ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 01, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 53

The magnificent catwalk

Reviewed by Carl Muller

It takes a man of the wilderness bent, to revel in the sights and sounds of nature and of the way it raised a wealth of life that we, naked apes, have found it uneasy to relate to. That we have to share this world with all other forms of life is something many find hard to accept; and down the centuries we have sought to eliminate thousands of species, heedless of the fact that there lies positioned a "chain of command' and a global chain of interdependent life.

Sir Christopher Ondaatje, this is the only paragraph in this review in which I shall "Sir" him, is not only a magnificent writer but also a storyteller who holds a fascination for the "big cats" – what with our own leopard that Christopher is, shall I say, over-familiar with.

As Dr. John Hemming, historian, explorer, and former Director of the Royal Geographical Society has said: "Surely this is the only anthology of leopard stories ever produced.... an absolute triumph!" This compilation carries four "cat stories" by Christopher, and as for the rest, he has chosen well. There is Anna Kavan, Jim Corbett, Sir Samuel Baker, Henry Storey, Honore de Balzac, Kenneth Anderson and Carl E. Akeley.

Dr. Rita Gardner, CBE, Director, Royal Geographic Society: "Leopards have fascinated Christopher for most of his life since he saw his first cat in the Yala Game Sanctuary in Ceylon in 1946. Like Richard Burton, he too has an insatiable restlessness and a quixotic, sometimes unfathomable, character akin to his beloved leopards... wild life enthusiasts and hesitant explorers alike will find this an intriguing read. What an adventure! What an experience!"

Christopher on Christopher. [launching into his first story of the Glenthorne Cat]: "All my life I have felt that the wilderness of this world is never that far away. From the freedom of my early childhood in Ceylon to the stuffy boardrooms of the Canadian business world, I have sensed the nearness of the wild in nature and in people too... (and)... I have been able set out to reach it... I grew up in the Exmoor countryside around Glenthorne. This is Lorna Doone country (and) of all the Exmoor superstitions, the most famous, feared and ridiculed is the Beast of Exmoor..."

And so the story begins - the encounter with the old Revd. Halliday, whether ghost or astral being, and the story of his nephew who secretly married a girl of an aristocratic Kandyan family, on the Glencairn estate of Bogawantalawa. The girl feared that she would turn into a big cat if sexually aroused, for her ancestors had originally been conceived of cats.

Bringing her to Exmoor did not solve anything, but one late evening the couple made passionate love. She wanted him as much as he wanted her and he had waited long to have her. Was it an orgiastic danse macabre? Quivering as they spent, she screamed and ran out into the night and was never seen again. But had she left claw and pugmarks around the house? Was she the Glenthorne cat? There were territorial claw marks on trees that lined the path to Glenthorne. The girl from Bogawantalawa was never seen again but a large black cat roams Exmoor - not one but others too. Had the girl found her true mate?

Every story in this book is as wild as the heroin-addicted Anna Kavan's "sleeping partner" - a wild leopard that came to her room at night to sniff at her, then lie down beside her, large, handsome, velvet-pawed, filling her with his natural odour of sunshine, freedom, moon and crunched leaves.

Jim Corbett was one of the favourite "Jungle Jims" of my boyhood. I remember how Christine Spittel Wilson recalled meeting him on a voyage to England. She was a young girl then. Jim's story of the "Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag" takes me into familiar territory for, over 20 years ago, when in India, I visited Kadarnath and understood what the people told me of the mighty meeting of waters - the Mandakini and the Alaknanda - to form the Ganges.

The hunting of the man-eater is given in robust detail and sadly enough, it had to be an old, yet wise leopard, grey at the muzzle, no whiskers around its mouth, who killed because it had to eat, to live.

Christopher gives us a chapter from Sir Samuel Baker's Eight Years Wanderings in Ceylon. I need hardly dwell on this because Baker's story of his agricultural endeavours in Nuwara Eliya are well known - as well known as the antics of his drunken farm supervisor. Baker tells of leopards in Ceylon and of an estate boy who had died of cold and starvation and was buried.... but leopards had dug him out of his grave and devoured him.

"The Kantali Leopard" by Henry Storey is found in W.T. Keble's Ceylon Beaten Track - one of Christopher's favourite books. The story of firing a single-barrel rifle at a leopard cub that scampered away unhurt, brought out the Kantalai leopard, bent on punishing those who dared try to kill her cub. The attack was launched on Storey and an old Kapurala who accompanied him. The leopard was killed, but not before it had severely mauled both men.

I will not dwell on Christopher's next story, "The Man-Eater of Punani”, but suffice to remind that his was a safari into the deadly heartland of the Tamil Tigers and guerrilla-infested jungle, walking the way of "Kuveni" the leopard who had haunted his boyhood, who had killed at least twenty villagers in Punani, to listen to an old man's story.

The old man wore a divi niya-pota - two leopard claws for protection. Oh yes, he had seen Kuveni. She was no leopard but the queen of the Yakkas, who had seduced Vijaya. But she was a witch and could transform herself into a big cat, and she laid on the unfaithful Vijaya a divi dos - a curse on all his race. We can still see the stuffed carcass of this man-eater in the Colombo Museum.

Balzac's "A Passion in the Desert" gives us a startling story of a French soldier who sought shelter from the scorch of the Egyptian desert by creeping into a damp cool cave, only to find it the den of a panther, and he male, and she female, fell in love with each other. He even called her Mignonne, and they played with each other until the day he unwittingly hurt her and, as he says: "... a glance, a word, an exclamation is all sufficient... I don't know how I could have hurt her. But she suddenly turned on me in a fury, seizing my thigh with her sharp teeth...”

" "Black leopards," as Christopher says, "have been seen and shot in the jungles of… the Kerala region and also in the Sinharaja rainforest of Sri Lanka. In his "The Riddle of Lewa Downs" he tells of the black leopard on the northern foothills of Mount Kenya. An intriguing story to be sure, for the Masai Taraiyo wanted most of all that the beast be killed. For Christopher, it was good luck to get film footage of the animal, but to Taraiyo it was necessary that the leopard who roamed Cave Hill be shot. "It is evil and should be killed. If you do not kill it and use the oil from the body to rub on the children, then they will be sick... Darkness has ears and you will soon understand that he who has a sharp mouth conquers the world."

This is the beauty of this book. There is so much Christopher tells us. It may be, to those who race through it, a sort of "catwalk" of magnificent beasts, but there is also a mingling of cultures, religions, esoteric beliefs, attitudes and yes, even magic!

We have the story of his three-month journey when he traced the footsteps of Victorian explorers, Burton and Speck who had tried to discover the source of the Nile. His own exploration put him in the midst of rebel invasions out of the Congo, causing chaos in Uganda and he reports, as he moved through Kasese, gruesome scenes of carnage with thousands slaughtered. It was at Semlike that he saw the young female leopard. Did the animal save him from certain death at the hands of gun-toting rebels? All he says is that as voices grew louder, nearer, the leopard snarled, and the men ran away.

Kenneth Anderson's novels are freely available in our bookshops. Both "The Black Panther of Sivanipalli" and "The Man-Eating Panther of the Yellagiri Hills" are found among many collections of his stories. I found both in a collection titled The Black Panther of Sivaipalli as well as in Jungles Long Ago. Christopher’s selection gives us many lessons in jungle lore.

Finally, we have "The Wounded Leopard" by Carl E. Akeley who tells us that a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish, as Akeley found out. He got the best out of this close-quarters fight by thrusting his hand down the leopard's throat!

Yes, this is a humdinger of a book and Christopher has put himself wholly into it for one immediately sees the great love and respect he has for these big cats. To him they represent the finest of that natural creative spirit that raised all life on earth; and the process -call it evolution - still goes on while we, in our stupidity, wish to make this natural magnificence a thing to be wiped out to please our own ideas of superiority. Somewhere in the Biblical Paradise we are told of the lion who will lie down with the lamb. That has been construed in many ways by idiot preachers who feel that any reference to a lamb means the lamb of God, the Christ, while Christ himself called us all the lambs of his flock. What it should mean is that the living together of all life in the great harmony of nature is that life will go on and where only food chains exist that will keep survival at its peak not to be wiped out by crass man.

Congratulations, Christopher. You have reminded us that in relation to the lordly big cats, we remain nothing but the scum of creation.

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