Book Review: The Last White Hunter, Reminiscences of a Colonial Shikari

The Last White Hunter, Reminiscences of a Colonial Shikari

By Donald Anderson, as told to Joshua Mathew
265 pp.

Indus Source Books
PO Box 6194
Malabar Hill PO
Mumbai 400 006

Readers who are interested in the wildlife history of India, and in particular, of the Melagiri and Bannerghatta forests near Bangalore, will be familiar with the name of Kenneth Anderson, a “shikari” (hunter) of the old school. The series of books that he wrote, on his various wildlife encounters, were very popular reading at one time.

His son, Donald Anderson, was brought up in the same tradition as his father, and grew up to be a hunter. But he differed from his father in two important respects: Kenneth Anderson, even in those days, slowly turned from hunting to conservation, and was also a widely celebrated author. Donald, by his own admission in this book, says that he could not hold the interest of a reader.

But since Joshua Mathew found that the life of Donald Anderson (with the line of Scotsmen dying with him when he passed away in 2014) was interesting enough for him to write this book, giving a voice and a narrative to Donald.

This task was no easy one. As Joshua recounts at the end of the book, Donald had become a recluse, not wanting to meet anyone; or he would agree to meet them only if they would take him on a “hunt” (or at least, to the locations where he used to hunt.) A parsimonious nature and a spendthrift tendency combined to make Donald perpetually hard up, depending on others’ help and scorning it at the same time.

Joshua got past these defences and allowed Donald to talk about his life. He also sifted through unimaginable amounts of pack-rat junk to sort out photographsand other material that he could use for the book.

This biography is not a linear book; Depending on what is being talked about,the book jumps backward and forward over the span of Donald’s life, However, the narrative is always clear, and as one moves through the pages, one learns of Donald’s life and times…his education, the places he stayed in, his family, friends, his own leanings and beliefs (or lack of them), his great love for the outdoors, the jungles, and for shikar.

It is not easy to adopt the voice of another person (especially one whose views one may not share) but Joshua does this with remarkable felicity. There is an absolute lack of a judgemental attitude throughout the book. When Donald himself repents something, that is conveyed; but there is no moralistic tone adopted about Donald’s actions, whether it is his extensive hunting, or his varied love life.

The book is like a bamboo basket; various incidents and interludes are woven together loosely, without the need to make a close-knit whole. In this way, a reader can dip into the book at odd points, and not have to “follow the narrative” as one would have to do with conventional books.

The language of the book is lucid and simple. Very often,Joshua uses Donald’s own words;at other times, words are carefully chosen so that the writer’s thoughts and opinions do not colour the character’s, in the narration. At the same time, descriptions of jungles, of the homes that Donald lived and grew up in, are detailed and extremely interesting. it takes one back to days when the culture, the mores and the lifestyles of those in Bangalore were very different from those of today.

And the differences are striking indeed. “There was no concept of traffic”, says Donald, and adds that he could travere across the length and breadth of what is today’s Bangalore, travel up to Ramnagara or to other parts of Bannerghatta. The life of the white (and “Anglo-Indian” _communities were very different from the Indian communities made up on the people who served them. Indeed, the book underscores a fact that holds true even today; there are two discrete Bangalores; the one of the Cantonment area, and the one of the traditional Kannadigas, and they rarely touch each other. Dances, drinking parties, convent schools and excursions..these constitute a life far different from that of the Kannadiga communities.

The incidents and anecdotes are neatly docketed into eight chapters, and they make very interesting reading. As a person who lived in the Cantonment area (Convent Road in Richmond Town) before moving to Kannadiga Bangalore, and seen the city transform from a sleepy, leisurely hamlet to today’s frenetic, groaning-at-the-seams metropolis, I can relate to a lot of things and places that Joshua mentions, in Donald’s voice. The amazing thing is that some of these places, and customs are there, in that part of Bangalore, even today.

Remarkable though Joshua’s achievement is, I do have apprehensions that the times, and values, that are described in Donald’s voice, have completely passed away, and there exist, now, at least two generations who think very differently. Since our wildlife is now decimated, today’s values make it a crime to hunt our wild creatures; and a resurgence of prudish Victorian morality would make several readers click their tongues over the accounts of Donald’s prolific romatic encounters, which were all short-termed, by his own admission.We certainly seem to be less tolerant of what we perceive to be aberrations, today, and an account of how to skin and animal and stuff it, I am afraid, will not be very popular with the majority of today’s reading public.

But if one is willing to look into history without being judgemental, and read details about how life was lived in this city in the days around the time of Indian Independence, both in terms of wildlife and lifestyles, then this book would be a great read….which is what I found it to be. I salute Joshua Mathew on a job very well done; it is Donald Anderson, and Donald alone, who speaks from the book. It is only at the end that we hear Joshua’s voice, and even then, he sets down the quirks of the shikari’s personality, warts and all, allowing us to see the man as he was..a product of his times, with unique talents….a person who was true to himself, and did not whitewash his own shortcomings. On another level, anyone interested in how the wildlife scenario was in Bangalore and its environs, nearly a century ago, would find this both a fascinating (seeing the abundance of wildlife) and depressing (seeing the hunting/shooting culture) read…but a compelling one in any case.

A good job well done, Joshua..and I wish you would reconsider your decision to make this your last book!

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