When I saw the two men
pushing a handcart loaded with bamboo baskets from Victoria Terminus
towards Crawford Market, I immediately assumed they were carrying
chickens. For those are the kind of squat baskets made from split
bamboo used to ferry fowl. However, when I heard the sound emanating
from the baskets, I was intrigued. Some chickens, I thought to
myself, as I crossed the street to investigate
Its too dark inside
the baskets to make out the kind of creatures packed in. But they
definitely sound like parakeets, making the kind of hoarse, screechy
racket caged parakeets make when they are frightened or angry. I also
notice that for all that cacophony, the birds sound pretty feeble.
Their screams seem to be coming from somewhere far off or as if they
are gargling through gags.
When I ask what they are
carrying, the man pulling the cart replies laconically over his
shoulder, toton ke bachche (baby parakeets).
And this parcel
of parakeets has apparently arrived by an overnight train from Uttar
Pradesh. Its just one small consignment in the annual spate
10,000 to 1,50,000 parakeet nestlings, which insiders say, arrives
every year in the city from January to June.
The sheer scale of the
enterprise blows my city-bred sensibilities; imagine scouring the
countryside, peering inside steep wells and abandoned building;
clambering over all kinds of trees, to locate the nesting holes of
these blood-beaked, grass green pollies. Imagine the commotion, the
screeching of the feathered furies, as they swoop and protest to
protect their young, in vain. Worse, imagine the collective cries of
the bunched up babies as they are yanked off from the warm, dark
security of their nests into crowded baskets and packed off to
distant cities in noisy, thundering trains
Depending on the variety,
each nestling fetches anything from Rs. 10/- to Rs. 100/-. The
commonest or garden variety is the rose-ringed parakeet; less common
are the larger Alexandirine parakeets. Blossom headed parakeets from
the forests and their fringes are scarcer as are pink-breasted
parakeets from U.P. and the eastern Himalayas. The rarest are the
blue-winged parakeets; stray specimens land up from areas lide
Bhiwandi and wada in Maharashtra. Although they live in the Western
Ghat from Maharasthra to kerala, south India is really the stronghold
of the graceful blue-wings. But one reason why so few land up in
Bombay is that both the nestlings and adults are found to be delicate
and vulnerable to the kind of handling that the rest of the flock are
Over the years the
bird-handlers have also discovered that wild parakeets are able to
withstand starvation for a couple of daysthe time
it takes to transport them from regions like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar,
Gujrat and Madhya Pradesh into Bombay.
Although, the collection
of chicks is banned under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), the
trade in parakeets goes on all over India. One reason why the
provisions are less stringently enforced is that parakeets are widely
perceived as pests. And the reason why nestlings are favoured is
because young birds can be easily taught to speak. The
learning ability, to imitate speech and other sounds, is said to be
strongest in the first year or two. And once they grow up, parakeets
tend to be proverbially long-lived.
Talking parakeets and
mynahs from India have been highly prized since time immemorial. And
the large Indian parakeet is named in honour of Alexander the Great,
who introduced these birds to Greece and Europe. He is also known to
have presented a particularly loquacious one to his equally talkative
master, Aristotle! Depending on the ability and the degree of
tameness, these talking birds fetch a handsome price, particularly
from foreign visitors (especially those from the Middle East).
surprisingly, a variety of myths, misconceptions, even downright
deceptions about these birds abound. For instance, the blue-winged or
the Bababudan parakeet enjoys a (spurious) reputation as a talking
paragon and is credited with the ability to converse with human being
in Arabic! This is based on the birdss association with Muslim
sage called Bababuddin who settled in the Mysore Hills (named after
him) over a hundred years ago. In addition to introducing
coffee-growing from Yemen to India, Bababuddin kept some blue-wings
and taught them to recite holy words from the Koran. That marked the
start of Bababuddan parrots inflated repation as a trainee
linguist who could put Eliza Doolittle to shame!
Alexandrine parakeets are likely to be offered as Nepali
parrots. (The wholesale market refer to them as Channai
or Chandana.) What the gullible buyer ddoes not know is that these
Nepali parakeets are found through the whole range from
the Himalayas to Sri Lanka and eastwards to Burma and Thailand!
Indeed, if you are lucky (as I am) to have a bit of greenery around
your house you might even find one of these exotic: parakeets
calmly munching on a guava or a mango in Bombay. Some of these
raucous-voiced, large-headed parakeets with crimson shoulder patches
are wild. Others are former in mates from glided cages, enjoying a
bit of free air (they may even greet you with a Hello or
of these birds owe their freedom to pious people, especially from the
Jain community, who pay the shopowners at the bird bazaar at Crawford
market to release birds like bayas (weaver birds); munias and
parakeets on festivals and special occasion.
for a couple of hundred rupees you can have the pleasure of seeing
scores of birds flapping off for freedom. That some of these tame
birds return to their cages is another story.
is more wasteful, many birds, even when released in wooded
localities, just dont make it to freedom. Being unable to fend
for themselves, they often land up in a cage of different
sortsinside the belly of a kite, crow, or a cat!
Market is the heart of the licensed bird trade in Bombay: out of 19
licensed shops in the city it has 16. Besides parakeets, you can find
a variety of birds including zebra finches; canaries; budgerigars,
cockatoos, love-birds, mynahs, bulbuls, pekin robins and green
bulbuls. This multi-coloured, moving, mosaic of featheres is a
but for the bars. Lronically, its
only thanks to these bars that you are able to ogle at these birds in
this concrete jungle.