrat Ali's legendary sword… Zulfiqar! We laughed. He then presented us with an autographed copy of his book, Man-eaters of Sunderbans. Sadly, after decades of safekeeping it has now been lost.

On the appointed day, Tahawar showed up at the venue (NIPA) immaculately attired in an English tweed jacket, a silk cravat and still sporting a beret. He looked very much like an army officer of the colonial vintage. He spoke impressively in English to a captive audience belonging mostly to diplomatic missions (Consulates), some on advisory engagements and a few transient foreign visitors/tourists. As usual, those Japanese present were ready with their cameras and clicked away in abandon. There were also Bengali and West Pakistani participants. The exotic and picturesque slide-show on the Sundarbans went down very well with the audience — the flora, fauna, rivers, creeks, mudflats and… of course, the dead tigers! Tahawar took great pains to explain everything. He demonstrated the full throated call of the striped predator, the distress call of the cheetal (spotted deer) and the guttural noise of a prey in the vice-grip of the tiger. As a grand finale he repeated the plaintive cries of a deer in the throes of death. Amplified by loudspeakers it sent a chill down my spine. In the end many eager hands went up and Tahawar was only too pleased to oblige. It was undoubtedly his day. The rapt attention and interest shown by the audience confirmed that he was also a master story-teller. Many seemed poised for a visit to the Sundarbans.

The day Tahawar Ali Khan was leaving Dhaka turned out to be a solemn one. News had filtered in of the humiliating defeat of the combined Arab forces at the hands of the Israelis. The depressive mood was writ large in people on the streets of Dhaka as they clustered around radios in silence. Jubilation had given way to collective gloom. Father and I went up to Tahawar's hotel room. He greeted us with a faint smile and a limp handshake. He was only half packed and had a crestfallen countenance. 'Khan Sahab', he told my father with a grimace, 'these bloody Arabs are no fighters, just big mouths!' There was silence. My father consoled him by quoting the famous Suhurawardy one line equation on the Arabs, a rather disparaging comment, which had cost him the ire of the Arabs in the 1950s, 'zero plus zero will always equal to zero'.

There was small talk over tea and biscuits. I was eagerly shuffling a stack of Tahawar's Sundarban pictures, quite a few of which were of dead man-eaters. Tahawar probably read my mind. With a flourish he selected some photographs, autographed them, seven in all and as a parting gesture said to me, 'These are for you, son'. I was simply too elated and thanked him profusely. 'Please come back and see us again,' I said clutching my prized possession, afraid to let go. 'I surely will,' he replied. We shook hands and he waved us off warmly at the lobby. We would never meet again. Those coveted photographs are still with me four decades later.

The writer is a member of the Bangladesh Forum for Heritage Studies.

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