The other day I read that they named a Himalayan thrush after Dr. Salim Ali, the ‘Bird Man of India.’ The better part of my childhood was spent cultivating a happy interest in birding. The interest still lingers, but it has been long since it has greeted the break of dawn and the flutter of the early risers. I remember one of the nature camps I attended when I was about eight. One of the introductory activities was talking about a topic you were assigned. My piece of paper had said, ‘Salim Ali,’ and I had been all ready – speaking not only about his contribution to birding, but cool stray facts, like his love for motorcycles.
Salim Ali is a name that even the most amateur Indian bird-watchers have heard of. It is the name on the book most of us lug around on our weekend expeditions, tucked away between a bottle of water and a pair of binoculars. And with the name goes a skeleton of a creation-story – of a little boy who shot a sparrow, only to discover on closer inspection that it was not the usual sparrow at all. It had a yellow throat. The first spark of curiosity stoked a fire of passion within that boy who would grow up to be India’s greatest ornithologist. This book is about that first sparrow and the ordinary boy from Bombay who carved himself an extraordinary life. The Fall of a Sparrow is Dr. Ali’s autobiography.
There is much to be said about Ali’s rigorous effort, his attention to detail, his broad goals and the impeccable vision that made him bring leaping reform to the way birds were studied in India. The perfect demonstration of his skill and dedication comes through in how he organized and carried out the Hyderabad State Ornithological Survey. It is impossible to mention all his work in one review, but suffice to say, it leaves you awed and inspired.
An India Today review calls it “a story of the evolution of a bird hunter into a bird watcher.” That implies some sort of redemption which is far from the truth. One of the crucial aspects of this book is his unique perspective on conservation. Ali condemned the encouraging ‘ahinsa’ approach to wildlife conservation, which he considered akin to protesting the slaughter of the holy cow. Appealing to the religious sentiment in the effort to conservation was to him misguided and futile. He was not religious or spiritual. His love for animals was not of a sentimental variety, rather scientific and aesthetic.
Towards the end of the book is an interesting chapter titled Scientific Ornithology and Shikar. Ali’s life work involved him killing and stuffing hundreds and thousands of bird “specimens” with innovative entrapments that he describes in the book. His methods of bird-study may seem cruel to a modern reader but they paved the way for decades of ground-breaking research in ornithology. Had it not been for his methodical study, we would not have had the knowledge we use for conservation today.
But more than that, ever since he was a child, Salim Ali loved hunting as a sport. The yellow-throated sparrow he shot was one among many of his sport killings. He was a frequent big game hunter and a sworn meat-eater. In the epilogue, Ali lists the differences between a sport hunter and a poacher. The etiquette of a sportsman, he says, prescribes:
1. no shooting in the breeding season
2. sparing the young and females
3. keeping within the bag limits
4. no shooting at night with blinding lights
5. no shooting at waterholes
These methods are employed by poachers for illegal activities. Ali goes even so far as to state that the presence of a legitimate professional shooter is the most effective deterrent to the poacher, and criticizes the statutory ban on all hunting. An excellent perspective, but I doubt it is always as simple to draw a line between the two. Now, all this says nothing about his merit as a scientist, but the fact that he would enjoy killing helpless creatures while ignoring what he admits was the prick of conscience, is somewhat unsettling.
One surprising thing I learnt from the book is that Salim Ali was not a kind man, not in the conventional sense. The age old saying goes, you can judge a man by how he treats animals or servants. Salim Ali performs poorly on both counts. Example 1: He once got a servant harshly beaten for alerting him not to take pictures of a religious establishment. Example 2: On a trek in the Himalayas, Ali came across a lost pilgrim family. When they asked Ali for help, he refused, with what was some truly derisive humour, because they should have known better what they were getting into. Example 3: Ali mentions a stray dog who would sneak into his house and mess up his field notes, till Ali shot him dead, “with no regret whatsoever.”
Mean old man, that would be my verdict, if I didn’t know who I was talking about. But you or me judging him for things like these, in the wide picture, does not amount to much. If not a nice one, he did seem to have a big personality. Most of this book is interactions with people he made acquaintance with over the years. And what a large social circle he had, in spite of that mean streak. (I am not flinging accusations. An article by his grandson calls him ill-tempered. And one by a younger colleague narrates that even in company if he got bored of a topic, he would simply take out his hearing aid.)
He did not let politics affect his relations with either his Indian friends or the English. British India from his perspective is fascinating. He talks about Sarojini Naidu’s sense of humour and how she would refer to Gandhiji as Mickey Mouse, which he accepted as a compliment “with lighthearted toothless gaiety.” A whole chapter is dedicated to his favourite brother who was a District Magistrate. And another to Loke Wan Tho, a Singaporean businessman-turned-ornithologist who might well be the most interesting person in the book. Ali proudly mentions how Nehru gifted his book to Indira Gandhi, who recommended it to a US Senator, who then nominated Ali for an award that is like the Nobel prize for ornithologists. Needless to say, he won it. He talks about his achievements with an almost surprised pride, which makes him sound astonishingly humble.
Even as I write this review, I am reminded of a quote I keep quoting from The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, about how writers can be wholly different from their books. This is not exactly the same, but even so, it is a case of discovering what your childhood hero was really like, stacking achievements alongside failings, and loving him for all of them. A crazy, beautiful read – is how I would sum it up. The Fall of a Sparrow has been on my wishlist for a long while and it was entirely worth my time.