This book on India’s Birdman is perfect for a child you know, or the child in you

“Adults, especially parents and educators, can learn a huge lesson from this story,” writes Sonali Bhatia.

Browsing through the children’s section at Atta Galatta, I was thrilled to come across ‘Salim Mamoo and Me‘, a book about Salim Ali, India’s leading birdman. My father is an ornithologist himself, and was lucky enough to meet the legendary birder in person. I’ve been on several bird-watching outings with my Dad and his avid group of avis-lovers, and I can relate to many of the things Zai Whitaker says in her book.

Salim Mamoo and Me, book by Zai Whitaker. Tulika Publishers, 2017.

The book, then, is a delightfully narrated and superbly illustrated account of Zai Whitaker’s trials and tribulations as the niece of the bird man of India, the late Dr. Salim Ali. He was world-famous, and when he wasn’t tramping miles of natural territory in pursuit of his passion, he was either hobnobbing with kings and queens or taking groups of birdwatchers out to – well, watch birds!

And therein lay Zai’s tale of woe.

Being the niece of the man himself, and coming from a family of birdwatchers, this little girl was naturally expected to wake up at 5 AM every Sunday morning and join the group.

Except that Zai did not enjoy watching birds.

Salim Ali, The Birdman of India.

She could not recognise them, and felt inadequate when the members of the group started the process of identifying any bird spotted by one of them. She thus developed the habit of pretending she could not see the bird in question (even if it were a large peacock standing mere feet away). Salim Mamoo became anxious about her and spoke to her mother – who, in turn, coerced the ophthalmologist to prescribe a pair of unnecessary spectacles. Fortunately, on the next outing, these were forgotten in the car, and Zai wasn’t expected to see or recognise the birds. After a point, she confessed to her family that she was unable to tell one species from another, and they, though surprised, accepted this ignorance.

Now, a strange thing happened. The pressure lifted, Zai suddenly found she enjoyed the outings and could, in fact, identify some birds that others could not. The last word in the book is ‘victorious’.

This is a book for children. The style of writing and the illustrations are all child-friendly. But adults, especially parents and educators, can learn a huge lesson from the story – lift the pressure for the child to learn efficiently.

There is a mention of Dr. Salim Ali sometimes shooting birds, early in his career, to be able to identify them. Here, I wish the author had provided a bit of clarification that, though her uncle once did it, she doesn’t encourage or endorse it. Adults reading this to children could use it as a platform to discuss the issue of hunting. This is the only small criticism I have of this otherwise lovely book.

Zai Whitaker

There are some wonderful insights, like her description of smiling on the outside while frowning on the inside when asked about her famous uncle, or carrying inferior sandwiches for the freeloaders, that show the vagaries of human nature.

Gift this book to a child you know – and try to read it with her or him. Or gift it to the child in yourself. That’s what I did!

Sonali Bhatia is a Bengaluru based writer and storyteller.

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