Posted by: cochinblogger | April 10, 2011

Salim Ali on Thattakad

I’ve been entranced the past couple of weeks by the famed ornithologist Salim Ali’s autobiography, The Fall of a Sparrow. The first happy surprise was the writing style; he writes beautifully, and with inimitable humor. This should come as no surprise, because as Salim Ali explains:

In my school career there is little to boast about and perhaps the less said about it the better. I was average in most subjects, somewhat above in geography and games and considerably below in maths. I was said to be good in English and sometimes had the satisfaction of having my essays read out aloud to the class by the teacher. Later in life, in 1934, I found to my astonished disbelief that I had been included in an anthology of English prose by an Englishman, E.E. Speight, Senior Professor of English at Osmania University in Hyderabad. The book, meant for supplementary reading by college students, bears the grandiose title Indian Masters of English and has among my ‘co-masters’ such distinguished names as Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu!

Salim Ali is a modest man. Well, I for one am not “astonished” at his inclusion in the book; his writing is masterly. However, mathematics is an altogether different matter:

After struggling hopelessly with logarithms and suchlike evils in the first few months at St. Xaviers …

Salim Ali married Tehmima, who had been brought up in London:

After passing her London matric from a somewhat elite boarding school, Tehmima was discouraged by her father from continuing at a university, and instead she was entered into a finishing school for young ladies to learn the correct socialite airs and graces. Tehmima often described with much amusement the inanity of some of the tenets of genteel behavior taught there. For example, one which I remembered was that before you stirred a pot of weak tea at a party you had to say “excuse me” to the company with a sweetly apologetic smile.

And later says:

Despite her sophisticated upbringing, and background, she remained a country girl at heart. Luckily the finishing school had not finished her completely.

Salim Ali carried out a survey of the birds of Kerala in the 1930s (or so I infer). This is what he says about Thattakad, the location of a famous bird sanctuary named after him (he wrote this in the early 1980s; how much more dismal must be the picture today):

For richness and diversity of bird life Kerala stands, in my estimation — at least stood at the time of the survey fifty years ago — as undisputed No. 1. There were certain localities in particular, for example, Thattakad on the Periyar river in northern Travancore, which linger in my memory as the richest bird habitat in peninsular India I have known — comparable only with the eastern Himalaya. Since the survey, and particularly since our Independence, I have visited Kerala every few years and been more and more depressed and scandalized each time by the mindless vandalism being perpetrated by successive state governments and crooked politicians in the devastation of virgin evergreen forests to settle repatriates, or for so-called development projects such as dams for hydroelectric power and raw material for wood-based industries. Thattakad has become a travesty of its former self, with most of the superb natural forest replaced by monoculture of commercial species to pander to industrial development, or drowned in the huge reservoir created by damming the Periyar river. Continuingly [sic], some 1,500 hectares of virgin forest are being clear-felled every year to give way to eucalyptus, rubber, and oil palm. Thousands of hectares of prime evergreen and moist-deciduous mixed forest in the Parambikulam area, memorable for the romantic Forest Tramway, have been clear-felled for teak plantation or drowned under the water-spread, while the ding-dong battle between conservationists and the Kerala government to save Silent Valley, imminently threatened with a similar fate, may only be temporarily over.

The photograph that graces this post is of an owl that is found only in India and Sri Lanka: the Jungle Owlet (Glaucidium radiatum). The owl in the photo belongs to the subspecies malabaricum, and is found only in the Western Ghats. Or so I infer, from a little research with Google. Corrections are welcome.

I cropped and enlarged the owl from the following photo. The owl is perched on what must to it appear to be a throne, lord and master of all it surveys in it’s own little world.

And, believe it or not, I shot this idyllic woodland scene not in some tropical jungle but in the heart of the city of Cochin.



  1. It sounds a fascinating read. Thank you for the recommendation – and for that of “The Love Queen Of Malabar” a little earlier!

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