Life & Letters

My Grand Uncle Sálim

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The grand old bird man of India had no problem eating chicken, or any fowl for that matter. And even when he was well into his eighties, he would take a rifle into his garden to shoot crows. Rauf Ali introduces his grand uncle Sálim Ali the way he knew him, a man who was completely deaf in one ear, yet mortified by snorers

As you walked into the room, you were confronted with a large table piled high with books. The walls were lined with book cabinets. Near the far wall, there was an enormous desk, also piled with books, and with a typewriter on one side. Next to the typewriter sat a little bearded man. This was Sálim Ali, the birdman of India.

We lived in a large bungalow on Pali Hill, one of the very first to be built there. My grandfather had built it in the 1920s, way before the Bollywood crowd and their running dogs appeared on the scene. The last leopard shot there was in the 1930s. My parents and grandparents lived there. Salim moved there in the 1940s when his wife died. He was my grandmother’s brother.

Much has been written about him, and he has also written an autobiography: The Fall of a Sparrow. None of these capture, what it was like living with him. In the account below, I have deliberately left out all the scientific writing he did and the environmental issues he was involved with. This is a personal account of the man.

For one, he had a ferocious temper, and as kids we got it all the time, for being too noisy, for eating up too many sweets as dessert, for expressing opinions he disagreed with, for daring to criticise his good friend Indira Gandhi....

A couple of stories would perhaps  be appropriate here. An incident, related by my cousin Vaseem, was about their setting off for a long field trip just after World War II. This was a time when petrol rationing was still in force. A special permit was obtained and jerrycans were strapped onto the roof. At the first checkpoint, they were stopped and the petrol permit checked, putting Sálim in a vile mood. At the second checkpoint, they were waved through. The old man stopped, shouted at the man for not doing his job, insisted he check their permit, and then yelled at him again for not noticing the gun racks on the roof and checking their gun licences.

A former director of the Bombay Natural History Society knows the temper only too well. One day, he had a bottle of ink poured on his lap.

An incident from early childhood also sticks to mind. Sálim, my cousin Shama, who was about twelve at the time, and I had gone bird watching. An Indian Robin flew out of a hedge. Look, says Shama, it has a nest there. This provoked a tirade that went something like this: Indian Robins don’t nest in places like that, learn how to be scientific and stop making these inane remarks. After listening to this with wide eyes, Shama walked up to the hedge and pointed out the nest. This sparked off a bitter denunciation of both of us, and how we had set him up just to embarrass him!

He insisted on driving his own car until he was well into his seventies, and was a positive menace on the roads. Pity the traffic policemen who were unfortunate enough to stop him. I was there on one occasion when he went through a red light. By the time he was through, the constable was apologising to him. He also rode a motorcycle with a sidecar, a Sunbeam that he had driven to a conference in Helsinki in 1956 at the age of 60. Some of my earliest fun memories are of careering round the countryside near Bombay in the sidecar. My grandmother forced him to sell it at one point, and I wonder who has it now.

A fact that was known only to people who knew him well was that he was totally deaf in one ear. While meeting new people, he would sit in such a way that the deaf ear was towards them, unless he was instantly interested in what they were saying. He would carry on with whatever he was doing, muttering, “Yes, No? Is that so? Accha!” at regular intervals.

When I first went to live in Auroville, I was interviewed by a committee, and a self-important gentleman asked me whether I was related to Sálim. The rest of the interview consisted of his telling everyone else how famous Sálim was. Two months later when I visited Bombay, Sálim told me that somebody who says he admitted me to  Auroville had come to see him. He had forgotten the name. My heart sank. “How long did he stay?” “Two hours.” My heart sank further. What did he say, I asked. “I don’t know, I switched off my hearing aid after a couple of minutes.” was the answer.

Sometimes, he would get the response wrong and thoroughly confuse the person talking to him.  However,  the deafness was a tremendous disadvantage to him while bird watching, because he had difficulty in pinpointing the location of a bird from its calls.

I actually picked up my interest in birds from another uncle, Humayun Abdulali. He was better at identifying birds in the field, something Sálim readily conceded. From about age six, he used to take me and his son out on weekend trips, happily dealing with all the associated hassles like carsickness and whingeing for food.

When I was eleven, Sálim suddenly realised I was interested in birds and insisted on taking me to Bharatpur for a couple of weeks, much to the horror of my parents. I proceeded to develop a foot infection, and he had to take me to the government hospital there every day to get it cleaned. This didn’t faze him, and I went for every school vacation after that to Bharatpur with him. I now realise how difficult it must have been for him—I would have thought ten times before taking any of my nephews or nieces into the forest at that age, and then probably refused.

After school, there was Kashmir, where we spent a month together in the Dachigam sanctuary. We had a houseboat pulled up on the canal in front of Shalimar Gardens where we stayed. I would be up at six and go up to the sanctuary by jeep. The old man had a more leisurely schedule, and would bicycle up. Yes, I did say bicycle. It was about 9 km and a height climb of 200 m, and all this at the age of 75. An image that comes to mind on this trip is the sight of him running around a corner. While I wondered about this atypical behaviour, a bear appeared behind him.

Little known is the fact that the family were badminton fiends. Both my grandmother and her eldest brother were champions in their heyday, and it was left to Sálim to educate us youngsters. Which he did, teaching us the sneaky way South East Asians play, not the crude power play now in vogue. I was never able to beat him at a game, even when he was in his 70s. Maybe that makes me a very bad player.

Nobody smoked or drank in front of him, until he visited me in the wildlife sanctuary I was then working in. After the third time I excused myself “to go to the loo”, he told me I could smoke in front of him, he didn’t care— and while at it, I could drink as well. I never looked back, much to the horror of everybody else.

We would all eat together at Pali Hill. One day during dinner, there was a loud bang, and the old man got into a temper. New year was over, why couldn’t people stop bursting crackers? A bit later we found out that it was Emperor Ashoka, the ill-fated Air India Flight 855 that crashed into the sea nearby on 1 January 1978.

On another dinner, he announced that he had won the Paul Getty Award, a highly prestigious environmental award that carried a prize of Rs  4 lakh then. Before anybody had time to react, my sister butted in—“Before you give the money away, please buy yourself three clean pairs of trousers.”

In his eighties, he sacked an assistant who had been with him for a very long time. He then expected my mother to get up at 5 am every morning to make him tea. She refused point blank, and instead offered to teach him how to make tea. Which he did from then on: he hadn’t realised how easy it was.

He had a pathological fear of people who snored. Whenever visiting a wildlife sanctuary, the park boss would invariably offer to share the VIP room in the Forest Rest House with him. This would be turned down on some pretext or the other, and especially if the gentleman asking him was bulky in the least. “Pssst, he looks as if he snores”, he would hiss.

At one point, he decided to visit Auroville, and a dinner was organised in his honour. There was a sudden flap, and his constant companion Hussain  was sent for. Does he eat chicken, Hussain was asked. Of course he does, was the reply, why shouldn’t he? But it’s a bird!

Not only did he have no dietary inhibitions, he had no problem with killing them. Well into his eighties, he would take an air rifle into the garden and shoot crows. For all you animal lovers, many of the old breed of conservationists started off as hunters, and had no problem shooting things.

In his last few years, he acquired a secretary, Archana. What a patient, long suffering lady! She put up with all his tantrums and whims. Unfortunately, she was not treated well by a lot of the people who used to visit, and vanished after his demise.

It’s also unfortunate that he and my other uncle Humayun did not get on with each other. The differences lay in their perceptions of which direction the Bombay Natural History Society, now possibly the oldest NGO in Asia, should take. They made up just a few months before he died, and then used to spend hours together trying to make up for lost time.

Unfortunately, when he died, there were controversies. A gold dagger gifted to him by the Sheikh of Kuwait disappeared, as did a lot of his books. I wonder where they are now.

I was in Pondicherry when I heard he had passed away. Very early morning, I got a call from the vice-chancellor of Pondicherry University, who asked me to come and see him. When I did, he announced that he was going to rename a new centre just set up in the University as the Salim Ali School of Ecology. I objected,  since there was no indication at the time whether the centre would do good work or not. I was associated with it for a while, and was then thrown out thanks to colleagues who painted me a drunkard, drug fiend and sex maniac. I had commented then that the old man must be turning in his grave. Luckily, a later vice-chancellor removed the name. Other institutions named after him have done no better.

Rauf Ali is a wildlife researcher with the NGO Feral. He works in the Western Ghats and Andaman & Nicobar islands. He is a nominee this year for the prestigious St Andrews Prize for the Environment