The pecking order

The pecking order

I have vigorously tossed between being a confirmed crow eater and a total grass eater.

Living in the take-off point for all meat hunters in Malnad, I had to contend with heart-rending sights. My uncle turned up every year with his shooting van. He had a simple philosophy which answered the animal lovers' lament - I only shoot to eat. And sure enough, he ate them all. His meal consisted of tiger's liver, leopard's tail, cock's head and bison's paw. He had a ready list of the attributes of each of the delicacies and would recite them to all and sundry around. He lives on today at 86 and has thus proved his point.

But accompanying him and seeing the springing leopard, darting rabbit and the galloping antelope writhe in pain moments before lying inert gave me the jeepers. The ultimate was the common deer. When it got hurt, it really showed its pain. So, despite my uncle's best efforts, I could never develop that killer-eater instinct.

Every self-respecting household those days owned its own little poultry. Chicks being chicks, they ran around the house tying us up in knots of affection. So did pigs and lambs. Each one had a name. And they were all destined for the eating table.

Those days, the truth was closer to life than it is now. The birds, the lambs and the pigs had to be turned into meat in our own backyard. Ah, the gore! And so we had slowly slipped into six-day vegetarians, and Sunday stayed on as the meat day.

One fine day, we shifted to the city along with our brood of animals. The meat was sold as meat. So, all our table-top dishes turned into householders. The biggest of our brood of animals was Raja the cock. He was belligerent and would think nothing of attacking any stranger. We did not need dogs those days. Raja was enough to claim, challenge and give fight if need be.

The little sister in the family got married just then. As the custom dictates, we were set on making the first night miserable for the newlywed couple. So we put Raja in the bedroom, under the cot. The bridegroom from the coast, whose first-hand knowledge of living species stopped at fish, ran out screaming in the middle of the night.

Mother had a soft corner for Raja. No one dared touch him, least of all the cook who had a running fight with him. Other birds were not made of the same stuff and were pinched or lost over time. Birds, especially those that lay eggs, get stolen more easily than mobikes in cities. Ultimately, there was only Raja.

We had gone out for the weekend to Mysuru and Raja had been confined to his cage. We had been gifted a Rajapalayam dog - a baby really, which ran all around the place. When we returned, we had a first-hand account of why the dog had an ear bitten off. Thereafter, we tied Raja up and treated bird and dog alike, as two guards of the house.

The old hunter uncle was a rare visitor. One day, he happened to visit us when only the two guards were at home. They promptly went for him. Being an old hand at dogs, Rajapalayam was no problem. He could get him to eat out of his hand if only Raja would allow it. No way. Raja flew into his face and toppled his toupee and bit huge holes in it. There was nothing the old animal expert could do, save gun Raja down if he had one.

When we got back, there was a tableau of dramatic intensity at home. Uncle, with his bristling moustache breathing heavily, was at one end of the long drawing-room, and Raja was atop the radiogram - both eyeball to eyeball, holding each other still.

Father, who hated our fetish for Raja, immediately flew into a temper and wanted Raja slaughtered immediately. Mother went for the cook.

We were all hounded into our bedroom so that there would be no scene. We lay in our beds for long hours, awake, awaiting the end of Raja. The night wore on. We heard no noises. It was morning sooner than we thought, and the first thought on our waking was Raja. We ran out and found an empty cage.

The children that we were, we knew when not to ask questions. No one mentioned Raja. Days later, mother told us that uncle wanted Raja alive rather than dead, and hence took him away with him.

After all these years, I still don't know the truth.

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