Alois: Death in the jungle
An adventurous young German (my father) described his first hunt in the jungles of India, over 100 years ago.
In the previous article in this series Alois Friedl described, in his own words, how on January 1st, 1912 a German technician and engineer arrived in India and how he encountered the city of Bombay. A few years before his death (in 1964), he had started writing an autobiography — which was never completed.
Recently we found the typed carbon copy, in barely legible condition, and my wife Ingrid spent weeks deciphering it and typing the text into a computer — and then weeks translating it into English.
Here I continue the narrative from this autobiography.
The first six months in Bombay had passed. I had quickly familiarised myself with the new tasks and already felt a bit at home. I had made friends among the local Europeans and often spent the evenings in their company. Often, however, I took the tram or a horse-drawn carriage to the suburbs of the city, to the dark, narrow streets that had repelled me so much when I first arrived. I wanted to get to know the country and its people, so I had to get out of the city centre of Bombay, which had little in common with the rest of India. It was an outpost of Europe on the Indian mainland — more than that, a piece of Europe transplanted to Asia.
This “European” Bombay, however, was limited to the modern streets in the city centre. In the outskirts, life still followed millennia-old laws and customs, hardly influenced by the spirit of the early 20th century that the English had brought with them to India. One can argue about the advantages and disadvantages of western bustle and oriental, fatalistic indifference towards earthly things; for me, this foreign, often incomprehensible life in the narrow streets, the monotonous temple chants accompanied by gongs and drums, meant a glimpse into a new, fascinating world.
But after the first six months had passed with these fleeting visits to the nearest surroundings, I was eager to go further out, to get to know the jungle and the animals that live in it. I wanted to see the India I knew from books and adventure novels.
The opportunity came through an Englishman I met who went hunting regularly. Mr. Emmery was a man in his 40s and had been living in India for almost 20 years. On the walls of his flat hung the trophies of his hunting trips: panther skins, python skins, and a whole battery of antlers. In front of his desk was a mighty tiger skin.
“Could you take me with you sometime when you go to the jungle again?” I asked him. “I’d be happy to,” he said readily. “We want to go hunting in the Ghats next weekend. You can come with us.” So early on Saturday afternoon, just after closing time, we were on the train, with a third hunting companion. In the luggage net were our sleeping bags, some provisions, a storm lantern and the rifles.
At that time, there was still a strict separation between the white and “native” compartments, in 1st and 2nd class. The three of us had a compartment to ourselves. There were no fans in those days — instead, there were panels of “cuscus” grass in front of the windows, which were kept moist by means of a built-in sprinkler system. The evaporation cooled the incoming air and created a more bearable temperature in the compartment. But it was still hot enough and, of course, this cooling had the disadvantage that you couldn’t see through the grass windows. So we had the choice of either sitting a little cooler in the dim light and foregoing looking out, or heroically sweating and enjoying the view.
Naturally, I preferred the latter option and I had my first opportunity to take in the Indian landscape. Soon after our departure, when the last foothills of the city lay behind us, a wide plain spread out on both sides of the rail tracks, terminated on the horizon by a range of hills. Large herds of shiny black water buffalo grazed in the lush greenery and were host to flocks of crows. White ibises and herons sat on the patient backs of the animals, pecking bugs out of their skins. Fields interrupted the greenery at irregular intervals. A narrow stream meandered through the cultivated land. Wooden water wheels, turned by mighty zebu oxen, pulled a chain of small, red clay jugs, squeaking upwards, emptying their water into a higher channel through which it flowed onto the sun-dried fields.
On a girder bridge we passed over a wide river bed. During the rainy season the waters from the higher parts of Deccan Plateau overflow the banks and often sweep away the poor villages with their livestock and inhabitants. Now, however, the river’s bed was a washed-out desert of boulders that ran through the country like a deep, white scar. Every now and then our train passed small stations with wooden-roofed platforms on which several dozen Indians slept, stretched out on the sand. Between them skinny dogs searched for morsels to eat.
After a journey of almost two hours, the train stopped at the first station. Neral lies at the foot of the Ghats, the range of hills that close off the Indian highlands from the Arabian Sea. The Neral platform was crowded: wide-awake Indians with mountains of boxes, bundles and jugs, moving around in a great hurry. Every man shouted instructions to his family, every woman passed them on to the children, and in every clan there was at least one baby screaming at the top of its lungs. As long as the train stopped the hullabaloo continued. Only when the engine whistled for boarding, and the train slowly started moving, did people seem to realise that they had actually come here for a ride. With incredible speed everything was stuffed into the compartments, at the very last moment.
Behind Neral, the landscape changed. The mountains, until then the background, now became the immediate surroundings, and the engine pulled the row of cars through tunnels and gorges, over hairpin bends and past gaping chasms, hissing over the ghats. We arrived in Malavli shortly before sunset. “Well, here we are again,” said Mr Emmery, pushing up the kuskus filter to look out of the window.
The platform was quite empty. Only a few passengers seemed to want to get off in this jungle region. Near the exit stood six wild-looking figures. Their almost black skin was barely covered in the middle of their bodies by a narrow scrap of cloth of indeterminate colour, their hair hung down in thick strands almost to their shoulders, and each of them held a bow and a quiver of arrows in his hand. Their eyes glided over the windows of the train, as if they were looking for something. And then one of them caught sight of us. With a shout, he drew the attention of his companions, and they rushed, howling and brandishing weapons, towards the windows from which we had stuck our heads. However, despite my fears they only wanted to greet their old friend and hunting master Emmery, who had called them to the station by telegraph.
After an extended welcoming ceremony the wild warriors loaded our sleeping bags and rifles onto their heads, and we began our march uphill, into the jungle. As Mr. Emmery explained to me, it is more convenient to spend the night already in the hunting ground, so that one can start the next morning rested, and not tired from marching.
From the railway station and through the houses of the village, a gently ascending road led to the foot of the mountain. From there, a well-trodden path went steeper uphill, past large boulders and individual trees. Gradually the vegetation became denser. Ferns, grasses and bushes joined together to form thick undergrowth on which the slanting rays of the evening sun painted red and yellow spots wherever their rays could penetrate between the crowns of the trees.
The path, initially relatively wide, became narrower and steeper as we progressed. The Katkaris, who are used to the mountains, had no difficulty with the strenuous march. Despite the burden they carried on their heads, they walked with sure steps over protruding roots and loose rubble, chatting happily in their anticipation of the hunt and the associated rupees and meat shares they would get.
Mr Emmery and I had little trouble following the Katkaris. For the third member of the group, however, climbing the mountain was quite a strain. Mr Gutteridge, also an Englishman, who ran the Bombay office of an English trading house, was the oldest among us and already quite worn out from almost 30 years in the tropics. After several bouts of malaria, he had contracted a heart defect that often left him short of breath, especially during any kind of exertion or excitement. We let him go first, so that he could set the pace. Even though his progress was slow, we could still hear his rapid, wheezing breath, and on his bald head bright beads of sweat shimmered in the glow of the descending sun.
The day was running out when we arrived at the top of the mountain, after about an hour’s strenuous march. In a small clearing stood a windowless mud hut with a palm leaf roof, towards which Mr Gutteridge strode. With a sigh, he let himself slide to the ground against the wall and closed his eyes in exhaustion.
“Can I help you?” I asked him anxiously. “No, thank you,” he replied with a weak wave of his hand. “You don’t need to worry about the shortage of air. I just need five minutes of rest and it will be fine.” And sure enough, we were still unpacking our bundles when he reappeared, fully rested and breathing normally.
It had become quite dark by now and the moon had not yet risen. Next to the hut, not far from the unlocked entrance, the porters were lighting a campfire on which tea was to be made for us. I went into the mud hut where we were going to spend the night. The raw, windowless mud walls were covered with straw, held together by dried cow dung. The floor was trampled earth, broken in places by protruding stones. And then I saw the apparition on the opposite side of the hut: larger than life, a red body with a misshapen fat head on it, and in the dancing light of the lamp a wide mouth twisted into a satanic grin.
Involuntarily I jumped back, stepping on Mr Gutteridge’s bare foot. Behind him stood Emmery, laughing loudly. “Did Nepomuk give you a fright?” he asked, wiping tears of laughter from the corners of his eyes.
“Why Nepomuk? Is that his name?” I asked, pointing with my thumb at the red stone.
“Actually, he’s called something else, of course,” Mr Emmery explained. “In case you haven’t noticed by now, this is no ordinary hut. It’s a temple, and Nepomuk is a jungle god. I’ve been trying for ten years to find out what his real name is, but every clan and tribe in the area has a different name for him. So I christened him again. For me he is Nepomuk”. Emmery stepped closer to the red figure, his lamp raised so we could take a closer look.
Nepomuk was an upright granite stone about two metres high, which by nature had the rough resemblance of a thick, armless human body with a swollen neckless head sitting on it. It had been left as it was found — only in the face had nature been helped a little, and with hammer and chisel, with which people had created rough features, and the cruel, wide mouth.
I left Nepomuk alone again for the time being and joined the other two who were already sitting by the fire with tea mugs and sandwiches. After the meal we sat for a while, smoking cigarettes, and then Mr Emmery reminded us that we had to get up early the other morning and had better go to sleep.
We spread our sleeping bags on the floor of the temple. I lay down by the door, as far away as possible from Nepomuk, or whatever the stone god might be called. Our porters prepared their resting places around the outer wall of the temple, and scraps of their conversation wafted in through the door.
“Woo-woo,” I heard from the dense foliage above the temple, and from the depths of the forest came a softer reply. Then there was a rustling in the leaves, a twig broke with a loud crack, there was a thump on the roof. Something landed with a soft fall right in front of the door. Tail up, a large monkey ran across the dimly lit square in front of the temple and a few seconds later had disappeared like a ghost into the undergrowth.
With acute senses I listened into the darkness from which the multiple sounds of life wafted to me, the soft murmurs and cracks in the branches of the trees, the calls of birds seeking a mate, to build a nest to pass on their lives, the rustling in the undergrowth caused by animals on the prowl, or fleeing from a stronger enemy, the cries of fear from creatures in the clutches of predators for whom they were food.
It was the cycle of life to which I listened; the iron law of becoming alive and passing away, of birth and death, of eating and being eaten, the only law of real eternal value to which we humans are also subject. We have found other names. We call it war when we slaughter our neighbours by the millions, to eat the bread they have sown and harvested; we call it man’s godly domination over animals when we lead a calf to slaughter and turn it into steaks and sausage. But in reality it is the law of the jungle to which we too are still subject: the rule of the strong over the weak, killing out of hunger or out of thirst for blood. That was what I was listening to that first night in the jungle.
It was still dark when we were woken up by the porters. The fire had been rekindled to a bright flame over which the tea kettle was boiling.
“Well, here we go again,” said Mr Gutteridge, standing up laborously. You could tell by the look on his face that even the short walk we now had ahead of us was not going to be very pleasant for him, and I wondered why he went into the jungle at all. We walked through the thicket in the first early morning red, rifles and water bottles slung over our sholders, cartridges strapped in belts around our bodies. We emerged from the forest after barely five minutes and came into an elongated clearing. Gutteridge breathed an audible sigh of relief. We walked through scrub and tall, sharp-edged spear grass, along the left edge of the clearing. Our Katkaris had parted from us at the beginning of the clearing and disappeared into the bush on the opposite side.
“Let me explain briefly how the hunt is going to work” Mr Emmery said to me. “We three stand on the edge of the clearing. Gutteridge takes the first third, you in the second, and I in the last. The Katkaris make a wide arc round the strip of jungle in front of us. When the last one is at his post he gives a signal, and the whole chain starts shouting, driving the game towards the clearing. We have to keep a close eye on the edge,” he pointed to the other side of the clearing, “because that’s where the game will come from.”
“What kind of animals will we get?” I asked eagerly. “Definitely wild boar,” he replied, “maybe chital too” (a deer-like, spotted game species). “Just wild boars?” I said, a little disappointed. I had hoped to shoot a panther.
Emmery shook his head. “Goodness me, do you have any idea about wild boars. Even a tiger won’t dare approach a full-grown boar. Be very careful when shooting one. If you feel unsure better let it run past you. If you don’t hit it properly, and such a fellow attacks you, you’d better say a quick Our Father.”
“One more thing,” Emmery said. “Don’t shoot any females, especially mothers”. He walked away, leaving me alone. My hands were not quite steady as I loaded cartridges into the rifle, and cocked the hammer. On the other side of the clearing, the jungle was a green wall, silent and eerie.
Ten minutes passed without anything happening. By now Emmery should have reached his place, I thought to myself, and the drivers should also have reached their positions. But another five minutes passed without anything moving. Then “hau — hau — hau”, the first call of the beaters suddenly from the thicket, and soon the whole chain took it up: “hau — hau — hau.”
Suddenly the jungle was thrown into turmoil. Parrots and monkeys shrieked, a chital barked in fright, a dense flock of colourful birds lifted from the greenery and flew like a dark cloud across the clearing into the forest behind us. Nervously, I put the safety catch of my gun on ‘fire,’ tensely I stared at the strip of forest in front of me. The screaming and screeching of animals continued, here and there I also heard twigs cracking. But nothing could be seen yet.
And then suddenly everything changed. A herd of about twenty wild boars, including white-striped young, came out at an easy trot and ran across the clearing towards the jungle behind us. I jerked the rifle to my cheek and tried to get one of the larger animals in my sights. But they were too far away and disappeared into the thicket before I could pull the trigger.
From the end of the clearing a shot rang out, then another, and then there was silence again. Only the “hau — hau — hau” of the beaters sounded from the jungle.
For a while nothing happened. Not a leaf stirred in the opposite green. The minutes of tense waiting and feverish excitement turned into an eternity. Then, suddenly, the branches in the undergrowth cracked right in front of me and a mighty, age-grey boar stepped into the clearing. For a few seconds he paused and drew his breath suspiciously. Then, when everything seemed clear to him, he trotted on, straight towards me.
“Hau — hau — hau,” the beaters kept shouting, and the old boar set off at a gallop, his short, bare tail with the shaggy tuft of hair at the tip like a flag held up in the air. Through clenched teeth I tried to suppress a nervous tremor as I aimed at the powerful head and pulled the trigger. The boar buckled, slid forward on its belly, and then slowly fell onto its side. Got it, with my first shot, I thought with joy and pride, as I stood up to take a closer look at my prostrate prey.
But in that moment I realised the great mistake I had made. The old boar was far from finished. My first shot, I later found out, had gone past his head into his left buttock, and it was only the surprise of his fall that had dazed him for a few seconds. With an evil grunt he now sat up on his rump, looking around for his adversary. When he caught sight of me he immediately started moving forward. But his rear end collapsed, and for a moment he sat on his rump in amazement. He seemed to hesitate whether to continue, but then with a sharp “woof” he threw himself forward again, continuing his attack, limping but determined.
In the excitement I had made a second gross mistake, one that has cost many a hunter his life: I had not reloaded my rifle immediately after firing. It was my good fortune that the injured animal gave me enough time to catch up. He was within five or six paces of me before I was ready to put a bullet between his shoulder blades.
The heavy bullet stopped his lumbering gait and jerked him over backwards. But once more the mortally wounded fighter pulled himself up, and once more he set about attacking. With great haste I loaded the rifle and shot the third bullet directly into one of his small, evil eyes. Close to my feet, the plump, heavy body sank to the ground, and the long, upward-curved fangs drove into the ground like curved sabres.
Having learned from experience, I loaded my rifle first, and then prodded the animal with my foot, to make sure the boar was really dead. This time I had done it. The second bullet had entered its lungs and bright red blood flowed in pearls from its open mouth. But it was the third shot through the eye into the brain that had taken its life.
In the many years that followed, I shot many more animals in the jungle, tigers, panthers, crocodiles, and snakes; but none of them rival a boar in steadfastness or fighting spirit. Like all animals, it is not aggressive towards man and will at first seek its salvation in flight, if it feels discovered or pursued. But once it is confronted and realises that evasion is useless, it will take up the fight and battle like a gladiator to the bitter end.
An elderly British officer with whom I later went hunting said to me, after a fight with an old boar in which he came within a hair’s breadth of its sharp daggers, “I would like to die like a boar one day, fighting to my last minute”.
Carefully I felt the long tusks and tried to estimate their length. He was already a respectable fellow. The long daggers were longer than my palm — and I don’t exactly have a child’s hand.
“Bibli! Bibli!” suddenly came warningly from the right side of the jungle, where Mr Gutteridge was standing. The shout of the beaters told us they had tracked down a panther. I abandoned my boar for the time being and stood on my lookout hill again. But the green wall in front of me remained silent. Two or three minutes passed without anything happening, and my tension eased again. Probably the panther had grown suspicious and had either climbed a tree or had taken refuge elsewhere.
After a while a shot rang out from Mr Gutteridge’s side, and then another. Those were the last shots fired that day. A few minutes later the Katkaris came out of the thicket and gathered together before me. Shortly afterwards Mr Emmery arrived. “Well, did you hit anything?” he asked patronisingly. I silently pointed to my boar a few paces away. Mr Emmery bent down and looked at him closely. “Congratulations,” he said and patted me on the shoulder. “I got two boars. Not as grand as that one,” he continued with a wave of his hand at my magnificent specimen, “but quite nice animals.”
He instructed four of the Katkaris, who were standing around my boar, probably already feeling the taste of crispy fried ham in their mouths, to go and get his two animals. He then sent one of the others in the opposite direction to see where Mr Gutteridge was. He had still not joined us.
“I was wondering,” I said, “why Mr Gutteridge actually goes hunting. I don’t think he particularly likes strain and exertion”.
“He should have stopped hunting a long time ago,” Mr. Emmery said to me, “first of all because of his health, and besides that he’s not a guy who tolerates outdoor life well anyway. He has been incredibly lucky so far, that nothing serious has ever happened to him. I’ve known him for nearly ten years now, and I know he wouldn’t do anything standing up that he could do lying down. But somehow hunting has taken hold of him, and he can’t get away from it. He is not a good hunter, and I always have a bad feeling when I don’t have him in sight. But he’s a wonderful friend, and kind-hearted guy. That’s why I can’t leave him out”.
The four Katkaris who had been sent to Emmery’s side came into view, carrying two middle-sized boars on poles between them. Before they reached us, a fifth came running from the other side, waving his arms, and yelling. “Come quick!” shouted Emmery to me, and ran towards Gutteridge’s position.
“Did something happen?” I asked as I ran. “I couldn’t quite hear him,” said Mr. Emmery, a little breathless from running so fast. “The Katkaris shouted ‘bibli’ (panther), and Gutteridge shot twice. He must have got a panther.”
A little later we reached the spot where we had left Mr Gutteridge. The Katkari who had led us back directed us to where he lay, hidden in the tall spear grass. Four or five paces in front of him lay a panther.
Mr Emmery held me back as I tried to walk towards it. He picked up a small stone and threw it at the animal. It landed on its flank with a hollow sound. The panther did not move.
“Just to be sure,” said Mr Emmery. He took his rifle, ready to fire, in his right hand, and walked to within six or seven paces of the panther, throwing another stone with his left directly at its head. The panther did not react this time either. He was really dead.
Only now did we turn to our companion, who was lying motionless on his side a few steps away from the animal, his rifle in his right hand. “He must have fainted from the excitement,” said Mr Emmery. “Anyway, he didn’t get a scratch”. His voice betrayed the relief he felt at not finding the secretly feared marks of a panther’s bite. For me, too, a great weight fell from my heart.
“Come on, John, wake up,” Emmery said to the motionless figure and shook him; but the stupor was apparently too deep. Gutteridge did not stir.
“Friedel, fetch the water,” Mr Emmery called to me. I picked up the water bottle which Gutteridge had placed on a large stone nearby.
The Katkari said a few words to Mr Emmery as he tried to open his friend’s mouth to administer a drink of water. He stared at the native in disbelief, and then ran his hand down Gutteridge’s half-open shirt. After a minute he slowly withdrew it and said, “He’s dead,” shaking his head. “Not a scratch on his body and yet he died.”
Later, a doctor determined that Mr Gutteridge had succumbed to a heart attack. He probably died in the excitement immediately after firing a fatal shot at the panther, from just a few paces away from the animal. His weak heart had not been able to cope with the perils of the jungle.
In the afternoon, our Katkaris carried down the casualties of my first hunt: three wild boars, a panther and a human being.
Alois Friedl biographical stories
- 1. Alois: the beginning — The adventurous life of a young boy started with his fleeing from his native village in Bavaria, Germany.
- 2. Alois: Gateway to India — How this adventurous young German technician (my father) made his way to India, 110 years ago
- 3. Alois: Death in the jungle — An adventurous young German (my father) described his first hunt in the jungles of India, over 100 years ago.
- 4. Alois: Prisoner of war — What was internship like during the first world war. Not like you might think, in British ruled India, a century ago.
- 5. Alois: Deadly poisonous snakes
How a German technician in a British prisoner-of-war camp, in 1914–18, dealt with the reptiles that abounded in India
- 6. Alois: Purdah — A description of how, in 1914, Indian traditions and mores made even a minor dental treatment of women a challenge.
- 7. Alois: The last tiger hunt
Sitting watch over a dead tiger he developed an almost personal relationship. It was like holding a wake over the body of a friend.