Pioneer conservationist

Song of the Magpie Robin, Zafar Futehally, Shanthi Chandola, Ashish Chandola, Rainlight Rupa; Rs.500, Pages 197

2018 has been declared the International Year of the Bird by National Geographic, BirdLife International and more than a hundred conservation organisations. From this year, efforts will be intensified to celebrate and protect avian species around the world.

To mark the International Year of the Bird in India, Rupa — the well-known Delhi-based publishing house — has fittingly reprinted the autobiography of Zafar Futehally, whose life-long odyssey to document and protect India’s birds and their habitats is chronicled in his own words. The magpie robin, a common songbird in danger of extinction, is closely associated with him. 

The life of Zafar Futehally was spent in the shadow of Salim Ali. A distant cousin of the great birdman, Zafar married Laeeq, Salim’s niece. Admitted into the family circle, he naturally fell under the mesmeric spell of the older man and took up ornithology as his life’s mission. But unlike Salim, Zafar had a day job in his brother’s engineering company, a filial relationship that fortunately enabled long absences from work for birding trips. Salim Ali is nationally renowned, but his protégé, Zafar Futehally, is equally prominent in birdwatching circles.

This book is Zafar’s autobiography, reluctantly written at the behest of friends. The self-effacing Zafar gave in at the age of 92, and his memoir is the last literary effort of a prolific author who was encouraged and urged to write about the country’s abundant avian species by his mentor Salim Ali. 

Annoyed by a journalist’s essay about the magpie robin in The Times of India which was full of howlers, Zafar wrote a column called Birdwatcher’s Diary for ToI. It ran for 30 years, perhaps the longest innings ever of a newspaper columnist.

Zafar was the longest serving honorary secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), functioning also as one of the co-editors of the society’s journal through the 1960-70s. Those were turbulent years, marked by political rifts and rivalries within the society, but Salim and Zafar were able to restore administrative and financial stability.

It was in those decades under the influence of BNHS and Futehally’s ToI column that the Central government initiated action on conserving India’s dwindling wildlife, propelled by Indira Gandhi’s redoubtable firmness. Her ardent championing of wildlife conservation causes is splendidly documented in the recently published Jairam Ramesh’s Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature (2017). Perhaps the individual who had the greatest influence on her and provided data for her decisions was Salim Ali, if one were to judge by the number of references to him in the index of Ramesh’s book. But Zafar’s interactions with Madam were influential in their own way. 

Perhaps the best known event on wildlife conservation to date in India was the 10th General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1966, which was organised by Zafar, then vice president of the IUCN. Indira Gandhi accepted his invitation to inaugurate the assembly and delivered a powerful address on the destructive impact of reckless industrialisation on wildlife habitats and nesting grounds. In 1973, Zafar persuaded her to become patron of the Bombay Natural History Society.

For all his copious writing, Zafar was no armchair conservationist. Forever in communion with the wilderness, he took active interest in woods and forests neighbouring Mumbai and through his newspaper essays and appeals to officialdom, was successful in establishing the Borivali National Park and Karnala Bird Sanctuary — havens for avian species and birdwatchers alike. 

In 1972, Zafar moved to Bangalore to pursue a business opportunity. He built a house near Doddagubbi Lake, and was among the first to draw public attention to the growing pollution of lakes and rampant deforestation. In 1987, he constituted the Bangalore Environment Trust with other prominent citizens, and for several years contributed a column on environment preservation to the Deccan Herald, initiatives which awakened public consciousness about the need to protect and conserve the precious natural heritage of this city of lakes and gardens.

Zafar was born in Bombay in 1920, and entered the family business after graduating from college. Schooled in old ways, his cultured manners and modest demeanour smoothed the way for his many public campaigns and projects. His memoirs are written in typically self-effacing style, and to really gauge the magnitude of his huge contribution to the ecology and environment conservation movement in India, one must refer to other sources.

Glenn Christo
Resurgent religiosity

The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Atheism in the Modern World, Alister McGrath Rider; Rs.1,594, Pages 306

This thought provoking book by a noted British scholar explores the roots of the rise of atheism in the world and its visible decline today. McGrath refers to atheism as the greatest “empire of the modern mind” (which he unintentionally equates with the Western mind). He shows how, attracted by the appeal of atheism, huge numbers of people in the West rejected belief in all transcendental realities, and began to consider religious certainty as ridiculous, reactionary, oppressive, manipulative and enslaving. For them the abstract concept of God was an impediment to human intellectual and spiritual liberation.

Drawing on a vast array of Western sources, the author traces the growing disenchantment in Europe with institutionalised Christianity, which was the dominant religion for centuries. With the passage of time, the power, wealth and omniscience of the Church began to be seen as a scandal. The Church acquired the reputation of an agent of exploitation and oppression, with its dogma holding back social, intellectual and political progress. Rising rational and historical criticism of the Bible led many Europeans to challenge centuries-old submission to religious beliefs that were found wanting on rational and humanitarian grounds.

The European ‘Enlightenment’ with its notions of ‘progress’, exacerbated opposition to the Church, which over time grew into opposition to all forms of religion, and to the very notion of the Transcendent. The French Revolution (1789) gave a boost to this process, prompting many of its votaries to imagine the dawn of a new world freed of religious restraint, rationalism, and committed to the liberation of humanity from tyranny and religious superstition. 

They believed that if God was ‘eliminated’, a bright new future would dawn for humanity. Many in Europe warmed to this idea, writes McGrath. He narrates that people became tired of institutionalised religion and the Church’s support for oppressive monarchies, and a corrupt, fraudulent and dishonest priesthood. 

Gradually, writes McGrath, atheism became a dominant worldview in large parts of the West. He does a masterly job of explaining how this happened. Soon, it was being claimed that there was no reason at all to involve God to explain ordering of the universe. A host of materialist ideologies began to emerge, united in their claim that God was a myth, that religion was imaginary, and that the liberation of humanity lay in ‘science’. Votaries of hedonism, who regarded the purpose of life to simply be ‘enjoyment’, virulently rejected God and religion, regarding them as barriers to fulfilling what they believed was life’s purpose. 

Their claim that genuine liberation was only possible by ending belief in God won many takers, including vast numbers of people who didn’t want to be restrained by moral rules, seeking unfettered freedom rather than submitting to divine authority. Ideologies such as ‘scientism’ and humanism, and the idea that reason, not faith in unprovable religious beliefs, should guide human action, further undermined religion in the West. McGrath outlines the role of influential Western thinkers, such as Marx and Freud, who sought to explain away religion and belief in God.

Nevertheless, McGrath admits that contrary to expectation, ‘modernisation’ didn’t lead to the evaporation of religion and humanity’s need to believe in the Transcendent. The appeal of cold, rational and soulless modernity gradually began to wane after it had reached its zenith. He admits to a noticeable religious revival, which he takes as an indication of the ‘twilight of atheism’, and something that he, as a theist who was once an atheist, welcomes.

This book is a well-argued history but equating the Western experience as representative of the entire world, strikes a discordant note, and this is a major limitation of the book. Another point is that the growing religiosity that McGrath welcomes as the imminent triumph over atheism need not necessarily mean the rise of genuine spirituality. 

Further, missing in the book’s perhaps too-brief appraisal of the religious situation of the contemporary world, is the global rise of consumerism as a de facto religion for millions of people, including vast numbers who claim to follow one or other conventional religion. 

Roshan Shah