The “Idyllic” Doon Valley Fascinated “Birdman” Salim Ali
In his famous autobiography “The Fall of a Sparrow”, the celebrated scientist and bird lover have written fondly about his years in Doon, describing them as “five of the happiest years” of his life.
He was born on November 12, 1896 in Mumbai (then Bombay). His first visit to the Doon valley happened in the year 1925 when a business trip brought him to the Forest Research Institute (FRI) from where he took information about suitable matchwoods as he was then working in a match factory in Bombay. In 1934, his brother Hamid Ali, who had retired from ICS and settled in Mussoorie, asked him to come to Dehra Dun. He came then to the “foothills of the Himalaya where I would have at my doorstep, as it were, all the things that mattered most to me-beautiful forests, magnificent scenery, good birding. What could be more idyllic?”
Dr Salim Ali and his wife Tehmina spent five years among loving friends, stimulating intellectual company and enchanting surroundings. However, after Tehmina’s death from blood poisoning following a surgery in July 1939, Salim Ali went to Bombay. “Leaving Dehra Dun was a painful wrench,” he writes in his autobiography.
One of his closest friends in the valley was Arthur Foot, the first headmaster of the Doon School which was established in 1935. While he was staying in the valley, he went on many a trek in the Himalayas. “In the stimulating company and under the tutelage of Arthur Foot” who had “considerable climbing in Cornwall and the Swiss Alps.” During what he describes as his “ornithological pilgrimage” to Kailash -Mansarovar in 1945, Salim Ali kept a narrative diary in addition to separate field notes on birds. This diary is part of his autobiography and in it, he writes Ding Tso, a lake north east of Mansarovar … “This zone most promising and productive of good results with nesting birds. Great Crested Grebes, Brown-headed Gulls and about 15 pairs of Blacknecked Cranes around lake and obviously most breeding …one egg taken and scrambled; delicious –a welcome escape from the unchanging dal and rice!”
In Mussoorie, Ali often visited “Southwood” cottage and estate, the home of his Uncle, Abbas Tyabji, the great freedom fighter. His brother Hamid Ali was the son-in-law of Tyabji and also lived at Southwood later, after retiring from ICS. Salim Ali, on his visits to Mussoorie, extensively trekked in the forests around in his quest to spot the Mountain Quail. In the Terai area of Kumaon, he rediscovered Finn’s Baya, a rare weaver bird species. Out of 287 species of birds of the Indian Hills described by Salim Ali about 230 are found in Kumaon. Many of these species are on the verge of extinction. All his life, Salim Ali loved the hills and dales of the Himalayas. “From my boyhood days, and long before I had ever eyes on them, I had a romantic craving for the Himalaya.”
His life and work will always inspire nature lovers and instil in them an enthusiasm that marked this great ornithologist’s career. He watched birds since he was a boy. “Birdwatching provided the excuse for removing myself to where every prospect pleases-up in the mountains or deep in the jungles-away from the noisy rough and tumble of the dubious civilization of this mechanical high-speed age. A form of escapism, maybe, but one that hardly needs justification,” says he in “The Fall of a Sparrow” which brought him to light as a wonderful writer.
Salim Ali’s love for the Himalaya, especially Mussoorie and the Doon valley, needs to be honoured by the Uttarakhand government by naming a bird sanctuary in the hill state after him. The time that he spent and the work which he accomplished here is enough reason that the state should have a proud memorial set up at the earliest. The memory of his years in the hill state needs to be preserved for posterity. read more posts…
Friday, 09 November 2018 | Jaskiran Chopra | Dehradun–