Roy Earnest Hawkins

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 31 No. 12, December 2011

Jim Corbett’s Editor Extraordinaire
by Bittu Sahgal

Hawk died on October 13, 1989, at the age of 82, just one day after my own birthday. Whatever else he was, he was the furthest things from the hero-image that springs to mind when one thinks of those who ‘fight’ for wildlife. But wildlife protector he was, only he used his pen and his blue pencil to turn some of the all-time wildlife greats of India, including Dr. Sálim Ali, into story tellers whose words helped shape policy and thus defend the wilderness.

Tall, thin, wiry and bent, with wispy white hair and a permanently bemused expression in his eyes, Hawkins arrived in India in 1930, after graduating from Oxford University. Almost immediately he joined the Oxford University Press and in quick time began to head it and then went on to manage its affairs for over three decades.

In more ways than one, Hawk was India’s ‘Invisible Man’ who took great happiness in making other wildlife and nature writers look good by meticulously editing their works, enhancing their impact and thus enabling their genius to shine through. I knew Hawk for just under a decade, first as an extremely charismatic, if quiet, character who I was drawn to purely because he was Jim Corbett’s editor, and then as a colleague and good friend with whom I had the pleasure of serving, for one term, on the Executive Committee of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).

Hawkins was one of India's finest editors, who spent his life protecting wild nature, believing this was the finest possible legacy to leave for tomorrow.

Photo:Bhushan Pandya

It was actually the Old Man (Dr. Sálim Ali) who first told me about Hawkins. I had gone to interview Sálim Ali for the Indian Express in the mid-1970s and met him at his beautiful old bungalow (now torn down) in Pali Hill, Mumbai. When the interview was done he said, “Since you seem to be so fascinated by Jim Corbett why don’t you go and meet Hawkins at the BNHS? He was Corbett’s editor.”

A few months later I did meet him but found Hawk to be rather uncommunicative. He was busy as all editors tend to be, and fobbed me off by suggesting I spend time in the library where “most of the answers to your questions lie.”  I never misunderstood. He was after all Corbett’s editor! It took several years of hanging around the BNHS, sharing the occasional cup of over-sweet tea, and coaxing him to walk down memory lane. So very casually Hawk would throw in nuggets of life in India during the war years, stories about an English missionary called Verrier Elwin whose love 
for tribal India probably transcended his abiding admiration and friendship with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Apart from Dr. Sálim Ali, my natural history and conservation path was shaped by interaction with people like R.E. Hawkins, R.S. Dharmakumarsinhji, J.C. Daniel and Humayun Abdulali. And when it came time for me to take the plunge and enter the world of publishing myself with Sanctuary Asia, it stood to reason that Hawk was one of my first ports of call.

 “If you have been as influenced by his (Corbett’s) books as you say you have been and want to start a wildlife magazine, go to the hills around Corbett National Park. Walk his trails.” That is what he believed it would take to infuse Sanctuary magazine with real quality. 

A man of few words, ‘Hawk’ served on the Executive Committee of the BNHS for years, a responsibility I was fortunate to share with him between 1983 and 1985. Ever hungry for more inside stories about Jim Corbett, I would often collar Hawk at Hornbill House, the headquarters of the BNHS, before or after meetings to pepper him with questions.

“How could he (Corbett) possibly know for sure that the Champawat man-eater killed 434 humans?” To which Hawk replied, “Well, he obviously never counted each one. He relied instead on information from District Collectors and official records.”

“Did Corbett inject fiction into his stories to make them more interesting?” Hawk fixed me with a stern look, “Is that a doubt, or suspicion? To the best of my knowledge, every story he told was true.”

“How could Jim recall his adventures with such accuracy, decades later?” Hawk had answered this one often, “He was not just a fine naturalist and a principled man; he also had an amazing memory. Besides he and Maggie (Jim’s sister) kept meticulous notes.”

“Did you rewrite his texts?” That one got an instant one liner, “No. He crafted his own sentences meticulously. All I ever had to do was to occasionally correct tenses and punctuation.”

Hawk was never a ‘personal’ friend of Jim Corbett’s. In fact, he only got to know him through correspondence… and, of course, through the incredible manuscripts, which the famous hunter sent him. The very first manuscript, Man-eaters of Kumaon, arrived with an endorsement by none other than Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India. Not that Corbett needed any endorsement; his first book (written when he was 69-years-old) sold 250,000 copies in the United States alone and was subsequently translated around the world.

In spite of my personal aversion to hunting, I was captivated by Jim Corbett’s stories and was deeply moved by his concern for the fate of the tiger. His warning that India could lose the tiger was resented by hunters who scoffed at him towards the end of his time in this country, in much the same way that Indian politicians scoff at us today. But Corbett’s voice was too powerful to be ignored and he managed to indelibly etch the imminent demise of the tiger on the psyche of India.

When asked: “Did Corbett inject fiction into his stories to make them more interesting?” Hawk fixed me with a stern look, “Is that a doubt, or suspicion? To the best of my knowledge, every story he told was true.”

Hawkins underscored for me the subtext of Jim Corbett’s fascinating tales – that the forests of India were the nation’s true wealth. This belief happens to be the foundation of this magazine as well. That Hawkins and Corbett were equally concerned about India’s vanishing wilds can best be gauged from the introduction he wrote to Jim Corbett’s ‘My India’ in 1978: 

A century ago, the population of India comprised 200 million men, women and children, and in the same area there are about 700 million today. It is this pressure of population that has changed the face of Jim Corbett’s India. Motor roads, with roaring buses have fragmented the forested areas, crop-protection guns were easily available in the years immediately after 1947, and the very existence of the tiger was threatened… If man saves the tiger presumably he will save himself, and by the year 2000, the continuing pressure of population will bring about prodigious changes. Water will be so valuable that chains of lakes and canals will radiate from the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, the headwaters and catchment areas will be protected by forests, and maybe these forests will be protected so strictly that they will teem with game as in Jim Corbett’s boyhood.

Few people know that he was equally fascinated with Lenin as he was with Gandhi, but of course Hawkins spent his life protecting wild nature, believing this was the finest possible legacy to leave for tomorrow. Before he died, he imbued some of us with the mission that had guided his life. But things are different now. While Hawkins was alive, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ensured that the political system backed the tiger. The Prime Minister’s Office today works directly against the tiger and in recent months it has punched gaping holes in the legal armour that once protected our wildlife in an effort to ‘gift’ millions of hectares of forests to whosoever successfully claims tenancy on such lands. Even as conservationists prepare to petition the Supreme Court of India to challenge the constitutional validity of the new ‘Forest Rights Act, 2006’ Hawkins’ hope that in the future, “forests will be protected so strictly that they will teem with game as in Jim Corbett’s boyhood” seems like a distant dream.


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