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Home >> Birding Banter >> Transcript of an Interview with Salim Ali
 

Transcript of an Interview with Salim Ali

Apr 19, 2006 at 01:36 AM
 
TRANSCRIPT OF AN INTERVIEW WITH SALIM ALI Dr H S A Yahya - Reader, Centre for wildlife & ornithology, Aligarh Muslim University ,Aligarh.
 
INTRODUCTION
While carrying out a reconnaisance survey of the Lesser Florican in Sardarpur (Madhya Pradesh) area I had the oppurtunity to interview Dr Salim Ali on 13th August 1982 at the local guest house. At the time of the interview he was over 86 years but had an admirably sharp memory. The interview ended rather abruptly due to the sudden appearance of some visitors from the Forest Department.
ON HOW HE HAD TAKEN UP ORNITHOLOGY AS A PROFESSION.
* Well, I did not really begin with the thought of making ornithology my profession because I was (already) in business, in the mining business in Burma with my brother. During the first world war 1914-18, we were doing quite well and I never thought I would have to take ornithology as a profession because for one thing I was not qualified enough to take it up, and my only interest (in it) was a very amateurish one. But I was deeply interested in birds and that is why I took the oppurtunity in Burma where the mining business was all in thick forest and in forested country. That part of the country where I was , the Tennasserim , was particularly good for birds. The forests were situated in a place from where transport was most difficult because there were no roads and no paths or any other facility of that sort.
WERE ELEPHANTS USED ?
* Yes, elephants were used, but they were used for dragging the timber, to collect at a depot where they sawed it. It was mostly sawed by hand at the beginning. Then we had a small oil engine and mill. But the great difficulty was the moving of the stuff because you had miles and miles of roads to build , which we were in no position to do as we were not a big company. And then we had one forest which was close to the sea, a place called Henzer Basin. It was a wonderful harbour but not properly developed and ships therefore could never come close. We tried to transport the cut timbers and sleepers to the ship using bamboo rafts but it took so much time and so much demurrage was incurred that we finally gave it up. After that I thought it might be a good thing to go back home and see what can be done. So we came back to Bombay and I was searching very hard for a job in the natural history line as I was keen on it from the beginning. I had no degree. I had just left college from the intermediate class and wanted to take up zoology as one of the subjects of the BA. At that time there was no B.Sc., it was BA Hons. with Zoology. Because I went to Burma I could not complete it, but now I wanted to complete it. The director of my college, St Xavier's College, said "you are so keen about birds, you will never be able to make any  progress unless you have a scientific Zoological background." He asked me to go to the college ,sit with the Honours class and get myself properly trained. So that was a good oppurtunity an I did that for one year. I did not sit for any proper examination because I was not thinking not of a degree but for knowledge. I did not think that a degree was important. This is the advice I am giving to every young man that knowing that degrees do not mean very much, you must still get a degree somehow because when you are out to get a job, no one bothers to look at any other qualifications except what degrees you have. And most mediocre people who have got degrees try to get jobs and the people who have done really good work, for instance Hussain would be very unlikely to get a job. ( He meant S A Hussain ,who is currently with the University of Malaysia). Of course now with all his experience and his work with the BNHS he is greatly qualified. But otherwise when he came to us we just took him on trust hoping that he would do good and because we were not very concerned about degrees. And so it has turned out that he is a first class scientist. The curator of BNHS, at that time was Mr Prater. He was a very good friend of mine from earlier on, even before I went to Burma. We had been doing a lot of birding together, and as a matter of fact he did not have a degree either, and we did our zoology together at St Xavier's College. Both of us ,because we were keen ourselves managed to absorb far more than any student who did it for a degree. In the beginning when we knew each other , Prater was a very subordinate type of worker in the Society and the curator was a man named N B Kinnear who later on became the director of the zoology department and subsequently the chief director of the British Museum. When Kinnear went back to Britain after the war and took up as curator of the British Museum of Natural History, Prater got a chance to act as curator of the Society. We were working closely together and were very keen on birds and we used to go out and collect birds from around Bombay and other places. The present Prince of Wales Museum was a military hospital during the war and all the wounded soldiers from Mesopotamia and so on used to come to Bombay. When the war was over and the hospital closed, the building was made into a museum with a natural history section. For the natural history section we wanted to have the latest methods of exhibition. The then management committee of the Society consisted of some very far sighted men. They said that to put up a museum like that they needed a trained curator and they had none. So they sent Prater for training to England and America, came back and put up this museum with the help of his assistant curator, a man named Charles McCann who was a very good botanist and a very special student of Father Blatter. These two people, I think were really the best set of people that the Society had. The Society owes a great deal for its popularity and publicity to them. The Society represented to the Government of Bombay that they had this wonderful museum but no guide lecturer to explain to the visitors all about the displayed animals and that the museum would therefore do no educative work. So they pestered the Government of Bombay and finally they made them agree to appoint a Guide Lecturer in natural history and applications were called for. There were many graduates and post-graduates who applied but Father Blatter supported me and I was eventually selected. This was in 1926. It was an interesting job but after two years I got rather tired of saying the same thing over and over again and wanted some outdoor activity. My interest was ecology from the beginning. In those days the word ecology was hardly known to anybody, but now everybody talks of ecology and ecosystems. Well, so I got study leave from the Society for 15 to 18 months. I was corresponding with various museums but the British Museum gave a very lukewarm response. In those days Indians had a very difficult time. As the political movement was going on, the British Museum was not at all cooperative and they were very half-hearted about having me there. However I got in touch with Professor Stresemann at the Berlin University Zoological Museum. He was most cordial and said "you come along and we will do the best we can." So I took a collection of birds that had recently come from Burma. I took that collection with me to work out with Stresemann and learnt all the little tricks about systematic ornithology. He was very kind indeed and took a lot of trouble and spent a lot of his time and worked with me and showed me exactly how it is all done and what the significance of various parameters were. So I got a very good grounding in about 9 months with him. After that I went to the British Museum just to see what they were doing because they had amassed a lot of Indian material.
THEY ARE EVEN NOW SUPPOSED TO HAVE THE BEST COLLECTION
* Well, they have a most complete collection indeed. The American Museum of Natural History and one or two other museums, the Chicago museum and the National Museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution are also very good. But for the Indian birds the British Museum is the best and you cannot do any work unless you consult the British Museum. Now there was one Lord Rothschild who also had an execllent collection. He was particularly interested in birds and a very wealthy man. He sent on his own account collectors to all parts of the world to collect birds. He has built up a most wonderful collection of Indian birds too. With the British Museum collection and the Rotschild collection there was no other museum that one could approach better. But this Lord Rothschild, I dont know what happened to him , whether he suddenly lost interest in birds or what, but he quietly arranged a deal with the AMNH to sell his collection to them. I think at one stage he mentioned it to the BM but he had wanted a fantastic amount and they offered him something less. They said it was a national collection and that they could afford no more. So he quietly offered his collection to the AMNH, New York. They, of course had plenty of money and they  immediately closed the deal. And  the poor British Museum people were left with their mouths open ( Laughter ). They did not know what to do. They had lost this part of the collection, which went to the AMNH. That collection is one of the best and anybody who wants to do anything on Indian birds must consult that collection also. When I came back after study (15 months ) the first news I heard was that my job had been axed because the Government of Bombay had a financial deficit and they could not afford to keep the scheme going. The Society was even poorer than what it is now (1982) and was run on a small scale. So when this Government grant for this Guide Lecturer came to an end I was thrown out. They had no other job for me. I then tried all kinds of things in the commercial line because at one stage, when I had come for a year's holiday from Burma to Bombay, I had taken a course in Commerce and Higher Accountancy. Yes, I had done it for our own business because we had just started our business without any knowledge or background. So I thought it was a  good idea to know something about what we are doing. I went through a course. Then I tried all kinds of jobs for a long time. Finally I said that ,well, I have all these trainings and I have my chief interest in birds so why should I not do this on my own.  My wife had a little money and I had a little investment and so on. Then we worked out and found that we had just enough if left Bombay, which was very expensive and went to live in some quieter place which would give more facilities for bird study, we will be far happier. My great fortune was that my wife who had had all her education in England and been used to quite a different sort of life to what she would have in the kind of work I wished to do. She insisted that I should take up only the work that I was interested to do. She said " now we have enough to live quietly, and we would go to some small place , I will be quite happy." She was keen on poetry and Urdu and various kinds of reading and so on. Then she got very interested in birds too, and in outdoor life and in  things she had never had any experience in England of. ( NOTE: fOR THE STUDENTS OF ORNITHOLOGY IT WOULD BE OF SOME INTEREST TO MENTION HERE THAT SOME INDIAN BIRDS ARE NAMED AFTER HIS WIFE TEHMINA, eg:_Dinopium benghalensis tehmini_). Her parents were in England. Her father was in the Pearl business and also in the Indian Council in London, They also came back when the first world war started. Then I told Prater " look we have so many places in India and we know nothing about birds." Hyderabad for instance, was a complete blank on the ornithological map. So I said " if you write to the British Residents who are really interested in these kinds of things we can probably get some financial support. I do not want any pay. I only want my expenses paid and I will be quite happy to go ,study and collect birds." So the Society got in touch with the Hyderabad Government which had largely British heads of Departments. They were very glad. But it is really quite laughable, the amount we asked for and which we got and in which I was able to complete the survey. I think for the whole of the Hyderabad State survey for six months we got about 6000 Rupees. Yes, six thousand which included the food of the skinner, our own food, cost of travelling and everything ( laughter )! We were able to do it with a lot of trouble, many of our camp shifts had to be done by bullock carts because there were no roads in the places where we were camping. After Hyderabad I did Kerala which was then two states, Cochin and Travancore. Then one after the other Central India, Gwalior, Indore, Bhopal. So all these were done under the same system: asking for small amounts and doing it. I could do it because I had the time, I mean, I was just doing it and nothing else and I did not have any ambition to try again for some bigger job somewhere and so on. Not because bigger jobs were not there and perhaps I would have not got them, but they were not in the line in which I was interested. Now when I look back, I think the chief of the chiefest factors that made me continue with ornithology was my wife because you really cannot do much if you do not have a like minded companion.
 
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