For the love of wilderness

Celebrating a new decade with pearls of wisdom by the legendary Sàlim Ali

"Sàalimm, kitni cheeni?” in a slightly coquettish, feminine lilt, looking over the shoulder, that’s how our friend made the imitation. I had just asked the same question of my husband: “Ali, how much sugar?” in Urdu, as I poured his tea. Our friend was wryly imitating the late Sàlim Ali, the famous bird-specialist of India, and his wife Tehmina. This couple had become part of our friend’s family lore.

As a new year begins, it is time to give thanks, and I’d like to share my gratitude for the life and work of Sàlim Ali (1896-1987). His work has enabled these columns to go inside the natural world around us in an embedded way, naming nature and birds in our language and observing them as elements of our culture. He is my ‘bird ustaad’ — and a joy.

Sàlim Ali was born into a Mumbai family of Sulemani Bohra tungsten mine owners, with an inherent love of birds. At age 11, he was making detailed notes on them, and by the time he went to Burma to look after the family’s mining work, he was entranced by the forest in which the mines were located.

Eventually, he became the president of the Bombay Natural History Society, inspiring scholarship, public interest and government commitment to nature, sanctuaries and the importance of birds all over the subcontinent.

His 10 volume co-authored book on the birds of India and Pakistan is a classic, as are his many discoveries of birds and their importance to humans. To reveal a history of bird interest within our culture, he wrote of the Mughal involvement with birds through research of the documents of three emperors that preceded British colonial naturalists.

Over sixty years, Sàlim Ali acquainted the whole subcontinent with its natural riches. He is said to have “awakened the conscience in all circles from the government to the simplest village panchayat” towards nature conservation.

Sàlim Ali married a distant cousin Tehmina in 1918, who had grown up in England. A woman of independent means, Tehmina warmed to life in the field with her husband as the couple spent time in skimpy camps set up for bird research from Ladakh, to Orissa to Sindh. Her personal means helped release Sàlim Ali from financial concerns, and her excellent training in English contributed to the fine writing that Sàlim Ali still offers readers. Without children, the couple were devoted to a simple life with pursuit of their own interests.

Although I have been on many a field trip with Sàlim Ali’s book in my backpack, and have been to yet others with him from my armchair as I read of his treks through Lake Manasarovar in Tibet or Ooty in the Western Ghats, it is the man’s outlook I celebrate.

About his wife, whom he lost after she died twenty years into the marriage, he says at age 90 years: “Now when I look back, I think the chief of the chiefest factors that made me continue with ornithology [the study of birds] was my wife because you cannot really do much if you do not have a like-minded companion”.

Below, in an interview excerpt from 1985, Sàlim Ali addresses the perennial questions about conservation in our subcontinent with answers that still speak to all who dedicate their lives to the natural world.

Question (Q): Don’t you sometimes find that the genteel art of bird watching seems so anachronistic in our age, as violence and strife keep on mounting and the pressures of survival marginalise the poetry of our lives? Who cares whether the mountain quail exists or not when the terrorist strikes or a famine kills millions?

Sàlim Ali (SA): These are all parts of the same process of living and dying. You cannot see them in isolation. When you neglect one form of life, you neglect all forms of life. A killer is a killer. Whether he destroys a rare species of bird or he kills a person in cold blood. We must learn to see life as one.

Q: I was only wondering whether you do not occasionally feel that your role as an ornithologist is marginal in a society where violence, hate and destruction rule with such a firm, sure hand. What can one do to change the quality of our lives?

SA: Do just what you are capable of. The world will take care of itself. Celebrate it. Why ask yourself questions? When one reaches 89, as I have done, you have seen a lot. You don’t give up on things so easily.

Q: Not even when you feel that you are a voice in the wilderness.

SA: No. I love the wilderness.

When he was awarded for his lifelong work by World Wide Fund for Nature, the tribute to him read: “We are sure that weaver birds weave your initials in their nests, and swifts perform parabolas in the sky in your honour.” Now, such is a life lived fully in sync with nature; and I am celebrating it in this new year with interests of my own and a like-minded companion to boot!

Image of Salim Ali published by Permanent Black.

The writer is a Lahore-based Ecologist.

Celebrating a new decade with ornithologist Sàlim Ali