Salim Ali was born into a Sulaimani Bohra family in Bombay, the ninth and youngest child of Moizuddin. His father died when he was a year old and his mother Zeenat-un-nissa died when he was three. Along with his siblings, Ali was brought up by his maternal uncle, Amiruddin Tyabji, and childless aunt, Hamida Begum, in a middle-class household in Khetwadi, Mumbai. Another uncle was Abbas Tyabji, a well known Indian freedom fighter. Ali’s early interest was in books on hunting in India and he became the most interested in sport-shooting, encouraged by his foster-father Amiruddin.
Shooting contests were often held in the neighbourhood in which he grew and his playmates included Iskandar Mirza, a distant cousin who was a particularly good marksman and went on in later life to become the first President of Pakistan.Salim was introduced to the serious study of birds by W. S. Millard, secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) where Amiruddin was a member, who identified an unusually coloured sparrow that young Salim had shot for sport with his toy air gun. Millard identified it as a yellow-throated sparrow, and showed Salim around the Society’s collection of stuffed birds.
Millard lent Salim a few books including Eha’s Common birds of Bombay, encouraged Salim to make a collection of birds and offered to train him in skinning and preservation. Millard later introduced young Salim to (later Sir) Norman Boyd Kinnear, the first paid curator at the BNHS, who later supported Ali from his position in the British Museum.
In his autobiography, The Fall of a Sparrow, Ali notes the yellow-throated sparrow event as a turning point in his life, one that led him into ornithology, an unusual career choice, especially for an Indian in those days. Even at around 10 years of age, he maintained a diary and among his earliest bird notes were observations on the replacement of males in paired sparrows after he had shot down the male.
Salim went to primary school at Zenana Bible and Medical Mission Girls High School at Girgaum along with two of his sisters and later to St. Xavier’s College, Bombay. Around the age of 13 he suffered from chronic headaches making him drop out of class frequently. He was sent to Sind to stay with an uncle who had suggested that the dry air might help and on returning after such breaks in studies, he barely managed to pass the matriculation exam of the Bombay University in 1913
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