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The Song Of The Magpie Robin

Cara Tejpal reviews Zafar Futehally’s memoir, The Song of the Magpie Robin.

By Zafar Futehally
Published by Rupa Publications
Price: Rs. 500
Pages: 197

Flitting between genres like an overzealous sunbird in a spring garden, Zafar Futehally’s The Song of the Magpie Robin defies easy classification. Labelled a memoir for the sake of convenience, the book is just as much a primer to the early years of India’s conservation movement, and a treasury of natural history facts.

Futehally, a giant in his time and a legend after, narrates with frank humility and wry humour the story of his life. Part I of the book, labelled and about Personal Memories, is a mere 50 pages long and encapsulates, amongst much else, Futehally’s early childhood, his marriage to Laeeq, his initiation into the world of business as a partner at Dynacraft Machine Co., a company started by his brother that allowed him to enter the world of conservation without worrying too much about funds, and his intense love for horses that endured till the very end (He was riding Lassie, his favourite mare, even at the age of 90). In this succinct section, he also chronicles his relationship with Laeeq’s uncle, the famous Sálim Ali who was responsible for triggering Futehally’s own interest in ornithology. Devoting more than a few pages of Part I to anecdotes about his uncle by marriage, Futehally’s respect for Ali is unmistakable.

Part II of the book, titled Pioneering Conservation in India, is almost thrice as long as the earlier section and truly seems to be a guileless personal account of Futehally’s part in shaping the country’s conservation story. Irreverent of political correctness and diplomacy, he compliments or derides people and organisations exactly as he sees fit. (Wildlife enthusiasts, be warned, there is a chance that this book will expose the clay feet of your most admired conservation idol.) It would be pointless to try to summarise the number of projects Futehally initiated, spearheaded or supported; if I did, your brain would turn to alphabet soup. Sufficient to say, he was instrumental in establishing organisations such as the Bombay Natural History Society and WWF-India, editing the much-loved Newsletter for Birdwatchers, and was the first Indian to be elected to the Executive Board of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Most striking though are not Futehally’s successes but his unabashed recollection of his many failed ventures. These self-effacing confessions are a reassuring reminder that conservation has always been hard work, but there are joys to still be had.

Through his lifetime, Futehally also gathered a platoon of international friends and these characters, many of them great conservationists themselves, make frequent appearances in the pages of this book as he reminisces on his not infrequent work travels. To this end, he drolly recalls being accused of being an ‘anglophile’ more than once when he suggested getting the advice of an international expert for a project in India.

The Song of the Magpie Robin gets slightly impersonal as it progresses, and there are points at which one forgets that they are reading a memoir and suspects that they are reading a conservation history book. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re a conservation junkie, but others may find these portions a little dull. Simply told and embellished with rare letters, certificates and pictures, The Song of the Magpie Robin should, without question, find a place on every nature lover’s bookshelf.

At the end of the tome, though his conservation ideals have beamed through crystal clear, Futehally, the man, still remains an enigma. That is, until you read his daughter Zai’s brief but tender afterword. Couple that with the moving introduction penned by Shanthi and Ashish Chandola, and suddenly you realise that the man and his conservation ideals, are one and the same.

Zafar Futehally releases a bird from a mist net in 1962. Photo Courtesy: The Estate of Zafar Futehally.

In August of 2013, barely two weeks after Zafar’s death at the age of 93, I sat in the dimly-lit auditorium at WWF-India’s colossal Lodi Road office and listened to a host of people pay tribute to him. This book, reiterates the immense legacy that Zafar left behind, and I suspect, that for a long time to come, when I hear the call of a Magpie Robin, I will think of a man that I never met, but to whom I owe very much.

Read More: Zafar Futehally – Acclaimed Ornithologist And Conservationist.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 1, February 2015.


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