June 20 marked the death anniversary of the 'Birdman of India', Dr Salim Ali (Padma Vibhushan), whose interventions in conserving wildlife were most effectively witnessed at the duck shooting preserve of the Bharatpur royals and the Silent Valley National Park, Kerala. More than anything, Dr Ali's simple, yet charming and witty descriptions of birds in his books, rendered a yeoman's service to popularising bird-watching among Indian audiences.
Sahgal (standing) with late Dr Ali and late S. Dillon Ripley. Photo: Tna Perumal/Sanctuary photo Library
I turn to Sanctuary-Asia founding editor, Bittu Sahgal's warm and visionary appreciation of Dr Ali's life to guide us in these troubled times for conservation where we have a growing army of tigerwallahs and dwindling tigers! An associate and friend of Dr Ali's, Sahgal wrote in Sanctuary-Asia: "But the old man has gone now. And instead of indulging in the sweet sorrow of mourning, those of us who loved and respected him are determined to work towards fulfilling some of his dreams, which we too came to share. To set up a national Institute of ornithology. To consolidate the gains made by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). To widen and strengthen the infrastructure in India for natural history field research. To introduce rationality into the minds of well-intentioned nature lovers. To convince India that good conservation would result in better lives for Indians." I do hope Narendra Modi and Prakash Javadekar heed these words.
Drawing from Dr Ali's life practises, Sahgal sends a message to the eager-beaver army of contemporary conservationists. "Contrary to what most people assume, Dr Ali was not an animal or bird lover. Yes, he was totally fascinated by things natural --- plants, insects and even the birds he came to be associated with. But in truth, his life was spent exploring the wonder and utter usefulness of nature without once becoming emotionally attached to the 'sanctity of life'concept that so many people still confuse with conservation. He hunted all his life, though he was scathing about some latter-day shikaris who respected neither rules, nor the animals they hunted...He realised the power of money and harnessed it whenever he could for his first love, the BNHS. But he never seemed to care much for money personally, except where it helped him repair his hideaway home at Kihim, or travel to some distant forest. Curiously enough, he seemed fascinated by the new Maruti cars and mentioned more than once that he wished he had a Maruti to drive him around! That was the limit of the materialism I was able to detect in him."
Delving on Dr Ali's vision, Sahgal writes: "Why don't these people understand?" He often used to ask when he heard of the destruction of yet another forest or grassland. And then, with a resigned look on his face, 'I suppose I've done my bit, it's now up to you younger people.' The frustrations of being eyewitness to the most destructive period in the natural history of India must have been hard, but that never stopped him from persisting in his efforts to document the diversity of the natural world. Nor did it stop him from fighting to change people's attitudes towards nature conservation. An inveterate optimist, he took strength from the fact that young people had of late become actively involved in conservation."
UNCLE SALIM LIVES ON
One of my most vivid childhood recollections of Dr Salim Ali was his erstwhile bungalow at the very tony Pali Hills, Mumbai. As Dr Ali entertained my parents with tea and birdy gossip one fine evening in 1986, we kids stole into his garden and spied next door through the boundary hedge. We had been tipped off by our mother that Dr Ali was neighbours with Dalip Kumar and Saira Bano.
At writer's Sector 7, Chandigarh, house, early 1980s: (FROM LEFT) Son of AS Sidhu, late AS Sidhu, late Man Mohan Singh, late Dr. Salim Ali, late AS Randhawa and Gurmit Singh. Photo courtesy: Gurmit Singh
Sure enough, we were able to glimpse the iconic Bollywood couple enjoying a very relaxed evening in their lawn. Dr Ali was a dear friend of my late father, S Man Mohan Singh (IAS), and would stay with us at Chandigarh and in Delhi. He took keen interest in Punjab's wildlife, explored the Rupnagar and Hoshiarpur forests, and at my father's behest got the BNHS to conduct a bird ringing project at the Harike wildlife sanctuary from 1980-'84. My father ensured that the Punjab government was very liberal with funds and facilities for the BNHS teams at Harike. Later, in his stint with the then union ministry of education (1983-'87), my father secured central grants for the BNHS. Dr Ali was patient to a fault with us kids. He would explain the natural world by first getting into sync with the child's mental level and then kindle and tease the imagination with delightful, wicked tales. Even in the years leading to his death in 1987 at the ripe old age of 91, Dr Ali had lost none of his legendary stamina. I recall one blistering June day in Chandigarh in 1981 when the 'loo' was blowing at its tempest worst. After lunch, he went for a short nap. My father, too, dived out of sight for a couple of quick snores! But Dr Ali was up at 2.30 pm, sharp in khakis and his neck adorned with that lifelong necklace of a small but powerful Japanese binoculars. He nudged me to wake up my father. Dr Ali was quick to remind my bleary-eyed father of his promise to take him to the Rupnagar wetlands. And, off they drove in the official Ambassador car, like apparitions disappearing in the shimmering horizon.