Remembering Dr. Hamida Saiduzzafar: A birdwatcher par excellence


During my childhood days I used to sometimes encounter a slightly hunch backed, gentle looking elderly lady with short hair, dressed in a saree,  who dropped by to see my grandfather Prof Suroor, in Aligarh. Since she drove her own car (a fiat) and was known to be a no-nonsense, matter of factly person, she was referred to as ‘zoor-dar khatoon’—a formidable lady. She was Dr. Hamida Saiduzzafar, whom I later came to know quite well as a conservationist and bird watcher. But as a grand old lady of Aligarh I think she will always be remembered for not one but quite a few reasons.

The first reason will be, as the sister–in law of the great Urdu progressive writer Dr.Rashid Jahan (who along with Munshi Prem Chand organized the first meeting of the Progressive Writers Association and wrote books like Angare) and the sister of Mahmuduzzafar (Rashid Jahan’s husband)—a well known leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI), writer and political activist. Admittedly these are specifics over which she had no direct control because they pertain to not who she was but to which family she belonged. And it was no ordinary one but a very distinguished family of North Indian Muslim elite from which Dr. Hamida hailed.

The second set of reasons, however, relate  more directly to who Dr. Hamida was—she was a highly respected ophthalmologist; among the earliest female doctors to graduate from India, in an age when women were fated to stay at home, manage families and the household. Here she was—the first female student to complete her MBBS  from the King George Medical College in Lucknow and thereafter to battle in an all male world of medical practice, establish her own professional reputation, eventually becoming Professor of Ophthalmology at Gandhi Eye Hospital affiliated to the Aligarh Muslim University.

And the third, which is an important one for me, is that she was a nature lover and an ornithologist par excellence. She encouraged young people and was helpful and kind to whosoever came in contact with her, as several people recall. For instance, Dr. Zoya Zaidi, who had studied medicine in Moscow and came back to Aligarh after completing her studies, was enamored by Hamida’s charming personality. I contacted her while working on this article and she recalled, “Hamida could get along very well with young people, probably, because there was a childlike innocence about her pure soul”.

But, who was Dr. Hamida? Though very little information about her life exists in the public domain there is enough material pertaining to the basic facts of her life. One of the sources available is an unfinished autobiography which she left behind and which, after her untimely death, was brought out in the form of a book by the efforts of Ms Shaila Haider (niece of Rashid Jahan). The slim book simply titled ‘Autobiography: Hamida Saiduzzafar (1921-1988)’ edited by Lola Chatterji, was privately published in 1996. According to information in it, Hamida was born to Sahibzada Dr. Saiduzzafar Khan (and Shaukat Ara Begum), a scion of the royal house of Rampur state, one of the princely states of British India in the United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh). Having said goodbye to Rampur, Sahibzada Saiduzzafar had shifted to Lucknow and young Hamida did her schooling in different places till she successfully competed in the pre-medical test or PMT in Lucknow University and started her medical studies there.

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All through her career, Dr.Hamida must have been a busy doctor, attending eye camps, doing cataract surgery or attending professional meetings. In the midst of this, how did she catch the birdwatching disease? It turns out that she contacted the disease from the grand old man of Indian Ornithology Dr. Salim Ali (1896–1987), nicknamed as the ‘birdman of India’, himself. This was in ca 1933 when Hamida’s family spent their holidays in Dehradun where they had extensive property including a beautiful house named Nasreen (now a part of Welham Girls School in Dehradun).

Hamida’s family house Nasreen in Dehradun

In those days Salim Ali and his beautiful wife Tehmina had also come to live in Dehradun and the young Salim, who was a friend of Sahibzada Saiduzzafar, was a frequent visitor to Nasreen.  Here, Salim Ali’s visits were looked forward to very much as he entertained the guests with his wit and humor and his superb badminton play. Remembering those times, Hamida writes in the chapter ‘The Nasreen “Club” and Salim Ali’, in her autobiography, ‘Salim Bhai turned out to be a most interesting and versatile person. He was a bird photographer, so he encouraged me in this hobby and taught me to aim for sharp pictures. We used to go for long walks and rides together, deep into the foothills, and he taught me not only to identify the birds we saw there, but to take down notes and learn their generic, Latin names as well’.

Salim Ali used to say, ‘Birdwatching is like measles. You have got to catch the disease’. I had caught the disease fairly early and spent a lot of time in the outdoors, watching birds, observing the shapes of seeds, forms of vegetation and visiting the local zoo quite often. Due to my interests in the natural world I decided to pursue zoology and enrolled in a suitable course at the Aligarh Muslim University in 1978. However, as I soon discovered the manner in which biology subjects were taught in the classroom was hardly enough to generate any interest in life forms, patterns of diversity or the underlying mechanisms. It was at this juncture that I came in contact with Dr. Hamida.

Situated in the fertile doab in the Indo-Gangetic plains (the nearest Ganga shore is about 50 km away from Aligarh at Narora) Aligarh is rich in birdlife. The leafy university campus is littered by several parks and gardens (such as the Naqvi park and the University Fort). On the outskirts of the town are numerous Jheels, such as the one at Sekha or the extensive marshes at Narora. Having bought Salim Ali’s ‘Book of Indian Birds’ and borrowed my father’s binoculars I was traversing all across the district in my pursuit of birds.

I wrote to Salim Ali about my sojourns and much to my astonishment a reply arrived. It was a brief letter which said, keep up with your birdwatching and contact Dr Hamida for more guidance. Well, though I had seen Dr. Hamida several times before but never thought that she could be into bird watching. I began seeing her at her residence, Gul-o-Rana located in an area known as Amir Nishan, in Aligarh.

Salim Ali’s response to my letter

At Gul-o-Rana I remember being introduced to a cyclostyled periodical called Newsletter for Birdwatchers, which it turned out was a world of its own. In those days without facebook, social media and whatsapp chat groups of today, it was a great platform for birdwatchers from all over the country to share their experiences and to know about each other.

The periodicalwas one family’s affair being produced privately and quietly by Mr. Zafar Futehally (a relative of Salim Ali), assisted by his family members. (In due course I was to know the whole family very well and remained in touch with Zafar Sahab and his daughter (late) Shama Choudhrey for as long as they lived).

I wrote my first article—on the birds at Narora Barrage in the Newsletter. Dr Hamida had herself contributed quite a few articlesto the Newsletter and one very interesting piece by  her was repeated counts of the numbers of Blue Jays (Indian Roller) which she encountered while driving on the GT road between Aligarh to Delhi, spanning for over a decade. In modern ecological research this would be considered a wonderful study design for assessing populations over the long term, especially with the computational techniques of modeling which are now available. I was so enamored by the article’s simplicity and usefulness that I decided to include it in an anthology of writings on Indian birds (Birds of India, A literary Anthology, Oxford University Press, 2008) which I later did for Oxford University press.

At Gul-o-Rana Dr. Hamida had built a small library with books on birds, wildlife, nature conservation etc and soon enough I was borrowing them. But for my association with Dr.Hamida and introduction to bird periodicals and books which I read from her collection I might not have sustained my interest in field biology and environmental studies, as I did.

Besides having contributed bird notes to the Newsletter and Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, Hamida wrote extensively on birds. For instance, she contributed a piece on vision in birds for the OUP-BNHS Encyclopedia of Indian Natural History. Being an ophthalmologist she was well suited for writing such a piece. She also frequently gave talks on birds in the Women’s College with which she remained associated all her life. (Rashid Jehan, her sister in law, was the daughter of Shiekh Abdullah (affectionately known as papa miyan)—the founder of AMU’s Women’s College. So Dr. Hamida’s association with the College was very personal).

Women love birds and men birdwatching. Birdwatching, with its relentless chase for rare, elusive species, the surge of adrenalin etc is thought of as a very masculine hobby, contrary to popular perception. Yet in this scenario there was another female birdwatcher that I am sometimes inclined to compare with Dr.Hamida. This was Mrs Usha Ganguly, wife of Prof. Dr. B.N. Ganguly, one time director of Delhi School of Economics and also Vice Chancellor of Delhi University. Usha is remembered today for having written the first authoritative book on the birds of Delhi (Usha Ganguli, Birds of Delhi region, 1971, ICAR).

While the two women, near contemporaries, were similar in having a common interest in birds, in some ways they were quite different. Usha Ganguli, wife of a prominent academic, was also a highly social person and had international and national birdwatchers visiting her often and accompanying her on field visits. (Delhi, being the capital attracted many visitors and in Ganguly’s book we find mention of well known birdwatchers such as Salim Ali, Luvkumar Khacher, Julian Donahue, Peter Jackson and several others). In contrast Dr.Hamida was perhaps a more reserved and shy personality. Most of her associations were personal friends and family members and she did birdwatching for her own satisfaction. Though she contributed her observations on birds to periodicals she never wrote a book, say a book on the birds of Aligarh. Her’s was a contemplative personality. As Zoya Zaidi remembers, once Hamida said, “We always keep traveling back and forth in time in our heads…”, a profound statement which she remembers to the day.

Dr. Hamida never married and forever remained busy in her professional and family circles. Both, however, died quite early and did not live to see ripe old age. Usha Ganguli died of cancer in 1970 and Hamida died of a stroke in 1988.

In the 1980’s, as environmental consciousness was increasing, departments or centers in various universities devoted to ornithological and wildlife studies were being created. In Aligarh too plans in this direction were afoot and being generous to a fault Dr. Hamida provided all possible help in these efforts. Dr. Salim Ali, whose fame was at its peak then (He was director of BNHS, principal investigator of several of its research projects and winner of many awards, Paul Getty Award, Padma Vibhushan etc), on Hamida’s invitation made a visit to Aligarh. On this visit he gave a talk on birds and screened his film on bird migration, activities which contributed towards creating a momentum in the eventual formation  of the wildlife department at Aligarh. However, later when the department got started, Hamida was sidelined, which hurt her deeply. (Incidentally, some developments that preceded the creation of the new department created a flutter in those times and were much talked about. Prof Ather H Siddiqi, who retired as Professor of Zoology mentions some of the incidents in his autobiographical memoirs, Main Kiya Meri Hayat Kiya).

The year 1983 was an important one from the point of view of the BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society), the organization with which Dr. Salim Ali had been associated for most of his life. It had turned 100 years (1883-1983) and so a bash had been planned by organizing an international seminar ‘Conservation in developing countries-problems and prospects’. The venue was to be IIT Powai in Bombay. Since this was likely to be a big event I was very keen to go but the problem was finances. The registration fee was several hundred rupees- a princely sum in those days when everyone lived on a budget. I was hesitant to ask my father for that much amount but help came from an unexpected quarter.

On a trip to Aligarh I met Dr. Hamida and she asked if I was going for the BNHS centenary. I tried to put up a brave face but then, as if reading my mind, she said, ‘why don’t you go in my place. I have paid the registration and I can easily write to J C Daniel (then the curator of the BNHS) to transfer the amount to your name. I have decided not to go because something else has turned up’. I was overjoyed as in one stroke my problem was solved and all that I had to do was to buy a second class sleeper ticket on the Bombay mail and be off.

It was my first trip to a faraway place that I would be doing on my own and I was excited. The BNHS meeting itself turned out to be a superb experience as I heard fantastic talks, participated in discussions. That was a great gift from Dr.Hamida, something that I will cherish all my life.

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