The Song of the Magpie Robin: Zafar Futehally

The Song of the Magpie Robin – A Memoir

Rupa Publications 2014

Zafar Futehally

It was the attractive cover of the book that caught my eye. I had come across passing references to Zafar Futehally in books on conservation but I was not too sure whether I wanted to buy his ‘Memoir’. It was only many book purchases later that I finally decided to pick up the book as I really could not resist the cover!

The Song of the Magpie Robin, Zafar Futehally

Zafar was an educated, cultured man with an excellent lineage. Much like the ‘Gentlemen’ of the colonial era he could not really involve himself in running a mundane family business. Seeking employment in a regular nine-to-five ‘job’ was of course out of question. So he ended up spending a lifetime pursuing a hobby!

Zafar loved horses from his early childhood. He married Laeq, Salim Ali’s niece. The birdman got him into birds from where he found his way to the nascent movement for conservation. Zafar was an amateur birder. A casual naturalist with no special knowledge of techniques for management of wildlife or habitats. His USP lay in his polished personality and charming manners that he so successfully deployed for the cause of environment. He was unapologetic in exploiting his ‘links’ to lobby for the cause of nature. To get the ear of those who mattered (even the PM!). To seek urgent interventions to save habitats from ‘development’.

Zafar was one of the first in India to realize the need for getting involved with international conservation institutions and programmes. He was instrumental in the holding of the landmark 10th General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at New Delhi in 1969. Zafar was also one of the founders of WWF-India. He was deeply involved with the running of the Bombay Natural History Society. He served on the Indian Board for Wildlife. Hosted conservationists and naturalists at his beachside home in Bombay. Lobbied for creation of wildlife sanctuaries around Bombay to save the fast disappearing green cover. Started a cyclostyled Newsletter for Birdwatchers in 1959 to publish the observations of amateur birders from all over the country. Zafar edited the newsletter for an incredible 45 long years! The newsletter was aimed at the hobby naturalists like himself. At reaching out to the nature lovers. Telling them that they were not alone in their love for wilderness.

Zafar Futehally 1920-2013

The book is in two parts. The first part is a reflection on his personal life. The second is dedicated to the role played by him in the conservation history of the country. Zafar wrote his memoirs in his 90s. Its flavour is unmistakably that of a final stock taking exercise. A man reflecting on his journey of life. What it was all about. His story.

There is a fleeting regret of having depleted his family fortune through bad business decisions. But then he was not cut out to be a businessman. For he never did sell himself too hard. One gets the feel that he always doubted the seriousness of his credentials to represent the cause of conservation and environment. He was after all only a hobby naturalist! He was well known and liked in the circle of naturalists with a long list of friends and admirers. But he was not destined to be too famous a man. May be he didn’t care too much for the fame part.

The book is an interesting light read. It is heartening to know that there have been men before who unabashedly pursued their hobbies all through the life without getting bogged down by the mundane concerns about material advancement.

 

The Wild Life of India: E.P. Gee

The Wild Life of India, Collins 1964

E.P. Gee

E.P. Gee was one of the earliest wildlife photographers of India together with his more famous compatriot, F.W. Champion. He led, what one may call, ‘a-dream-life’. A Cambridge educated Anglo-Indian, Edward Pritchard Gee took up employment on the tea estates of Assam in the midst of thick forests. All his holidays and leisure time was dedicated to travel and photography. He travelled to all the major wildlife sanctuaries and forests of India – with the one point agenda of clicking photographs!

The book is about his travels, the people he met and the animals he saw. Up close. The majestic gaurs of Bandipur. The charging rhinos of Kaziranga. The impressive elephant herds of Periyar. The unforgettable lions of Gir. The schools of barasinghas at Kanha. The golden langurs that he did not discover! The wild asses he chased in the Rann in open jeep. Of his many pets some of which ended up as celebrities in international zoos.

His style of narration is easy paced, relaxed. He takes you for all those wildlife adventure trips that you somehow could never manage to take. You travel on train. On jeep. On elephant back. On boat. You will  miss nothing!

E.P. Gee at Kaziranga (Centre)

E.P. Gee at Kaziranga (Centre)

He talks of the early efforts at conservation – the foresters and the naturalists he encountered. Of his surveys to estimate populations of wildlife – the country’s earliest efforts at animal census. He talks of his simple ideas to manage wildlife. He laments our foresters being trapped with paperwork and not being able to spend time in the wild.

E.P. settled down with his pets at Shillong after his retirement to grow orchids and to pursue his hobbies with a greater vigour.

The book is an enjoyable read. The foreword has been written by Jawaharlal Nehru! The flavour is much like that of Enid Blyton’s fairy tales for children. E.P. makes you experience the charm of wilderness – those enchanted woods – without trying too hard. And to make you wish that the story of India’s struggle to save its wildlife gets a fairy tale end.

 

P.S.

The book is out of print and hard to get by. The Tramp will be happy to assist his readers in finding a copy!

Elephant – The Lady Boss

Elephant – The Lady Boss; Vanasuma Prakashana; Chandrashekhar Basappanavar (1998)

The Tramp chanced upon this veritable gem while sifting through a row of second hand books in the wildlife section of ‘Blossoms’ a famous bookstore on Bangalore’s Church Street. The store with its impressive collection of books, new and old, on virtually every subject under this sun, was itself a ‘find’ of sorts.

It was the book’s rather odd title that caught my eye. The store was selling a second hand copy at 50% off and I picked it up out of sheer curiosity for its title. The book has been written and published by Chandrashekhar Basappanavar – a veteran of the Karnataka Forest Service who retired in 1994 as Karnataka’s Chief Conservator of Forests. Though the title of the book itself sounds a loud warning to the unsuspecting reader yet nothing really can prepare one for the initial jolt on being exposed to the author’s ‘peculiar’ (murderous?) use of the English language! The realization dawns as to why the author had chosen to publish the book himself! But once you overcome your prejudice against ‘odd’ language and decide to persist with the book and focus on the narrative – it grows on you.

It’s a tale of the author’s love affair with the elephants of Bandipur National Park. A ‘not-so-old’ man recollecting his days spent in the wilderness. Of risky walks through the elephant country. Of exploring the park on elephant back. Of cowering inside a hide when threatened by a charging matriarch. Of driving on the narrow forest tracks on his dated ‘Waggoner’. Of his last minute decision to abandon the machan and scamper for safety with an angry bull trumpeting after him. The author describes rescue operations of elephants trapped in the bog. Of providing succour to dying elephants, deserted by the herd. Of post mortem operations performed in the field to ascertain the cause of death. Basappanavar’s anecdotes are full of vivid details. The explicitness of the blow-by-blow accounts of mating encounters of elephants in the wild would have made even a Vatsayana blush!!

The stories are also laced with valuable tips on jungle craft. How one can safely follow a troop of langurs if lost in a forest. The langurs warn one of lurking danger from predators (but not from elephants or gaurs!). One can safely eat anything that is eaten by a langur. Then there are tips for making out a tuskless male elephant (a Makhna) from a female elephant.

The scheme followed by the author to structure his narrative is rather loose. The story jumps back and forth with a lot of repetition. But then this is not a book by a modern day wildlife biologist constrained by the rigours of hard empirical evidence. These are essentially real life stories by a lover of the forests – much like the jungle yarn exchanged by the 19th century shikaris over campfire – extremely interesting and spiced with bawdy humour. The author chuckles mirthfully to recall the discomfiture of the 60 something American lady, a famous chronicler of Himalayan Odysseys, who was made to witness a live ‘performance’ by a virile bull elephant!

The book impresses you with Basappanavar’s close quarter photography of wild elephants in an era that lacked the convenience of modern-day digital cameras that offer immediate feedback and allow one to zoom in on a dangerous subject from a safe distance.

To sum up, this is an unabashedly personalized account of the elephant country of Bandipur – full of wild anthropomorphic conjectures. A book not meant for the sophisticated reader who fancies good language and scientific rigour. But then jungles are not meant for the sophisticated. Take the Tramp’s word for it – you’ll love these jungle tales of this naughty old man!

Tiger Wallahs

Tiger -Wallahs

Geoffrey C. Ward & Diane Raines Ward

Oxford University Press 2002

It’s a grim account of the battle being fought to save India’s forests – and of the men at its forefront. The indefatigable Fateh Singh Rathore- the Tiger of Ranthambore made famous by his pupil – Valmik Thapar – a prolific wildlife writer and photographer. The irascible ‘Billy’ Arjan Singh – who was ever ready to fight with anyone and everyone to guard ‘his’ precious forests of Dudhwa. This quirky lover of nature hand raised a tigress and three leopards at his farm the Tiger Haven to be returned to the wild.

The overall story is one of gloom – where forest cover is wilting in the face of the onslaught of a burgeoning population. Of the horrible revenge killings of defenceless animals. Of the ugly poachers. Of the deathly struggle between God’s creatures for space and the right to exist.

The writer exhorts us drawing room conservationists to jump into the fray and to cast our weight behind those locked in this impossible battle to save our wilderness from extinction.

The book has been written by a professional writer which sets it apart from the works of practicing environmentalists and wildlife biologists who are rarely as successful in conjuring up the wilderness world that we are striving to save.

A must read for those interested in the conservation efforts in India.

Books by Sher Jung

Sher Jung, the legendary freedom fighter, hunter turned conservationist and author was born on 27th November, 1904 at Haripur Khol, a sleepy hamlet on the fringe of the dense forests of Kalesar. His father, Chaudhury Partap Singh, was the Collector of the princely State of Sirmaur. Sher Jung is said to have dropped out from school and been home tutored by a French tutor who imbibed in him the spirit of radical liberalism. The child loved the wilderness of the Shivalik hills and was still in his early teens when he took to ‘shikar’ in the tradition of his Rajput ancestors. An ace shot, with a natural understanding of the jungle craft, Sher Jung took pride in being an ‘ethical’ hunter who gave his adversary an even chance. The younger sons of Partap Singh, Jagdeep and Shamsher were also known for being excellent shikaris.

His liberal thought did not go well with the feudal culture of the princely state and he was packed-off by his parents to live with his sister at Lahore. Here, Sher Jung got in touch with revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and joined the Hindostan Socialist Republican Association. He participated in the sensational attempted train dacoity between Kup and Ahmedgarh on the Ludhiana – Dhuri – Jakhal line on the 15th of October, 1929 when the revolutionaries – Chaudhury Sher Jung, Sahib Singh Salana, Harnam Singh Charnak and others – made an unsuccessful attempt to loot the Government treasury on the train.  The Sydney Morning Herald carried the news on Friday, 18th October 1929.

Ahmedgarh Train Robbery- The Sydney Morning Herald (Friday 18 October 1929)

Ahmedgarh Train Robbery- The Sydney Morning Herald (Friday 18 October 1929)

The British authorities cracked down on the revolutionaries after the foiled attempt. Sher Jung sought refuge in the Shivalik jungles and dodged his British pursuers until a reward of Rs. 30,000 was declared on his head. He is then said to have surrendered for the sake of the reward money that would be used for furthering the cause of the revolutionary struggle. Sher Jung’s surrender to the Ambala Police in March 1930 was reported in a number of Australian Newspapers. A report dated Saturday 15th March 1930 published by Kalgoorlie Miner is reproduced for the readers:

RECENT BOMB OUTRAGE – ATTACK ON VICEROY – ELEVEN MEN ARRESTED

Calcutta, March 14. A statement revealing the existence of a widespread conspiracy to perpetrate political murders in India is alleged to have been made by Sher Jung, the notorious brigand of the Punjab, who surrendered to robbery. Sher Jung’s relatives at Jullundur are stated to have given a clue to the perpetrators of the bomb outrage on the Viceroys train on December 23, and eleven men have been arrested at Jullundur. Two bombs were found in the house of one of the accused.

Sher Jung was tried and sentenced to death in 1930 but the sentence was later commuted to life sentence. On his release from the prison in 1938, he married Nirmala Devi, a revolutionary college student who had been detailed by the editor of ‘The Tribune’ to interview him when he was incarcerated in jail. He set up Praja Mandal units in Sirmaur and edited the Urdu magazine, ‘Chingari’ that was published from Dehradun. He was rearrested during the Second World War and was incarcerated for another 5 years in prison. On his release after Independence, he organized the refugee camps at Delhi. He helped set up two battalions of the Kashmir National Militia and led them in battle against the tribal Kabaili raiders in Kashmir in 1947. Nehru bestowed the rank of Colonel on this fearless nationalist and natural leader of men. Col. Sher Jung engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Portuguese in the 1950s to liberate Goa. He along with his protégé Asish Dasgupta, crossed over behind the enemy lines in 1971 and trained the ‘Muktivahini’ in East Bengal!

Sher Jung- later years

He settled down at Delhi and set up a shooting club. His grandson, Samaresh Jung went on to be christened the ‘Goldfinger of India’ when he won 5 gold medals in the Air Pistol Shooting Events, in the 2006 Commonwealth Games at Melbourne.

Col. Sher Jung authored several books including Tryst with Tigers (1967) and Ramblings in Tigerland (1970). He passed away at Delhi on December 15th, 1996. The Himachal Pradesh government recently named the 28 sq. Km ‘Simbalwara National Park’ in Sirmaur as the ‘Sher Jung National Park’ to recognize the contributions of this amazing son of Sirmaur.

A friend once mentioned having read the interesting accounts of tiger hunting and jungle tramping by Sher Jung. The books were, however, out of print and the modern day book sellers had no recollection of the author. Amazon offered used copies at something like $200 a piece, which was well beyond the humble means of a Tramp! The search for the books eventually led to the library of Bombay Natural History Society that had miraculously preserved copies of these now ‘rare’ books.

Tryst with Tigers

Tryst with Tigers (1967) has been written in two parts. The first deals with the Tiger. Its habitat -generally the western parts of the the great Terai Arc that forms the forested southern fringe of the Himalayas that Sher Jung was most familiar with. Thus he talks about the jungles of the Kiyarda Dun and Kalesar forest in Sirmaur and the Sal forests ensconcing the Shivalik arc from Yamuna to Ganga and further east till the Ramganga River. He describes the habits of the tiger- feeding, hunting and breeding, lacing his descriptions with interesting anecdotes. Then there are tips for the hunter- on the choice of weapons for Shikar and the shots to be taken. Sher Jung compares hunting to the job of a surgeon who must wield the knife with precision to ‘remove the superfluous’ – to prune and not to destroy. Paradoxically, however, there are many accounts of mindless killing of tigers and leopards. Sher Jung speaks of his brother Jagdeep having shot three leopards in three successive nights – all for sport. He confesses to shooting of tigers encountered by chance when hunting for the pot. They were neither cattle-lifters nor man-eaters. But then one must not judge a man outside his times. There is the unmistaken pride of the sportsman in all such hunting accounts. There is also an overwhelming grief at the thoughtless destruction of the tiger and its habitat in the early decades of the 20th century that brought down the tiger population from 50,000 to less than 4000 in the 60s when the book was written.

He does try to justify his guilt in having been party to the carnage by distinguishing himself from the creed of those unprofessional hunters who lack the courage and the perseverance needed for sitting up long, lonely nights in the jungle keeping watch over the tiger’s ‘kill’. Who instead choose to mow down tigers from the safety of the elephant’s back, after having them hounded by an army of beaters. There was no sport or honour in such one-sided contests. Not for Sher Jung. For the man took pride in beating the ‘Master of Stealth’ at his own game, of outwitting the great cat by relying on his deep knowledge of jungle-craft acquired from a lifetime spent in forests. His accounts were of evenly fought duels, where the victor displayed respect for the vanquished.

The part two of the book has detailed accounts by the author of his hunting encounters with five different tigers, one of which managed to eventually outwit him despite being pursued for years. The stories talk about the jungle, its animals and its people. The characters come live in Sher Jung’s rich descriptions – they are men and women of all hues and character- brave, cowardly, noble, pompous, morose, and comical! Even his tigers have a personality. The majestic ‘Langra Chhangah’, the elusive cattle-lifter of Kalushaheed, the lovable ‘Idiot’ and the terrible man-eating tigress of Kiyarda Dun. The jungle experiences are vividly described by the author who artfully recreates the jungle sounds and feel, the suspense for the reader. The writer’s flowery language (poetic?) strikes an initial discordant note but once you are over this hurdle, you will love these simple honest accounts written from the heart by a man lamenting the passing away of an era.

A friend recounted his conversation as a school kid with the ageing Sher Jung and the Tramp cannot resist reproducing the same for his readers. This is what he had to write – “I expected a husky and masculine voice on the line but my hello was answered by a rather feeble voice – Mr. Sher Jung was really old by then. After I had paid my regards, and told him that I liked his books, he said, ‘Arey beta, toh tumney meri raddi ke dheri parh hi lee…………Beta aaj kal keh zamaane mein tumney yeh shauk kahan seh lagah liya? ……….Na woh waqt rahe hain aur na woh jangal rahe hain…………..’ he mused.”

A mention must be made of Sher Jung’s strong moorings in radical liberalism that are reflected in his rejection of the exclusive rights of the rulers of Princely States over hunting in their Zamindary Forests and Shikargahs (game preserves). He is most unapologetic and almost triumphant when he talks about his having poached with impunity for decades in these so-called exclusive game reserves! Equally noticeable is the derision directed at the police for their inaptitude and even cowardice when he talks about the sad incident involving seven deaths in a tiger attack in the scrub forest at Damdama near Bhondsi, Gurgaon. His early experiences with the police of the colonial era may have caused this resentful attitude. His strong sense of pride for the ‘noble’ Rajputs for showing courage and grace in the face of adversity, be it the charging tiger or abject poverty of the hill people, is also not to be missed!!

Ramblings in Tigerland (1970) was the second book on tigers and jungle tramping by Sher Jung and it certainly does not disappoint. The book is about his three different encounters in the wild. The flavour of narration is essentially  the same as that of his first book. The descriptions are as rich. The poet in him surfaces every now and then as he describes the beautiful hilly landscape of the Sirmaur forests and the lives and quaint ways of its simple inhabitants. The account of his long chase of Landa, the vile, stump-tailed, man-eating tiger is particularly engaging. You cannot miss the savage energy of a lyrical (delirious?) star-lit evening soaked in dance and music, oblivious of the terrible danger that looms in the darkness. You’ll notice his wanton disregard, if not outright contempt, of form and custom. Jung, paradoxically, scoffs at the idea of God while revelling in His creation! He introduces you to the clear, untarnished thought of the simple, unlettered hill folk who can take delight in the simple joys of life. Who can live the moment without needing to define it in words.

Sher Jung effortlessly transports the reader to his wild, untamed world. To give him a taste of the violence of that long, unforgiving apocalyptic night – to be helplessly tossed around by the feverish waves of malaria – to be crushed under the weight of a devastating cloud burst – to be trapped in the treacherous quagmire of  crumbling hillsides – to be stalked by a relentless blood-thirsty foe. The tale is real in its every enchanting and gruesome detail! A story that brings to the fore the restlessness in the man that compelled him to seek out adventure and danger. To rebel against any attempt to reign in his free spirit!

Much like Corbett, Jung shows a strong faith in pre-destiny in matters of life and death.

‘Tryst with Tigers’ and ‘Ramblings in Tigerland’ are books that deserve a place of pride on every naturalist’s bookshelf. The stories are every bit as compelling as the much loved hunting accounts of Jim Corbett. In fact, Jung’s accounts are richer in many respects as the unprejudiced reader is bound to discover.

References:

  1. Sher Jung: Forgotten Hero, Shakti Singh Chandel, The Tribune, 30th September, 2007
  2. The Legend of Sher Jung, Vikramjit Singh, The Hindustan Times, 8th December, 2013

 

P.S.

Any nature enthusiast keen on reading these wonderful jungle accounts may seek the assistance of  ‘The Tramp’. I am sure a born rebel like Sher Jung would have pooh-poohed the constraints imposed by a copyright!!

Books by Jim Corbett

Jim Corbett

Edward James (Jim) Corbett was born to English parents in 1875 at Nainital. His father was the postmaster of the town. The family owned a cottage at Kaladhungi, a picturesque village on the eastern fringe of the national reserve that Jim eventually helped to establish to save the magnificent Bengal tiger that he had so ruthlessly hunted all his life! The quintessential ‘White Shikari’ of the colonial era, Jim had his own code of conduct for hunting. He held the rank of a colonel in the British Indian Army and his services were frequently requisitioned to hunt down man-eating tigers that terrorized the hill-dwellers. He was a legend in his times in the Kumaon hills for his hunting prowess but is today remembered for his efforts at saving the tiger at a time when the subject of conservation was little understood.

Jim Corbett- Commemorative Postal Stamp 24th Jan 1976

Jim Corbett- Commemorative Postal Stamp 24th Jan 1976

He wrote six books at the end of his hunting days that were published by the Oxford University Press. Some of them are considered the ‘must read’ shikar books and ‘The Tramp’ decided to review them for his readers.

Maneaters of kumaon

Man-Eaters of Kumaon; Jim Corbett; Oxford University Press (1944)

ISBN: 0195622553

This is the first and easily the most famous of the books written by Jim Corbett. The author recounts his adventures in the Kumaon region involving the hunting of a series of notorious man-eating tigers. He successfully recreates for his readers the atmosphere of terror that would invariably pervade the area where a man-eater was active. He would then give a blow by blow account of the exhilarating experience of tracking down and killing the villain.
Each adventure starts with a rather graphic description of a string of grisly killings by the man-eater and the state of helplessness of the locals who were left with little option but to flee or be killed. All efforts by the lesser order shikaris, the bounty hunters, to end the run of the man-eater would have failed. The administration would then seek the services of the very best in the game, Jim Corbett. The man had Hollywood written all over him. His first request would be to call off the public reward. He was a professional, a hunter-tracker par-excellence and he didn’t want to be mistaken for the run-of-the-mill shikari who answered to a promise of a cash reward. For he was in it for the thrill. And the glory. Jim would then proceed to meet the grieving families of the victims and hear the accounts of the gruesome kills. One could feel the blood rushing to his noble head as he vowed to avenge the pitiless killings. He would trek endless miles through thick forests and impossible hilly terrains in search of his foe. He would spend long nights in the cold and the rain on make-shift machaans, sitting over kills, lying in wait for his elusive enemy. He would sleep alone on trees or in tents, unmindful of the prowling predator.
Jim was a ‘lone wolf’ who hunted alone. He didn’t want anyone to get in the way and be harmed! For each hunt was actually a game, a fight to the finish. A battle between the forces of good and the evil, where the hunter and the hunted stalked each other in seemingly endless rounds of near misses until the dramatic climax was reached. The tense, final encounter. It would now be Jim and the beast, eye-ball to eye-ball. Each looking for signs of weakness in his adversary. And then like all happy endings to the Hollywood gunslinger movies of the John Wayne era, the bad guy would finish dead, just a shade slower on the draw than our triumphant hero. There would be wide-spread rejoicing and all troubles would be forgotten by the simple village folk who would celebrate the victory of good over evil. Our gun-slinging Rama, would walk away nonchalantly from this tear-evoking scene, however, not before he had skinned the dead tiger for a trophy!
The Tramp’s take on this most celebrated of the Shikaris amongst the Saheb Log of the ‘Raj’ days may seem blasphemous to his millions of fans across countries and across successive generations. They would arguably label it as an unfair account of the great man’s real-life adventures. That Corbett risked his life on numerous occasions to save the hapless villagers from the wrath of the man-eaters. That he was a living legend in his times and was compared to a ‘Sadhu’ for his remarkable endurance and single-mindedness of purpose when following the trail of a man-eater. That he displayed a knowledge of the terrain and animal behaviour that made him an unparalleled naturalist of his times. But then, The Tramp is merely seeking to pick out the somewhat repetitive script that runs through his stories. Corbett clearly loved telling a good story. He obviously realized that a faithful account of a daring adventure does not always make an interesting read. He does seem to have embellished his accounts with some hard to believe incidents like his killing a King Cobra by hurling stones at it as part of a pre-hunt ritual. He unabashedly goes on to make the preposterous claim that it was a good omen for him to kill a venomous snake before the start of a fresh round of his mortal combat with a man-eater! And then there was this episode when he fires a rifle with one hand, from the hip, while holding eggs in the other!
Corbett did realize the risk that in his endeavour to make his tales more dramatic and readable, he might end up vilifying the majestic King of the Jungle. He takes pains to reiterate on numerous occasions that a tiger is not a bloody thirsty beast that he is made out to be and that contrary to popular beliefs he never kills unless hungry. That man is not his natural prey and unless the tiger is incapacitated by injuries or old age and is unable to run down the fleet-footed Chital or Sambhar, it rarely attacks humans. In fact, it is extremely wary of humans. That very often the injuries to the tiger are a result of the non-lethal shots by novice shikaris.
Like all good Shikaris, Corbett does display a belief in the paranormal. Thus he talks of a ‘sixth sense’ that saved him on several occasions from the prowling predator at the nth hour. Though he proceeded with the hunt after meticulous planning, with extreme caution, leaving little to chance yet there is an unmistakeable underlying belief in an unshakeable destiny that determines the time and manner of one’s death. He expresses surprise that he lived to tell the ‘tales’ despite all the near misses during his three decade long hunting career.
One does wince at his accounts of shooting down of tigers and other animals that posed no threat to man. A bear gets chased and mercilessly hacked to death with an axe. Leopards are shot without a thought. Particularly saddening is Corbett’s account of the hunting down of a magnificently large tiger, one of the finest specimens of the Royal Bengal Tiger, nicknamed the ‘Bachelor of Powalgarh’. The picture of Corbett with the beautiful dead tiger at his feet as a trophy is famous and revolting.

Bachelor of Powalgarh It saddens one to think of the mindless destruction of our wildlife heritage by legends like Corbett. Equally saddening is the wanton destruction of virgin forests for feeding the British Empire’s hunger for timber. Thus as trees get chopped by hundreds of government hired woodmen, Corbett Saheb stands guard to save them from the vengeful man-eater who helplessly watches his habitat getting swallowed by the glory of the Empire.
A question that nags the reader is that when did Jim Corbett meet his Kalinga? Which was the moment that triggered the realization that killing of beautiful wild cats was not quite as brave or noble as he had been led to believe by successive generations of men. That the new age rifles of the 20th century, had tipped the balance unfairly in favour of man. That hunting was a competition no more. That it was more of a systematic and mindless purging of wildlife. The unmistaken admiration and detail with which he describes the magnificence of the 10 feet 11 inch long, Bachelor of Powalgarh, does lead the Tramp to speculate that its killing in 1930 might have been the turning point in Corbett’s hunting career. That the seed of conservation was sown and remorse finally overtook the man eight years later when he hung up his hunting shoes and switched from the rifle to a camera as his favoured weapon of choice. The book ends with how Corbett moved on to hunt with the camera which was decidedly more challenging than hunting with the gun. A peek into the life of the modern day nature enthusiasts and wildlife researchers would easily confirm Corbett’s late in the life discovery. It takes more than a man to go scouting for tigers without a weapon, relying only on the knowledge of the tiger’s behaviour and its habitat to stay out of harm’s way.
On the whole the book is an interesting read for the shikar and nature enthusiasts. It is particularly interesting for those who have trekked through the dense sal forests of Kumaon and Garhwal hills with their quaint forest rest houses and picturesque villages that find a mention in Corbett’s hunting and travel accounts.

The Fall of a Sparrow

‘The Fall of a Sparrow’, is an autobiography by Salim Ali and was originally published by the Oxford University Press in 1985. An illustrated adaptation that incorporated some interesting black-and-white pictures from Salim Ali’s collection and also the drawings of birds by famous artists was released by OUP in 2007. It was this later illustrated edition that recently caught the Tramp’s eye in a book store and it was decided to begin the series on the ‘Travel and Shikar Books’ with this compelling account of the life of a compulsive wanderer.
The author’s honest confession that bird-watching was only a pretext for spending time away from the madding crowd in the midst of nature and changing landscapes conveys the essence of the story of his life. Salim Ali, was India’s most renowned birder and his influence on the following generations of home grown ornithologists and naturalists is unparalleled. He was a trail blazer and he took to ornithology when the field was virtually the exclusive preserve of the white sahib log. The book is a narration of the adventures of this restless, energetic man. The writer’s exceptional flair with the English language as he describes places, people and experiences cannot be possibly missed and it makes the colourful narrative all the more interesting and enjoyable.
The tale begins in the early 20th century ‘Bombay’ that was still rather quaint and green and was yet to be overwhelmed by the advance of industrialization. Ali describes the memorable school journeys on horse-powered carriages. The thoughtless ‘hunting’ expeditions to the city forests with his BB air gun and the triumphant march back home with a rich bag of dead sparrows. The young ‘believer’ would then faithfully slit the throats of the poor dead birds in token observance of the edicts of religion, before preparing himself a delicious meat dish!
It’s the story of a journey that took him to places far and wide and Ali offers interesting glimpses of his life through anecdotes that spice the somewhat rambling account of his restless wanderings. Thus you read about the reckless Sardar driver in Afghanistan who could put the fear of God in the bravest of men. The soccer match in England. The flamingo ‘city’ in the Rann of Kutch. The brush with bandits in Tibet. The eccentric but talented, Meinertzhagen, who found our dear hawk-nosed birder, ‘hideous’ looking. The idyllic motorcycle tour of Europe on his ‘Sunbeam’. The thick forests of Burma. The early beginnings of the Bombay Natural History Society and his encounters with some of the pioneers of natural history in India like Hugh Whistler and S.H. Prater. The bird survey in Hyderabad. The last ditch efforts that saved the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. The missed opportunities. The people who helped him and partook in his ventures. His sharp reactions to the subtle and sometimes not so subtle racism of the Colonial times.

Salim Ali- the hawk-nosed birder of India

The chronology does get mixed up at times, which is understandable, as he wrote the book when he was 85! The timing of the autobiography also tells you a lot about the man. He was riding a motorcycle till the age of 68! He was not the one to call it a day while there was still some wind left in him. An indefatigable man, who lived his life to the full, till his very last breath. At the sunset of his illustrious life and career he had only one regret- of not having owned a BMW motorcycle!!

The birdman of India
A Confession: The pictures have been somewhat shamelessly borrowed and adapted from the eBook ‘Dr. Salim Ali – The bird man of India’ by Amna, Y. Al-Marzouqi (2012) to give a feel of this incredible man.

P.S.

The publishers of ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ have recently released a comic book on the life of Salim Ali to inspire the kids with his life and contribution.