Even in their eighties, their passion for eco-conservation has not dimmed a bit. Mala Kumar meets the Futehallys.

"Foolish bird,'' chides Zafar Futehally, not without affection, as a crow tries to move closer to an eagle's nest on a tree in front of the balcony where we are seated. "The mother eagle is still around, though the chicks have started flying out of the nest," he remarks.

"You know,'' says the 87-year-old man getting up to return to the drawing room of his tastefully decorated home in Bangalore, "the number of crows in this city has increased so much that all other [species of] birds are threatened. The crow population has grown to dangerous levels because we humans throw so much garbage all over the place.''

The highly respected ornithologist is worried about the amount of garbage that is created every day. The benefits of eco-conservation, he says, should be inculcated in people early in life.

Zafar and his wife Laeeq, authors, naturalists, long-time residents of Bangalore and passionately interested in birds, have been crusading steadfastly for the conservation of nature and environment.

In fact, there is a board at the entrance to the apartment block where the Futehallys live that lists ways in which one can save water. "Where is the recognition that we are all living off nature?" asks Zafar to nobody in particular.

He then turns to me and says: "Why don't you write about conservation of water? Instead of people holding protests and bandhs (shutdowns) on a whim, why don't they observe a water-bandh day ? why don't they pledge that one day in a week they will use only the minimum amount of water ? no gardening, no washing cars, no washing pavements and driveways ...''

Laeeq, a landscape designer, author and naturalist in her own right, joins us in the drawing room. The niece of celebrated ornithologist the late Salim Ali, she is modest about her work and it requires a lot of prodding to get her to speak about herself.

"Five minutes,'' she says, "that's all I need to tell you all the things worth writing about me." Then in a soft voice, she recounts how she was called upon to design the Powai Lake Garden in Mumbai many decades ago; how she came to write books with her famous maternal uncle; how she co-authored some very well-known books on landscaping and gardening ...

She looks around at the bookshelves that are almost sagging under the weight of tomes ? on interior decoration, birds, gardening ... There's The Sahib's Manual for the Mali: Everyday Gardening in India, written by S. Percy Lancaster and Laeeq Futehally; there are books written by Dr. Salim Ali; works by her daughter Zai Whitaker, late daughter Shama Futehally, and several edited by her husband.

Zafar Futehally edited the Newsletter for Birdwatchers from its inception in 1959 to 2004. From 1962 to 1974, he was the Honorary Secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), a prestigious institution and was one of the few spokespersons for conservation in India at that time.
Later, Zafar was invited to start the World Wild Life Fund (WWF) in India, and he became its Honorary Secretary.

So, what is the most satisfying thing you have done, I ask the grand old man of conservation.

"Years ago,'' he says, "I was walking through the woods in Alibaugh, 60 miles from Bombay, when I noticed a board that seemed to have come up almost overnight. It said 'Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation'.
"This was a region recognised as a piece of evergreen forest, [perhaps] the rarest eco-system in the world. I had just read a circular sent by the International Union for Conservation of Nature where it was stressed that evergreen forests had to be protected. I dashed off a letter to the Times of India. Thankfully, the letter was published the very next day. The same evening an official of the forest department called me to say that he would take steps to see that the eco-system would not be disturbed. The MIDC board was soon replaced by a board that said 'Karnala Bird Sanctuary'.

"This,'' says Zafar, "has been one of the most satisfying things I've done in my life." (Karnala is a tiny sanctuary barely 4.8 square kilometres and home to over 150 resident bird species and about 37 types of avian migrants.)

"I think one of the most important things he has done is edit the bird watcher's newsletter for 45 years,'' chips in Laeeq. "It was an excellent newsletter, and the beauty was that he encouraged young boys to write (on birds) as much he did world-famous ornithologists,'' says Laeeq, who was literary editor of Quest for 20 years (from 1956-76).

Her special interest in landscape designing led her to write extensively about gardens and gardening. Her published works include two brought out by the National Book Trust, Gardens and Common Birds, the latter co-authored with Dr Salim Ali.

But all this praise is mere passion for Zafar who brushes aside his monumental body of work. The fact that he initiated and encourages thousands of people to love, respect and admire the beautiful world of birds is all in a day's work for Zafar in a manner of speaking. To him, these things need not be considered extraordinary achievements. Every one can do it if they want to. At this point, Vivek, the photographer, fishes out a letter written by Zafar to him in 1994.

In it Zafar had written: "....whenever you go out to watch birds, keep a small diary handy. Note down the place and time. Record the colour and other details about the bird ... many young boys who have taken up an interest in bird-watching have grown up to make important scientific discoveries. I wish you all the best.''

Zafar and Laeeq look at the letter lovingly.

"When we were young,'' says Zafar. "There were hardly any bird-watchers. Now there are thousands of hobbyists. They are very knowledgeable, and that's a good thing,'' observes Zafar. "I see a lot of activism and passion in them ... it's just that the development of our cities has been too massive, and our planners are unable to provide even the basics to our citizens."

Striding tall in the field of nature conservation and ornithology, Zafar Futehally has facts and figures of conservation programmes and the like at his fingertips. Though an octogenarian he and his wife still take an active interest in all things concerning the environment in the city.

Zafar is an active member of the Bangalore Environment Trust. As work on the metro rail begins on Bangalore's famous Mahatma Gandhi Road necessitating the removal of the beautiful promenade that lines the road, Zafar and his colleagues are busy drawing up a list of trees that need to be planted in the city as part of an aforestation programme.

He has learnt to use the computer and finds it much easier to use it for writing letters to officials and editors and for compiling articles.

Zafar is also the recipient of several national and international awards in the field of wildlife conservation including Order of the Golden Ark (1981) and the Salim Ali International Award for Nature Conservation (1997). He is editor emeritus of Indian Birds and continues to write, research and participate in eco meets while maintaining his passion for literature, especially Urdu poetry, and horse riding.

The Futehallys are known to be extremely cultured and gracious. Hailing from the clan of the Tyabjis, renowned for their role in India's freedom movement, the Futehallys are also lavish in their hospitality. As Laeeq invites me to tea and biscuits, one can't but admire her lovely porcelain tea set or the seasoned Japanese wooden tray it sits on.

"I was born and brought up in Japan,'' she explains, "so it seems natural for me to like Japanese art. I've always believed in trying to use simple and frugal means to create a nice ambience. There are so many simple and inexpensive ways to design gardens and homes that I don't see why people need to spend so much on glass and meaningless ornamentation in buildings these days,'' she says.

Nibbling on a biscuit, I ask her which is one of her more memorable garden designs.

"The garden that I designed for [daughter] Zai and Romulus Whitaker's house in Kodaikanal many years ago," Laeeq says. "We spent just Rs.83 (about Dh7) to lay the rock-steps to the house on the hill. And a publisher thought a picture of it was pretty enough to put on the cover of my book on Easy Gardening,'' she says, a faint smile playing on her lips.

Among the gardens designed by Laeeq are the 30-acre Powai Garden in Mumbai, and the L&T and BEL gardens in Bangalore.
 They are picture postcard pretty and are examples of how a beautifully-laid out green lung can change the look of a city for the better.

Their family home in Kihim in Alibaugh, a place they visit every summer, is lush with greenery. The Futehally's old home on the outskirts of Bangalore used to have a wonderful garden too. But following a dacoit attack, in which both Zafar and Laeeq were hurt, they moved to an apartment in the heart of the city.
Pretty potted plants dot the apartment that is filled with light and literature. Large photographs retain the memories of huge gardens that Laeeq designed. On the wall too are photographs of Zai and Shama, and one of Zafar standing in the middle of a stretch of barren land. "This is the Zafar we knew best ? wide-brimmed hat on head, binoculars around his neck ...'' says Laeeq. On another wall is a photograph of Zafar on a horse. "Till recently, I used to own a horse. Now I go to the club to ride a horse once a week,'' he says.

The death of their daughter Shama Futehally a few years back was a terrible loss to the Futehallys.

A year after the incident, they helped publish her compilation of Urdu poetry, Slivers of a Mirror ? Glimpses of the Ghazal. In Frontiers:

Collected Stories, also published posthumously, an afterword by Laeeq Futehally provides insights into the life and works of Shama Futehally.

The Futehallys live life with dignity, good humour and pride ? pride in the achievements of their children and grandchildren. Both are always willing to lend a helping hand to any organisation that may require their services.
Laeeq listens attentively to my description about an organisation that helps the visually-impaired and seeks more details so that she can spread the word among her philanthropic friends and neighbours.

I ask Zafar about a little, long-tailed bird and a tiny brown bird that I had spotted in a bamboo tree in the Lalbagh Botanical Park the previous day.

"I can show you the birds,'' he says and walks off to his library. Within moments he returns with a book and shows me pictures of the birds which he identifies from the description I provided. "Here it is," he says. "The two birds are the Paradise Flycatchers ? the long-tailed one is a male, and the busy brown one is a female."

I realise that a country that has people like the Futehallys is a fortunate country indeed. And to meet them and experience their spectacular brand of humility, simplicity and passion ? despite such an overwhelmingly awe-inspiring track record ? is a privilege.