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A Representative Selection

Priya Singh

Edited by Abdul Jamil Urfi
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 385, Rs. 650.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 12 December 2008

India has been aptly recognized as a melting pot, displaying a large degree of cultural diversity. This diversity has also manifested in tolerance and sensitivity towards nature. The omnipresence of birds, their distribution across vast zoogeographic zones, their dazzling hues and acoustic skills make them special. Very often, we see them as protagonists in literary works.   Under such circumstances and keeping in mind the rich literary traditions of India, it is evident that selecting a set of the most appropriate and representative essays on birds must have been a difficult task.   The meticulously selected and intensively researched essays in this collection are broadly based on birds but also throw light on human society in existence at that period of time. The oldest essays represented here are obtained from the Panchatantra in which birds and beasts are anthropomorphic beings and are often used to instill moral values. On the other hand, essays from the contemporary era deal primarily with scientific techniques devised to conserve avian diversity and to educate the masses on their importance for human survival. ‘Are warblers less important than tigers’, is one such popularly appreciated scientific essay by Madhusudan Katti that clearly reflects the need to incite utilitarian ideologies to help conserve a species.   The work is arranged in five themes beginning with ‘Birds and the Human Mindscape’. This section is a potpourri of fables, mythological accounts and some delightfully entertaining narratives on common birds such as the crow by Mark Twain and the rooster by Douglas Dewar. Maulana Azad’s experiences with sparrows while in prison and Simon Barnes’s satire on ‘ticklers’ are amongst the other literary masterpieces in this section.   The second section covers an inevitable aspect of literature on birds: entertainment. While sport-hunting and falconry were a favourite pastime of all those who ruled this land, bird fights were commonly used by the common masses to entertain themselves. The bold accounts of Mary Anne Weaver, a journalist with the New Yorker are unmatched in their description of how politics can overpower global conservation attempts.   ‘Naturalist on the prowl’ contains accounts of exploratory journeys and the undiminished enthusiasm of bird-watching even if it entails observing them from a railway compartment. The foresightedness of E.H. Aitken reflected through his reverence for the vulture even when it was commonly found, clearly brings out the true naturalist in him, that is capable of recognizing the significant contributions ...

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