Sunday, June 27, 2010

Salim Ali for schools

Salim Ali for schools
A Children's biography
by Zai Whitaker
Publisher: Permanent Black

'Salim Ali for schools' - An intriguing title. Why add the words 'for schools' in the title? In addition, the cover of the book also says - A Children's Biography. Once I started reading the book, the title made a lot more sense. As the acknowledgement of the book says, this is a great introduction to Bird man of India, Salim Ali, and could be of great encouragement for kids who show interest in wild life and conservation. If you have a kid who shows great enthusiasm for nature treks, keeping track of animals and birds or his/her face lights up when they see a bird/animal - this is a book that you need to check out. It would provide an idea how a similar kid many years ago, grew up to become India's most famous naturalist.

Zai Whitaker, grand niece of Salim Ali, who has given some great gems like the Andamans Boy, Kali and the Rat Snake, The Rumbling Island gives a great introduction to the note-worthy naturalist. The story of this man begins with an unlikely incident - killing sparrows. A rather cringe-worthy story for parents of today - Salim is given a new air gun at the young age and he starts off by killing a male-sparrow guarding a brooding female. He observes that the sparrow is quickly replaced by another male-sparrow - a new husband. He kills again to find out that the dead male is replaced again by another male sparrow and so on. This rather interesting observation by Salim Ali at an very young age ends up being an important addition to ornithology. This incident would no doubt have many parents nodding their heads in disagreement and thinking - 'Why should this be mentioned in the first page on a book supposedly written for kids'. Before we start venting our frustration, Zai goes on to explain how the age when Salim Ali was born was different and how there was no diference between a shikari and a naturalist. Both were same - hundred years back. A lot of things have changed in the last hundred years and this book takes you through these years from the point of view of Salim Ali and how he changed the landscape(literally too!) of ornithology in India.

As the title suggests, the book sometimes meanders away from the story of Salim to explain a few natural concepts. For example, when Zai is talking about Salim Ali's trip to Afghanistan, it talks about science of camouflaging that some animals/birds have adapted to based on the natural landscape of that area.

A great biography, irrespective of whether it is written for kids or otherwise, should have the ability also to talk about all aspects of the person. If it keeps trumpeting a person's greatness, it becomes a fan book rather than a biography - A biography to a fan book is a rather thin rope and Zai walks this tightrope admirably. She does not hesitate, subtly though, from pointing out some of the other aspects of a great person - like his legendary anger, his madcap car or bike driving and her own opinion of him when she was a kid(who would want to be woken up early in the morning for a nature walk or shouted at for not being allowed to play raucous hide-n-seek).

A wonderful book and highly recommended. It is published by Permanent Black. There are very few hard bound children's books published in India. This book is hard bound - a great indication that it is a keep-for-ever book. The book is interspersed with some very good line drawings by Anuradha Roy.


artnavy said...

I was a huge fan of Salim Ali in my childhood- tried introducing anushka to bird watching in lal bagh....i find even our building attracts lots of them...will remember this wen she gets a bit older

sandhya said...

At her age A is big on biographies, but there aren't many well written ones. I've found the "Dead Famous" series to be good. This seems to a great book, and will look out for it.
BTW, I used the anecdote about the young Salim Ali killing the sparrow and the subsequent interpretation of it as a bed-time story and also highlighted the fact that children do do a lot of silly things, but wasn't it a great thing that Ali used his observations instead of it just becoming another prank? Thanks.

dining room table said...

Salim Ali is one of my father's favorite. He told me everything about him and now I am also one of his die hard funs.

sathish said...

artnavy, yep. Blr attracts a lot of birds - but,sparrows are hardly to be seen though.

Sandhya - that is nice to hear - glad u could make a bed0time story about it. I have not tried "Dead Famous" series yet.

dining room table - thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts.

Meera Sriram said...

As always, a very interesting pick!
Its nice that the narrative includes 'all aspects' of the person. Thanks Sathish.

artnavy said...

you see a lot of sparrows in the Blore airport at the waiting area- but they seem trapped inside...

sathish said...

meera, thanks for the comments.

Artnavy, I see sparrows sometimes near my office - but, they disappear the next day.

Vibha said...

A great pick Sathish. Thanks for the review.

Choxbox said...

Thanks Sathish. Will look out for this one.

We have some other books on birds in India, incl. one published by CBT which is good as well.

Praba Ram said...

Sounds like a neat addition to the biography collection. As S noted,this is certainly one area of nonfiction that needs more attention in the world of Indian kiddie books.

K enjoys biographies too. She recently read one about Marie Curie - a very simple picture book. I don't remember the name of the series. Will look up.

DK has a neat series of biographies for children.

Noted the disappearing sparrow phenonmenon while in Chennai last couple of times. Some speculate could be due to cell phones. :(
Birds are fascinating indeed. We often try to watch our local birds and look up their names. But, one spooky, story I remember reading about...the Jatinga suicidal ones in India.

Thanks for this awesome pick!

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