Imagine the odds: You are born in Bombay, 123 years ago (in November), when the white man ruled and sneered at everything and everyone “native”. Yes, you’re lucky enough to belong to a business family with some means. Academically, you don’t fare too well and seem to prefer to spend your time popping off at birds with your air-gun and riding motorcycles. The family business does not interest you at all. And then one day you shoot a little sparrow that is different from other sparrows and take it to the Bombay Natural History Society to find out what it is. Then, everything changes. You have found your passion: birds. Thankfully, your family is tolerant enough to accept this and you are on your way. But, to be interested in birds? Only idle, sun-touched English civil servants were. And, of course, Salim Ali was: and how!
Ask modern, hip birders about him today, and many won’t have a clue. To be sure, they will have heard of him. Who hasn’t? Several will complain, with self-righteous venality, about the many things Ali ostensibly got wrong: how he missed seeing this or that species here or there, (which they spotted in their backyards), thus giving the species an incorrect range. For God’s sake, the man wandered the length and breadth of India often on a bullock cart, armed just with binoculars, not by an SUV or with GPS tracking and 600mm bazooka lenses. He had been trained in “ornithology” in Germany, but always preferred observing birds in the field than to fighting over nomenclature. “My head reels from all this nomenclatural metaphysics,” he wrote to S Dillon Ripley. “I feel strongly like retiring from ornithology and spending the rest of my days in the wilderness with birds, away from the dust and frenzy of taxonomic warfare.” Thankfully, he didn’t, and, went on to document and chart the avifauna of the subcontinent with a thoroughness that was unparalleled.
He was known to be short-tempered and didn’t gladly suffer fools. I wonder what he’d make of modern birders who confidently tell you that that little brown speck flitting about in the bushes 500 metres away (which they have spotted with one eye) is this or that warbler, when he maintained that short of doing a DNA analysis you couldn’t really be sure exactly what it was! But his HR was right up there as he inveigled many of the maharajas of yore to let him survey the bird life in their realms — and which often included hunting reserves with strict protection in place. And he seemed to realise that in order to make birds and bird-watching popular amongst the aam junta, he had to divest them of the dry, scientific gobbledygook that often accompanied them in literature.
Oh, yes, if you were interested in the “science” (“scapulars”, “primaries”, why house crows are called Corvus splendens), he provided that, too, but he combined it with a literary sparkle and peppery humor in a way no Indian scientist had ever dared to do. His powers of observation — whether of colour, form or behaviour — was unparalleled and matched only by his ability to put down the description with an accuracy that would shame our best laser-guided “smart” bombs! Even now when I’m searching for the right word to describe something I’ve seen in a bird I look him up and there it is — clearly and delightfully spelled out! This is why Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds (1979), became such a bestseller and still remains one. His magnum opus, of course, was his colossal 10-volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan (1964-1974), co-authored by S Dillon Ripley. But there is his autobiography, too: The Fall of a Sparrow (1985). And there are bird surveys of several states and a two-volume collection of his assorted writings, collated by Tara Gandhi.
Ali always maintained that he was “unsentimental” about birds and, yes, he shot them often before there were high-precision cameras and lenses, and once (when it was legal), even pinched an egg of a black-necked crane for breakfast. But he did appreciate beauty — and was obviously charmed and enchanted by his subjects. He also didn’t hesitate to act when their interests were threatened. He helped save Bharatpur (Rajasthan) and the Silent Valley (Kerala) from a fate worse than death.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but, well, I did meet him once — way back in Bombay when I was still sceptical about the bird-watching business. My only major interaction with birds at the time was photographing the seagulls that flocked to Marine Drive every winter: I was interested in the beauty of their flight rather than the birds themselves. I seem to remember, he just gently chivvied me along, his eyes twinkling humorously, his head bobbing up and down. And, no, he didn’t convert me then and there — he just encouraged me to get a pair of binoculars and use them. So, I did, and homed in on the coppersmith; a tubby green clown of a bird and everything followed from that.