June 10, 2005

Blood in the dust

Ivan Crasto of rediff.com won a recent Sports Journalists' Association Best Story award for this excellent report. Reading it brought back memories of, of all things, a cock-fight in West Bengal.

I once travelled to Purulia district in West Bengal to meet members of the Kheria Sabar tribe. Unfortunately, I got there just days after an athletic tournament in which a number of them had participated. But I was told by more than one person, and with more than a little pride, of how the Sports Authority of India had taken note of the athletic abilities of the Sabars; 26 of their youths were selected to move to the SAI complex in Calcutta for more training.

This, of course, is what Crasto's article reminded me of.

But then I remembered another local event the tribals take part in, and this one, someone took me to: the cock-fight in Uldha. Here's a version of something I wrote about it at the time.


Off in one corner, ready-to-fight roosters are on display. Crowing nonstop, they stand tall, proud and foolish, one leg tied to a brick, a cycle, anything to keep them from flapping off to pick fights. Also tied to the leg is a chit with the owner's name and a price. That's what the owner will pay whoever beats his champion in a fair fight. I walk around, checking the chits. 31 rupees. 51 rupees. The highest price is 151 rupees, attached to a puzzlingly scrawny white bird. Must make up for its nondescript looks, I imagine, with fierce aggression in battle.

Or this is an unduly optimistic owner.

For some years, Kheria Sabars have been encouraged to raise birds for these fights. At Rs 500 and up for a bird -- far more than the meat alone would fetch -- it is a fine way to generate income. So in this corner of this vast cock-fighting area, meet the Sabars with their birds, come to fight. Some handsome roosters indeed, but the men have not yet found suitable opponents. This is explained to me: you see Dilip-saab, everyone looks to match his bird against smaller, weaker ones.

In the end, this strategy means that the bouts are between nearly identical birds.

But me, I cannot see how any factor -- smaller, weaker, identical, anything -- other than blind luck decides the fights. Because all over the area, men are tying vicious knives on the legs of their birds. This is an intricate, slow process, done with the rooster's head and neck tucked firmly under an arm or knee, its legs held just so.

I look at these knives and despite myself, I can feel it. I look around, and in the faces of the men -- only men, there's not a single woman here -- I can see it.

Blood lust.

To the good fight, then. Two at a time, men enter an enclosure, each holding a bird under his arm. Very carefully under his arm, remember the knives. Transferring them to their hands, the men "introduce" the birds to one other. Their beaks nearly touch. Then they set the birds down. Necks close to the ground, they eye each other warily.

As do the roosters.

No, but really, the men also circle, behind the roosters. Egging the creatures on, watching their moves closely.

With an angry ruffling of neck feathers, the birds' natural aggression takes over. They explode up and into each other, feet aimed at each other. Remember those scythe-like blades, sharpened to a sunset-time gleam, sticking out a heart-stopping 3 inches from the birds' legs. So in that explosion, blood is inevitable, expected, and it spurts from the first joining of the battle. Now I feel the blood lust.

The birds jump back, circle warily again, explode once more into that joint flurry of flapping feathers. Now I'm trembling with blood lust.

The explosion happens 3 or 4 times. Until one bird sinks -- tired? weakened by blood lost? -- to the ground. Or it runs away from the fight. More often, the men have to gingerly disentangle their wildly flapping birds -- who knows where, or what, those diabolical blades have got stuck into. Then they remove the blades. Each owner squats, puts his rooster on the ground, places his foot squarely on the bird's neck and carefully unties the string that holds the blade. Immobility, assured by that foot, is important. Can't have the bird thrashing around during this exercise, or there'd be more than avian blood spilled in the dust.

Immobility is important.

Birds bleeding into the ground. Birds that have lost, held by their legs, carried upside down, bleeding into the ground. Some are losing blood through their beaks, the crimson liquid running like from a tap, bleeding into the ground. I watch one owner whap his bird's head hard on the ground, again and again. What's on his mind? Disgust? Anger? Shame? Or is this just the normal way to finish off a hopelessly injured creature? But this one still flaps when he gives up the whapping. Still bleeds into the ground.

Birds that have won are carried out as they came in: tucked proudly, affectionately, under an arm. They too bleed into the ground.

Dust laden, I leave. As the sun sinks lower still, it goes on behind us without pause: one great dusty cock-a-doodle-doing cock-fighting cacophony, bleeding into the ground. I try hard to stop trembling.

No comments: