The open cages | Milaap

The open cages

It was another day of bike rides and field visits. With the soaring heat, it looked like it’s always going to be summer for the next few months in Tamil Nadu.

It was around 1:30 PM when I and my field partner reached Vairaperumalpatti, to meet the sixth borrower. My field partner Mr. Manickam, asked if we could stop over at his home, for lunch. I happily obliged as I was looking at ways to get away from the scorching sun.

Lunch was served by his eighty-year-old god-mother: ‘Ammatha’ was how Manickam addressed her. He told me that it meant grandmother in Tamil. Just as both of us sat before our banana leaves there was a flutter and I saw a lone pigeon hop in through the doorsteps.

Following the lone pigeon

Manikcam saw me sit up despite my fatigue upon seeing the pigeon. He then said, there are over a hundred and fifty pigeons in his household. I was super delighted to hear that.

The reason for the delight

"Oh, pigeon! You are flying towards the Chola country.
When you sight the king's palace, alight and enter into it.
Then introduce yourself to the king, using my name.
On hearing my name the king will offer everything you want"

These verses by Pisiranthaiyar from Purananur; a renowned Tamil poet during the times of the Chola dynasty, came to my mind- I learned them in my eighth grade.

The abundant love for birds and animals has been for ages in Tamil Nadu. People here acknowledge and appreciate every living thing which simplifies their lives.

Right from the bulls which help farmers to plow the fields to earthworms which increase the nutrient value of the soil; all of them are looked upon as a family member by each person and are worshiped by them as well.

Just like a team outing and for a break from the monotony of work, people play along with these domestic animals and birds every year.
For the bulls it’s Jallikattu and for pigeons, it’s the pigeon race. As both Manikam and I walked out of the door, his Ammatha said “Pigeons were trusted more than the humans by the Kings. They were trained for the profound tasks of delivering highly classified documents. Seldom did any pigeon fail.”

The Open Cages

I expected to see a cage and I did see one with open doors. There were like a-hundred-fifty flocks of pigeons out in the open. “I lock the cage only during the night and all through the day the doors to the cages remain open” were Manickam’s words.
The open cage

I saw the pigeons enjoying the summer heat. A funny question which I asked my dad in my fourth grade came to my mind, "How come the white pigeons don’t get tanned when they fly around in the sun?"

 Pigeons enjoying the summer- quenching the thirst to beat the heat.

The life of a pigeon

“True to being free birds, pigeons lead a free but an orderly life”, Mancikam said. I was trying my first hand at adjusting the shutter speed to capture the flying pigeons and he pointed to two of the birds which demonstrated the hop act for me.
The hop act by pigeons 

Manikam continued to say “One can’t tame pigeons; they would stay with a person only when they choose to. You might have wondered why I haven’t named any of the pigeons, it’s because the pigeons don’t like others choosing their names or their life partners.

Also, the male pigeons have profound respect for the lady pigeons: They allow the lady to choose her partner. Once hitched, they remain partners for life and always travel together throughout.”

Manikam showed me new born pigeon chicks when he said this.
The newborn chicks

“But how does one differentiate the males and female pigeons?” I asked.  “Oh! The males have a brown or a pink ring around their necks. See there, those are the new lovers of my pigeon colony”, Manickam said pointing to the roof.

The new lovers of the pigeon colony

Lunch time

It was lunch time and Manickam began feeding the pigeons. The diet for his pigeons includes millet grains and corn kernels. This diet was zeroed down as it was the healthiest one for pigeons and also the source of immense energy which was required for long flights.

 Some of the pigeons enjoying corn Kernels

“You know the rules right –you can’t dictate terms with pigeons. Hence, you can’t tell them when to have lunch”. Saying this he removed the water pot where most of the pigeons were quenching their thirst.
The lunch strategy

The game

Manickam began speaking about the pigeon game after he pointed to the roof; there was excitement in his voice when he spoke.” That’s the roof where I train the pigeons for the game. My job is simple, I have to get all of the pigeons on the roof and that’s it, he said. Manickam walked up the cages and started to get the lazy  pigeons to fly out.” What do you mean?”, I asked him.
 Manickam getting the pigeons to fly out

“The pigeon game tests the ability of a pigeon with its flight time. Typically a pigeon can stay for seven hours in the air, without a rest. Pigeons rest on a surface which is familiar to them, which in this case is the roof. My pigeons come back to my roof after the flight for rest and have won this game for me four times. Not once has any pigeon lost its way”.

 The Rooftop training

The white pigeons compete when the event is during the night and the black ones compete during the day” he said. “Do you require government’s permission for this game?” I asked. Manickam went onto to explain that the district collector sanctions the game every year and inaugurates it.” There are over sixty participants with over five hundred pigeons to compete. Not once, do our pigeons get mixed up and this is because of the roof top training. May 6th is the day this year and you should come then”, Manickam said.

Living in harmony

I saw something interesting which was a paradox to what Manickam said initially:
 The rooster in harmony with pigeons

Seeing my expression Mancikam said “Like I said, pigeons choose their friends just as they choose their life partners. Here, they have befriended this roster just like they have befriended Mancikam”.

Manickam – the pigeon’s friend.

Beyond Lunch time.
I saw my watch and realized it was 4:30 pm. I still had two more visits to complete, which I had planned for the day. 
Manickam told me that we could still complete the visits. His Ammatha came outside to bid adieu and told me-

“All our lives are open cages just like this one. Some of us chose to remain inside the cages and have to be told to fly out, while the others chose to fly out upon seeing the open doors”

Before I could think why she said this and what she meant, Manickam said: “See that pigeon, it is 2016’s champion”.

One of my best clicks- the champion

I clicked a picture and showed it to Manickam and his Ammatha. Both of them were happy. I offered to click a picture of Ammatha, to which she refused.

 I finally said goodbye and got back to completing my visits. Ammatha’s statement about life being an open cage still lingered in my mind. So I clicked one last picture of the open cages.
‘Life is an open cage’.
I was planning to title this as ‘The spirit of pigeons’. Guess the profoundness of Ammatha’s statement made it ‘the open cages’.