Saturday, December 24, 2011

Lives well Lived

What do Colonel Jim Corbett and Lord Baden Powell have in common apart from the fact that they lived adventurous lives and died in their early 80s? As I discovered recently, both made Kenya their resting place and, in fact, lie buried and rest in peace at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the precincts of St. Peter’s Anglican Church at Nyeri. Wangari Maathai’s home-town, Nyeri, in Central Highlands sits pretty at the foothills - sandwiched between Aberdare Ranges and Mount Kenya. It is one of the most fertile regions in Kenya replete with wheat, tea and coffee crops. It is the magic of countryside such as this that drew the Brits here; as early settlers they made this land their home bequeathing it the title of “White Highlands”.

Jim Corbett, the hunter-naturalist of Indian junglelore left India, the country of his birth, after India’s Independence in 1947 and trained his sights on Kenya, another British colony. The alpha biodiversity  of the adjacent volcanic mountain-forests of Aberdare lured him and he settled in Nyeri in his last decades. It is in this milieu that Edward James “Jim” Corbett wrote ‘Man-eaters of Kumaon’ and other books on India almost as though he wanted to relive his nostalgia for India (a catharsis akin to Karen Blixen’s who wrote ‘Out of Africa’ after leaving Kenya never to return). His last book, ‘Tree Tops’ was based in Kenya, in Aberdare, to be precise. He died of heart attack and was buried at the aforementioned cemetery. Jim Corbett remained a bachelor and stayed with his unmarried sister, Maggie, in a cottage in Nyeri which belonged to Lord Baden Powell.


Lord Robert Baden Powell, the founder of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides Movement, fell in love with “wonderful views over the plains to the bold snow peak of Mount Kenya” and spent six retirement years in a cottage in Nyeri with his wife, which is now a museum. Bizarrely named Paxtu (Pax 2, after the hotel management lingo for two persons, our guide informs us, after all the cottage is in the precincts of old Outspan Hotel), the cottage revealed a lesser-known facet of this giant of a man. The pencil sketches and water-colour postcards of places he visited around the world and sent as seasons' greetings and letters to friends and family revealed an artist par excellence. It is not my endeavour to sketch the life history of Baden Powell here and it would not even be easy to compress a rich and eventful life as his into few soundbytes, but wandering around in his cottage overlooking Mount Kenya, standing at his grave and reading his last message was a life-changing moment for me, as I am sure, inspiring for my son. His simple message which was at the heart of his world-famous movement ran thus: “Happiness does not come from being rich, nor merely from being successful in your career, nor by self-indulgence. One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong while you are a boy so that you can be useful and you can enjoy life when you are a man…But the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people.”

Unlike Jim Corbett, Baden Powell did marry albeit late in life; his wife, Olave, was younger than him by 32 years and was the World Chief Guide. Her ashes too are interred at the same grave as his. The cemetery is run down with weeds and overgrown grass, unlike other CWG cemeteries with their well-trimmed lawns and herb beds. The scouts organization do not have enough funds to maintain it, but the grave is by no means neglected. The scouts and guides tend to it with much love and affection. Our charming guide, Ema, also a girl guide and an instructor, takes us around. She says of her Guru: “It was his desire to be buried facing Mount Kenya.” As I lift my gaze from Baden Powell’s grave and turn around, I see the majestic Mount Kenya, its snow peak glinting in the sun. And I can see how this man who lived by his unshakeable vision saw his death-wish fulfilled too. We visit the lives of famous and successful people reading about their work or their writings, but this once as I stand at the graves of these two men, I see their lives and purpose in a light like never before.  

Baden Powell died in 1941; Jim Corbett arrived in Kenya in 1947. Their paths did not meet. But they chose to retire to the same town, stayed in the same cottage and rest in the same graveyard. I could imagine the two raising a toast over a drink to their eventful time in Kenya’s most beautiful countryside I had the privilege of visiting.  


  1. Padmaja,
    It was a different write-up all together on Kenya coulpled with excellent photographs. The last photo of Mount Kenya is "EXCELLENT"

    Wish all the best.....!!!
    D V Jachak

  2. Dearest Rafiki,
    There is certainly something enchanting about Kenya. The more I read about it the more I want to be there. One day. Ever since I laid hands on the Hemingway masterpiece, "The Snows of ...", I have had this innate desire of sorts creeping up my spine even in those student days while I read the book, lying on the bed in a room that housed two other serious minded students who religiously read the prescribed texts. But then it was all pushed to the back of my mind as I got carried away in a myriad of things called the daily grind. But reading the stuff on your blog and looking at those beautiful pictures has re-kindled by dousing that preexisting desire with the life fuel and back into a fire of burning desire in flames all ablaze. Thanks dear and if good fortune must be on my side I shall soon make the journey immemorial.
    Best Wishes for the New Year...

    You know who this is.

    Just an Abheet and always wished to be an Ajeet.
    Ajeet Hain! Abheet Hain!

  3. Loved your write up... thanks for showing me Jim Corbett's resting place.

  4. Jim Corbett was a giant of a man. Capable, kind, generous, brave and devoted to India and the Indian people. I am sorry he did not remain in NainiTal where he was loved by all. It makes no difference where he is since the hearts and thoughts of many are on him where he lived, and hunted, preserved, wrote and died. A true man among men.

    My fond and earnest regards,
    Jeanne Aimee Pascal

  5. Thanks for the sharing your thoughts on the two luminaries, and for the photographs! The late Jim Corbett is my idol, and any facts pertaining to his life in Nyeri, are bound to make interesting reading.


  6. A most evocative,well written piece, with a wonderful flow and narrative style.