Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

A chance encounter

Navtej Sarna

WE saw him as he stepped down the path from the 9,400-foothigh Vyas Shikhar to the idyllic forest rest house at Deoban. We thought that it must be him with his olive green jacket, his cotton trousers with their low-slung patch pockets, the hoary white beard and the inevitable binoculars slung over his neck.

But then we dismissed it as the fanciful imagining of inveterate celebrity hunters and went up the Shikhar. In the distance stood the hazy Bhagirathi and Kedarnath peaks. A mass of untimely clouds obstructed the Banderpunch. And far below, as a spray of red tops on dark green hills, lay the town of Chakrata.

Secure in the thought that the deed of the day had been performed, we scrambled down. He was getting ready for breakfast in the bright sun. Then occurred one of those social accidents at the end of which everybody says that it is such a small world and we were introduced to Salim Ali, Self-consciously we spoke our names close to his right ear. His cheery welcome banished the nervousness which marks the meeting of two groups of strangers.

Eating cornflakes in cold milk, he talked in a high voice about the surrounding forest to which he was coming after forty years. As he talked, one became aware of a dynamically alive curiosity. The same curiosity which had turned an eight-year-old boy who shot birds with an air gun, into a world famous orinthologist.

Breakfast over, he responded to calls of “Salim Bhai” and “Salim Chacha” from his companions, all avid birdwatchers, as they sought clarifications or confirmations. From the enthusiasm he showed, one would think he was seeing those birds for the first time.

The forest path led gradually downhill. The 86-year-old maestro walked surefooted and comfortably, looking perfectly in place. His hands sought his binoculars and then silently he searched the skies and the fir and deodar and spruce. His gaze followed an eagle as it circled the sky in royal flight. Gliding effortlessly it sank into the valley and then soared up again. The binoculars followed and Salim Ali could have been anywhere in the Himalayas of the past decades, spotting, searching, identifying.

Back at the rest house, he talked of Mahim creek in Bombay and woolfram mining in Burma during the First World War and of his elders who had thought that he was wasting his time on birds.

A fly buzzed irritatingly and settled on his chair. Picking up his swatter, he gave it one firm crack “What a lovely way to spend the day”, he said and smiled.