Sunday, March 9, 2008

Our Feathered Friends

By: Ranjit Lal

Birds of India: A Literary Anthology, edited by Abdul Jamil Urfi, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.385, Rs.650.

As birds and birding rapidly gain popularity in India, the number of books on birds that has been published in the last decade or so has also risen considerably. This wonderfully entertaining and eclectic collection of writings about birds and birders and ornithologists can only make birds even more popular in the public perception, with hopefully the add-on benefits of such popularity (better conservation, better conservation, better conservation!) accruing in their favour too.

For a start, Urfi has picked a star cast of writers: The contributors include Kipling, the emperor Jahangir, Khushwant Singh, Mark Twain, Maulana Azad, Jim Corbett, M. Krishnan, Jawaharlal Nehru, EHA, Salim Ali, Jerdon, Malcolm Macdonald, E.P. Gee, Nissim Ezekiel, Douglas Dewar, Peter Jackson, Madhav Gadgil, A.R. Rahmani, Otto Pfister, Theodore Baskaran, Zai Whitaker and Zafar Futehally, pretty much the Who’s Who of Natural History writing in India, past and present.

He has chosen the pieces, he says in his introduction, not merely on the basis of their information content or ornithological value, but majorly on the basis of their ranking high in reading pleasure. Every piece is a gem: sheer good, sometimes classy writing backed up by sharp observation and comment; of course some shine brighter than others, but that will always be the case.

The book has been divided into six broad sections namely, Birds in the Human Mindscape; Sport, Entertainment and Falconry; Naturalists on the Prowl; Natural History and Science; Birdwatching and Beyond; and Personalities and Controversies. It is not the kind of book you need to start at the beginning and read chronologically, but you can dip in anywhere at will, and enjoy yourself equally. Of course, by the end of it you will pull favourites as I did. Mark Twain’s wonderful piece, “In Praise of the Indian Crow”, is surely a classic. Maulana Azad’s “Sparrows of Ahmad Nagar Fort Prison” came as a pleasant surprise.

Apart from the lay reader, I think this book ought to be made mandatory reading in schools — both for language and content. There’s a wonderful range of writing styles on display, and the content is pretty much faultless too.

(Condensed from The Hindu, March 9, 2008)
You can read the original at

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