Feathers and Dust

In these times of curfew, people in Srinagar have been caged inside their homes. “Hartals” and ‘Curfews’ like sale-cum-exhibitions happen every now and then in Kashmir. Anyone found venturing outside risks being interrogated, chased, beaten, or shot. So, applying the less used laws of common sense, people sit inside their homes. Wondering as every car passes by, who could it be? Why is he on the road? Where is he going? Is it an Army vehicle? As homely pigeons sit under eaves of roofs of houses listening into the conversations of people they understand the grim situations of the city. They learn that in times of curfew people come to roost in living rooms and kitchens. They pass on copious amounts of gossip and a milk less variety of tea. They eat bread frugally and rice generously for days in curfew are infinite.

In the inner lanes of downtown Srinagar there is some commotion, which is quite the norm, and very well too. Any day without commotion in down town sends up a fever in the authorities, and the people wonder if times are really changing in Srinagar and changing for what? So downtown with its pigeons and all is an area of a lot of activity. Pigeon rearing is an ancient activity in Srinagar. It is a peaceful activity too, at least as much peaceful as the special peace laws imposed on the land allow. People, boys usually, who are fond of domesticating pigeons usually are very possessive of their birds. They are bred to match colour and qualities (like swift fliers, high fliers, etc.) and then sold at very high prices to other pigeon-keepers. If the pigeons go missing from any one coop, things get ugly.  Often there are ugly mohalla wide confrontations. A lot of swearing is exchanged in lieu of the missing pigeons and as many accusations charged and dismissed. Normally the local government does not interfere in this activity. Any charge of pigeon theft is promptly denied, and it lies on the pigeon rights activists and lawyers specialising in this branch of law to prove otherwise.  The government may if it considers necessary, order an Enquiry Commission and then trash its report. It happens all too often. The pigeons and their thieves are never found.
Arif, the pigeon keeper has lost two of his best fliers. The last time he saw them was after Friday prayers, just as the boys were about to begin pelting stones on the CRPF vehicles. He raised his eyes to see the pigeons perched on the antennae over his balcony and counted all six silhouettes. Then the pigeons took flight. And in the evening when he went to close the coop for the night only four returned. There was no cat in the vicinity and he found no feathers. The pigeons seemed to have disappeared without trace.
The pigeons fly in circles over the neighbourhood. They don’t go very far. Sometimes they’d fly high and perch on trees or overhead wires. But usually they returned to sit in the shade under the eaves of the attic of Arif’s house. His pigeons were not trained to do anything else. They were swift fliers but nothing more. In his neighbourhood there were only two boys who kept pigeons.
In Maisuma the daily wagers gather everyday beneath the awning of a disused hardware shop and wait for someone to call. The CRPF men keep strict patrol. Invisible eyes keep peering out of helmets and armoured vans all the time. In general, the CRPF wallah looked very bored. Like a wanton apparition he seemed misplaced, and to add to his misery he looked about fully aware of his misplacement. He chewed Nevla tobacco which came in two rupees pouches incessantly. The gun weighed heavy on his shoulders and he was acutely trying to distract himself with the people haggling for oranges at the nearby cart. That day he was not imposing a curfew. He was just standing there because someone had asked him to.
A pigeon flew on to the wires above him. His morose reverie was broken. He raised his gun to shoo the pigeon away. But the pigeon was not interested in the threats a sundry man in a helmet was issuing from somewhere down below him. The pigeon did not see them as threats at all. From its perch above he must have appeared like some fool poking the air with a queer looking stick. The pigeon looked at the city with red eyes.
Meanwhile, the old daily wager is perturbed. His noble profession of looking for a new work every day has been challenged by some authorities in the Assembly.  He sighs at the new competition. “These newbies and wannabes,” he says. They have no clue. A man in a plush grey suit with white shirt and no tie has screamed from the senatorial pews that he too is a daily wager. The daily wager is amused. He isn’t outraged. He seeks company and likes it. The news has reached him late. He chuckles at the pace his world moves.
The daily wager is a dusty old man. He has grown beyond his age in numbers like so many in the conflict. The years seem to have escaped him. The start and the end are all that remain. The rest of the memories are a jumbled mess of events for the daily wager. He only knew the amount of work he had lost. He sighed at the colossal loss it had been. All of it.
Just then his eye caught the CRPF man poking at the pigeon. He hoped the pigeon wouldn’t fly away. He sighed at the thought, again.
Oddly he realised that he had never called himself a daily wager. He wasn’t paid his wages daily. He wondered if that was any different.  He had to negotiate for them every day. On days like these he may get hired. He may even do his work professionally. On other days, he would find no takers. People, even those who could hire him, wouldn’t. No one wants to spend the money, you may not earn tomorrow . He realised that his grounds are even weaker. He realised that he wasn’t essential. In Kashmir, no one is.
A bus conductor was calling people for Dalgate and Batwara. A tired looking group of people got into the bus, followed by some labourers from India. The bus left slowly and a number of small cars followed. He checked his pockets for change. There was none.
Arif doled out the grain.  A small stainless steel for each pigeon was his usual measure. An occasional bulbul or mynah would join in the feast. He counted four bowls, and stopped. There were only four left. He threw the bowl back into sack of rice. Hesitated, and with a sigh, brought out two more.
The pigeon hadn’t gone away. His fellow para-trooper threw a stick at the wires above him. The pigeon did not see the stick and it hit on the wings. Both of them were surprised how well had he aimed. They laughed knowing that there was no skill involved. Throwing sticks for shooing pigeons is not gallant. The pigeon fell down and died.
The daily wager looked at the setting sun. There was a large orange dot in a crimson sky behind the old buildings of Lal Chowk. The Srinagar he once knew was another day past; a new city was shaping up. No one wanted to be a part of this city. It was filled with strange and sudden noises. And it had no pigeons. The daily wager threw away his cigarette and combed his hair with his fingers. The gravel beneath his feet made a crushing sound as he jumped from his seat by the side of the road and walked away. He felt unusually angry at the Assembly mayhem. Humiliated.
The daily wagers do not shoot pigeons for survival. For those who have nothing to do, there is ample sport to be had in the spoils of an ungainly war. The pigeons stay close to their coops.  They only disappear for a while. Some people say that they circle their own houses for seven days and then come back. The ones you see on the branches have stayed to sing the songs of lamentations. But sadly the pigeons don’t sing. They only coo in their ruined coops of how red the skies have become since their last flight. It is no pleasure for a homely pigeon to fly in a red sky. And under such red skies, the daily wagers must go out to earn their handful and return with a handful of feathers and dust.

Author: Rich Autumns

Blogger from Kashmir. Twitter: @RichAutumns

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