Ye tota ek din zaroor kuch karega,” Rajat Bhargava fondly recounts these affable words from a school friend even today. His classmates called him ‘tota’ — some because they were fascinated by his fierce passion for birds and others because they found him plain weird. But even as a child, this man, synonymous with birds, was too absorbed in his bird world to realise that he was markedly different from the people around him.
In Bhargava’s conservative and affluent Brahmin family from Meerut, a career related to birds was unheard of. But it was all destined. “The story really begins from the backyard of my childhood home in the cantonment area. Those were the days before the 1989 government ban on trade of wild birds was imposed. A small group of Baheliyas (an indigenous tribe of bird trappers and exporters) used to reside in this backyard and I was mesmerised by their lives which revolved around catching birds, tending to them in captivity and trading them,” Bhargava remembers. He continues, “I wanted to live their life without really knowing why. When I was in Class 2, I started keeping birds By the time I was in Class 5, I had around 45 birds housed on my terrace. To the amazement of my classmates and teachers, I hosted a live bird exhibition in school.”
The manner in which young Bhargava built and maintained his bird collection is a tale in itself. “At that time birds used to cost anywhere between 50 paisa and a couple of rupees and bird seed used to cost R3 per kilogram. I could never ask my parents to fund my passion simply because they could never understand why birds could be so important to anybody. The fact that I was not in the habit of receiving pocket money made things more difficult. But I surmounted this challenge with a clever strategy. Sometimes on Wednesdays, I along with my brother and sister used to go to my father’s club and spend the money he gave us on treats. However, I would not buy anything for myself and get bird seeds istead. So, on each Wednesday, our treat day, I would go to sleep hungry as there would be no dinner at home since it was assumed that we would have eaten at the club. However, my grandmother knew my secret and she would wake me up secretly at 4 am with a cup of Horlicks, rusk and suji (semolina) biscuits,” says Bhargava. And that was not all. “Sometimes I used to even flick a few annas (coins) from my grandmother’s shrine of worship. She came to know about this but feigned ignorance,” he says.
Ironically, till Class 9, Bhargava had no exposure to books on birds. Nevertheless, he had a vast repository of practical knowledge on more than 200 species that he had amassed from the Baheliyas who had become his field companions. “They used to whistle a code that told me that they were going to trap birds and that I was required to come along. And every time I accompanied them I learnt something new,” says Bhargava. “I thought nothing of indiscretions when it came to my passion and used to tell my family that I was going for tuitions when actually I was out in the wild trapping birds. Gradually I developed my favourite bird stretches such as Hastinapur and thought nothing of cycling nearly 40km there on weekends.” Bhargava even made cages and bred exotic birds for the market
After doing a BSc, Bhargava was aware that he had to translate his passion into a career. Fate helped. “I was lucky to communicate with the right people at the right time,” says Bhargava. In 1987, after acclaimed ornithologist Dr Salim Ali passed away, he read an article on the legend titled Unforgettable Salim Ali in Reader’s Digest by the then curator of Bombay Natural History Society, JC Daniel. “I wanted to become like Salim Ali. Instinctively, I wrote a letter to Daniel stating this. He replied within a week advising me to pursue a postgraduate degree in Wildlife Science at Aligarh Muslim University. Prior to this I required a first class bachelor’s degree in zoology. My qualifying for the MSc wildlife course at Aligarh was the turning point in my life. For one, it marked my transformation from a passionate bird keeper to a wildlife biologist. I particularly gained scientific acumen and skills under the mentorship of Dr Asad Rahmani (the director of Bombay Natural History Society) who had joined the department as a teacher that year.
Today Bhargava works as an ornithological and aviculture consultant to environmental NGOs, forest departments, zoos and rescue centres across India. He has an interest in documenting traditional aviculture practices in India and is keen to produce a manual which is an incisive guide to keeping birds in zoos and rescue centres. Talking about his dream, he says, “ For conservation of Indian bird species that have little chances of survival in the wild, I want to develop something like the Jurong Bird Park of Singapore. Also I want to develop a museum - Cages through the ages.”
I started keeping birds when I was in Class 2. By the time I was in Class 5,I had 45 birds on my terrace and to the amazement of my classmates and teachers, I hosted a live bird exhibition in school —Rajat Bhargava, ornithologist