Book Review: Fall of the Sparrow
Salim Ali's interest in birds was sparked when as a child, his uncle, a member of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) introduced him to the then Honorary Secretary, Mr W.S.Millard to identify a bird he had shot. The Britisher not only identified the bird as a Yellow-throated Sparrow but also kindled his curiosity that lasted a lifetime. He patiently showed him several stuffed specimens and lent him two books, Common Birds of Bombay and A Naturalist on the Prowl which Salim Ali continued to refer even after sixty years.
Salim Ali's autobiography 'Fall of the Sparrow' is named after that fortuitous incident. This event led him to cultivate a life-long interest in natural history and particularly birds. There was a dearth of documentation on Indian birds and Salim Ali filled that gap. He pursued his passion for ornithology & conservation for the rest of his life despite having a slender income, being ridiculed by a few family members for not having a proper job and losing his wife in his mid-life.
He travelled wide & far. Besides visiting several remote, uninhabitable & far flung places in India (Jagdalpur, Mayurbhanj, Dhenkanal, Kutch) for his bird study trips, he also toured Burma, Afghanistan, Europe & USA at various times. He made friends with scientists & conservationists around the world. For his work, he received several honorary doctorates and awards (though late) not just in India but also from science-loving countries around the world.
In about 250 pages of his autobiography, he takes us through important events & people in his life in a non-linear narrative. The writing is candid, opinionated, engaging & mostly light-hearted. Sample his views on English and religion -
..without English, India would be 'an archipelago of nations in a non-navigable sea..
Placed as we are today, nationally and internationally, I am convinced that in order to keep abreast with modern thought, concepts, science, technology, etc. it is not only desirable but imperative for us to foster English as a link language for India. This is not to say that all possible encouragement should not, at the same time, be accorded to the local languages and to Hindi...
English is one of the most-perhaps the most-important and beneficial legacy the British have left us. It has been the chief factor in the unification of the country, in such integration as we have so far achieved, and in India making a mark in the international sphere.
Like all Muslim children at the time when I was young, and in many Muslim families even today, we were taught from an early age to read and recite the Koran parrot-wise without understanding a word of the Arabic in which it is written, and to go through the prescribed genuflections of formal prayer (namaz). I am sorry to confess that all this not only failed to elevate my spirituality but on the contrary rather put me off formal prayer for all time as a meaningless and even hypocritical performance. Critical observation in later years of some of my own ostentatiously sanctimonious elders-of their precepts vs. practices-has not helped to alter my views.
He lived life on his own terms. Born in a country that believes more in superstition than science, he pursued his passion for science despite all odds and worked tirelessly to create awareness about conservation. Nehru and Indira Gandhi too followed his books with interest. He is one of my science heroes. I look forward to reading more of his books to discover by myself the birds around me and also the fauna of India
I highly recommend this book to all those who love autobiographies, scientists or India.
- Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali - ebook available for free download at Archive.org
- Search for other copyright free books by Salim Ali at the Digital Library of India website