//Homage To A Birdman, The Telegraph

Homage To A Birdman, The Telegraph

The Urdu word ‘shareef’ has many meanings. An online dictionary offers ‘noble’, ‘gentlemanly’, and ‘civilized’, to which one can add: ‘refined; courteous; honourable; civil; civilized’.

Among the most shareef men I knew was the conservationist Zafar Futehally. Raised and educated in Bombay, Futehally’s early interest in birds was furthered when he married Laeeq, niece of the pioneering ornithologist Salim Ali. Futehally joined Ali in his birding expeditions to the remote corners of India; meanwhile, he also started a periodical called Newsletter for Birdwatchers.

Among the subscribers to the Newsletter for Birdwatchers was my father. The journal—then cyclostyled, and clipped together with staples—came into our house in Dehradun. We lived in the wooded campus of the Forest Research Institute, home to some four hundred species of birds. Living in the FRI, it was impossible not to develop some sort of interest in birds. This was fortified by the Newsletter, whose pages brought reports of bird sightings and studies from different parts of India. Growing up in my sub-Himalayan town, I read, with fascination, reports filed by Peter Jackson from Delhi, by P. D. Strachey from Assam, by K. K. Neelakantan from Kerala, and by Salim Ali from wherever he chose to be.

Through the Newsletter for Birdwatchers, Zafar Futehally single-handedly created a nation-wide ‘virtual’ community of birdwatchers. For the Newsletter‘s readers, an interest in birds led in time to a broader appreciation of nature and natural processes. Many of the country’s leading ecologists and conservationists were initiated into their life’s work by Futehally’s journal.

I knew of Zafar Futehally from the time I was a child. My first sighting of him was in 1978, in New Delhi’s Tughlak Crescent, when I saw him peering through binoculars at a pair of grey hornbills. But I really got to know him only in the last decade of his life. After he had retired from his family business, Zafar and Laeeq shifted to Bangalore, a town I was also now based in. Here I saw them several times a year, sometimes at their home, at other times in meetings of the city’s birdwatchers. Laeeq matched Zafar in courtesy and refinement, as well as in intelligence and wit.

Early in 2013, Zafar and Laeeq decided to leave Bangalore for a seaside cottage in the village of Kihim, on the Konkan coast, that had been in the family for several generations. Zafar was now past ninety; Laeeq, in her late eighties. Both were ailing, and although it was left unspoken, I sensed that both wished to die close to where there ancestors had lived (and sometimes died). Kihim was where Salim Ali had done his famous studies of the nesting habits of the Baya Weaver Bird. And Zafar himself had taken his children and friends on many birdwatching trips along the coast.

Zafar Futehally died in Kihim in August 2013. His wife Laeeq died the following July. Fortunately, before they left Bangalore, Zafar had completed writing his memoirs, assisted by two younger and very capable conservationists, Shanthi and Ashish Chandola. Now published under the title Song of the Magpie Robin, this is a charming book, rich in insight and humour, and also a privileged insider’s account of the history of conservation in India.

Zafar Futehally’s memoir starts with his own background and upbringing. His grandfather, Badruddin Tyabji, was one of the first Indian judges of the Bombay High Court, and the first Muslim President of the Indian National Congress. Other members of the family were distinguished scholars, administrators, and social workers. Bombay was then the most cosmopolitan city in India; and the Tyabjis were among its most cosmopolitan families. From the beginning, Zafar was raised to disregard distinctions of class, status, race, religion, age or gender.

Zafar’s memoir provides key insights into the functioning and role of the Bombay Natural History Society, the mother organization of conservation in India. Zafar was a key figure in both the BNHS as well as the Indian branch of the World Wildlife Fund. He was also a member of the National Committee on Environmental Planning and Coordination, set up by Indira Gandhi in 1973, and chaired by the visionary scientist Pitambar Pant.

Zafar’s book illuminates the character and contributions of major personalities in conservation, such as the ornithologist Hugh Whistler, and the tiger specialist Kailash Sankala. Although he downplays his own role, the trio who truly laid the basis for future conservation efforts in India were the Madras polymath-naturalist M. Krishnan, Salim Ali, and Zafar himself. Through their speaking, writing, and canvassing, and their patient, hard, lobbying, these three men created a broader social and political awareness, leading to the constitution of hundreds of national parks and sanctuaries.

In his book, Zafar writes ruefully of how, in India, ‘good conservation initiatives are trashed because of our collective inability to be effective team players’. Then he continues: ‘My experience of international bodies indicates a greater ability to listen, negotiate, compromise, and get on with the job at hand rather than furthering personal goals and agendas.’

This rings absolutely true. From my own (now quite substantial) experience of environmental activists in India, I can confirm that they tend to be intensely self-regarding and extremely disputatious. Zafar, however, was a sterling exception. His own family life had helped foster a spirit of co-operation rather than competition. This was reinforced by his personal qualities, his decency and his humanity, and, not least, his self-deprecatory sense of humour

In the world of Indian ornithology and conservation, Zafar Futehally played the part of an egoless reconciler. In both the BNHS and the WWF, he acted as a bridge between generations and between men with a larger sense of self-worth. For, unlike other celebrated Indians, Zafar met each person on his or her terms. No one I knew had less snobbery, less of an ego. When he spoke to you he considered you as a unique, singular, individual. Your gender or age or fame or lack of fame did not matter at all.

Zafar’s qualities of mind and heart are richly on display in Song of the Magpie Robin. So is his sense of humour. He thus writes of a Swiss expert named Schifferli who came out to help the BNHS in a project involving the ringing of migratory birds. During their work, Zafar overheard one of the field staff telling another: ‘The people who do this are all Alis—Salim Ali, Fatehali and SchifferAli.’ In this case the field assistant was correct, but in the wider context of Indian conservation history there has occasionally been room for someone who was not an Ali.

An even nicer story relates to a field trip to Kutch in the 1940s, led by Salim Ali. Their camp, recalls Zafar, was pitched ‘in a place called Kuar Bet, well known, it so happened, as an area abundant in the Saw-scaled viper. Our first evening at camp was devoted to trying to understand how to use the anti-venom snake kit which Salim had, with his usual foresight, brought along. After struggling with the instructions contained in the kit, it was generally agreed that, in the case of a bite, the victim should quietly be allowed to die’.

Lovers of literature and of nature will both profit from a reading of Song of the Magpie Robin. Meanwhile, Zafar Futehally’s ornithological legacy is superbly carried on by the magazine Indian Birds, a successor to the old Newsletter for Birdwatchers, edited by Zafar’s protégé Aasheesh Pittie from Hyderabad.

by Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 2nd May 2015)