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Still in the shadow of Corbett

Still in the shadow of Corbett
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Nainital, the famous hill resort of Kumaon lies overlooking the Lake Naini, which without a doubt is the bejeweled crown of the place. Stretching for...

Gurney House, located in Nainital, the residence of hunter-conservationist and writer Jim Corbett, is now a private property; but informal tours can be arranged by contacting the caretaker

Nainital, the famous hill resort of Kumaon lies overlooking the Lake Naini, which without a doubt is the bejeweled crown of the place. Stretching for miles from north to south, it is surrounded by seven hills and makes for a picture perfect postcard. A number of hotels and resorts are located around the lake and provide gorgeous views of the lake.

Located minutes away from the Naini Lake, is the little known Gurney House which was once the residence of legendary hunter-conservationist and writer Jim Corbett. Being a big fan of Jim Corbett and his writings, I jumped at the opportunity of visiting his home where he grew up, the moment I heard of the place. I wanted to see the home he has written about so lovingly in his books.

Gurney House, a charming colonial cottage in the upper reaches of Nainital was built in 1881 by Mary Jane, mother of Jim Corbett. Jim’s father, a postmaster in Nainital, died when Jim Corbett was four. It fell to Corbett’s mother to raise and educate her eight children on a widow’s meager pension. His mother, Corbett recalled, “Had the courage of Joan of Arc and Nurse Clavell combined”.

After the death of his mother in 1924, Maggie (Jim’s sister) and Jim were constant companions to each other and both chose not to marry. Jim Corbett lived in Gurney House for the greater part of his life with the last of his large family, sister Maggie and Robin, his pet dog and companion of many hunting expeditions.

Later in 1947, after Jim Corbett and his family moved to Kenya, the house was sold to Kalavati Varma, wife of Barrister Sharda Prasad Varma. A set of four letters, typed and hand-written, all written in the October of 1947, document the sale of Jim Corbett's Nainital home.

These letters were written by Corbett to Sharda Prasad Varma; the two men were negotiating the sale of the house on behalf of the two women in their lives - Corbett's sister Maggie, who owned the house and Varma's wife, Kalavati, who was the buyer. Having sealed the deal for Rs 55,000, which included leaving behind most of his belongings, Corbett wondered in the last letter whether "it would be too much to ask" if he could keep the carpet since he was not sure of being able to get one in Kenya.

Varma graciously agreed. Its little-known facts like these about the famous hunter-conservationist that one encounters on a visit to Gurney House. I visited Gurney House on a rainy day at the onset of winter. It was still drizzling, but the caretaker Ganesh Joshi was all smiles as he took me around the property, which looks like a unique private museum showcasing the life and times of Jim Corbett and his sister Maggi Corbett.

This house has a different feel from the Jim Corbett Museum at Kaladhungi, just 37 km downhill from Gurney House. It is not as huge as Corbett’s Kaladhungi home, but the natural surroundings and the ambience were really amazing.

The caretaker pointed to Aalu bel, a wild climber which has been growing on the boundary wall of the house, since the times the Corbett family lived here. “This flower was a favorite of Maggi Memsaab” Ganesh’s elderly mother reveals with a toothless smile, juggling old memories.

The house takes one back to the British India times as it retains its colonial character and original old-world charm. The main building with covered verandah has not changed one bit and standing there can still be very nostalgic for Corbett lovers (like me) as one recalls many small incidents described in his writing related to this house.

A must visit; Gurney House is a kind of living shrine for Corbett lovers. The current owners of the house, the Dalmia family have thankfully chosen to preserve the place as Corbett left it. All of Corbett’s furniture and possessions including the bed, couch, chair, hunting trophies, some photos, all are kept here as they once were and the place has a distinct lived-in feel even today.

It was extremely heartening to see that instead of converting Gurney House into a fancy modern cottage in the name of restoration, or selling it off to the real estate sharks, like most of the other owners in the area have done, the Dalmia family, in rightful reverence to Jim Corbett has managed to retain the very essence and character of the place.

That itself can be coined as perhaps their biggest tribute to the legendary man. To add to their commitment to it, for the last few years they have also been celebrating Corbett's birthday at Gurney House as a literary event. It started in 2008 when actor Tom Alter visited Gurney House and read from Corbett's books.

If you have grown up on Corbett's narratives of the man-eating tigers and leopards of Kumaon, just don’t miss dropping by at Gurney House if you happen to be in Nainital or anywhere nearby. Though it is now a private property, informal tours can be arranged by contacting the caretaker via phone with previous intimation.

Being at the place is sure to revoke nostalgic memories for avid readers of Corbett, one can still see the trophies he collected and almost imagine Corbett, his sister Maggie and Corbett’s’ pet dog Robin roaming around in the premises of the place.

Location: in upper part of Nainital. Gurney House is a 3 km (twenty minute) walk up the hillside from The Naini Retreat in Mallital, up the Aryapatta slopes.

Nearest Rail head: Haldwani (30 Km)
Accommodation: Nainital boats of hotels catering to all pockets
Note: Call the caretaker Ganesh Joshi on +91 9927738239 to schedule a visit. Entry is free.
Timing: 8 am to 5 pm all days of the week. Most of the local taxi drivers might not know about the place, so be very clear about the directions.

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