Even among legends, few attain timeless stardom. For bird watchers in the Indian subcontinent, Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali (12 November 1896 – 20 June 1987) remains an evergreen presence in daily life. Generations after generations have carried Ali’s ‘The Book of India Birds’ along with a pair of binoculars to enjoy the avian world. First published in 1941, the landmark book on Indian ornithology is now running 13 editions strong and remains popular amongst other bird guides or mobile applications. Imagine, for six long decades, this book was the only go-to field guide for naturalists before other bird guides entered the market in the mid-90s.
What was the grand old man of ornithology like as a person? Apart from his autobiography and later writings by Tara Gandhi one of his last students, there isn’t much popular literature around for the new generation. In this space, Zai Whitaker’s The Bird Man of India, Salim Ali for Children is a wonderful introduction. Not just children even for anyone remotely interested in birds and natural history. And there is no better person to narrate than Zai Whitaker, Salim Ali’s grand-niece. Zai, a distinguished name in the wildlife conservation circles is a true wordsmith.
Her storytelling is captivating and most likely you will finish this book in a single sitting. She introduces her trigger-happy grand-uncle as Salim Bhai. How as a nine-year-old he got interested in birds by shooting down sparrows which came in to roost. And the tale of the yellow-throated sparrow (now known as the Chestnut-shouldered Petronia) which changed his life.
In an era when there were no telephones, computers, or internet Salim Bhai’s adventures from every possible landscape across the country – from the high mountains, and deserts to tiger-infested forest will keep you engrossed. When not in the jungles for field work, the birdman was constantly working at home in Bombay.
Zai writes, “Of course, we had to put up with the noise of his typewriter at five in the morning. Clack, clack, clack. There were no computers then. He typed most of his books himself.” Salim Bhai’s life was not a straightforward one. There were struggles at every corner but he was also extremely lucky to find support for his field surveys from princely states. The first to extend monetary help was the Nizam of Hyderabad – a sum of three thousand rupees for three months.
In his formative years, Ali tried his hand at business with cousins in Burma before returning unsuccessfully to Bombay and devoting his life to recording natural history. We get some fabulous insights from Zai on how tough his life was in the initial days. Salim Bhai had an arranged marriage and was lucky he found a wife who loved the wilderness as much as him. Tehmina accompanied Salim Bhai in the bird surveys and was his camping partner for two decades until her untimely tragic death in 1939.
There is a small story in every spread. Zai expertly narrates the life and times of Salim Bhai, - the people and institutions who shaped his illustrious career. People like Loke Wan Tho, Colonel Richard Meinertzhangen and S.D Ripley. And least to mention, the role of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).
There is a chapter on Kerala, Salim Bhai’s favourite state when it comes to birds and the rich biodiversity of the state intrigued him. He frequented Kerala for some survey or the other but was dismayed by the rapid destruction of natural forests after Independence.
The conservationist in Zai comes out at the end of the book where she writes, “In my opinion, the most powerful part of Salim Bhai’s legacy is the true meaning of conservation in the Indian, or indeed any context. He was against the ‘sentimental brigade’, who equate conservation with animal welfare and protection rather than a rational and empirical science.” She ends with the important ecological role birds play in running our natural ecosystem and how our greed for more development is not just harming birds or wildlife but us as well.
Don’t miss this fabulous read. It will inspire you to look at nature in a more meaningful way.
Check it out on Amazon.
Ananda Banerjee is an award-winning writer, environmentalist and artist