Book: The Crow Eaters
Faredoon Junglewalla, Freddy for short, saw no future for himself in his ancestral village, in Central India, and resolved to seek his fortune in the hallowed pastures of the Punjab.
Loading his belongings, which included a widowed mother-in-law eleven years older than himself, and a pregnant wife six years younger, onto a bullock cart, he set off for the North. The cart was a wooden platform on wheels -- fifteen feet long and ten feet across. Almost two-thirds of the platform was covered by a bamboo and canvas structure within which the family slept and lived. The rear of the cart was stacked with their belongings.
The bullocks stuck to the edge of the road and progressed with a minimum of guidance. Occasionally, having spent the day in town, they traveled at night. The beasts would follow the road hour upon hour while the family slept soundly through until dawn.
Added to the ordinary worries and cares of a long journey undertaken by bullock cart, Freddy soon found himself confronted by two serious problems. One was occasioned by the ungentlemanly behavior of a very resolute rooster, the other by the truculence of his indolent mother-in-law.
Freddy's wife, Putli, taking steps to ensure a daily supply of fresh eggs, had hoisted a chicken coop onto the cart at the very last moment. The bamboo coop contained three plump, low-bellied hens and a virile cock.
Freddy's objection to their presence had been overruled.
Freddy gently governed and completely controlled his wife with the aid of three maxims. If she did or wanted to do something that he considered intolerable and disastrous, he would take a stern and unshakable stand. Putli soon learned to recognize and respect his decisions on such occasions. If she did or planned something he considered stupid and wasteful but not really harmful, he would voice his objections and immediately humor her with his benevolent sanction. In all other matters she had a free hand.
He put the decision to cart the chickens into the second category and after launching a mild protest, graciously acceded to her wish.
The rooster was her favorite. A handsome, long-legged creature with a majestic red comb and flashy up-curled tail, he hated being cooped up with the hens in the rear of the cart. At dawn he awoke the household with shrill, shattering crows that did not cease until Putli let the birds out of their coop. The cock would then flutter his iridescent feathers, obligingly service his harem and scamper to the very front of the cart. Here he spent the day strutting back and forth on the narrow strip that served as a yard or standing at his favorite post on the right-hand shaft like a sentinel. At crowded junctions he preened his navy blue, maroon and amber feathers and crowed lustily for the benefit of admiring onlookers. Putli spoiled him with scraps of leftover food and chapati crumbs.
Quite hysterical at the outset of the expedition the cock had, in a matter of days, grown to love the ride. The monotonous, creaking rhythm of their progress through dusty roads filled him with delight, and each bump or untoward movement thrilled his responsive and joyous little heart. He never left the precincts of the cart. Once in a while, seized by a craving for adventure, he would flap across the bullocks and, juggling his long black legs dexterously, alight on their horns. Good-naturedly, Freddy shooed him back to his quarters.
Freddy's troubles with the rooster began a fortnight after the start of their journey.
Freddy had already devised means to overcome the hurdles impeding his love life. Every other evening he would chance upon a scenic haven along the route and, raving about the beauty of a canal bank or a breeze-bowed field of mustard, propel his mother-in-law into the wilderness. Jerbanoo, barely concealing her apathy, allowed herself to be parked on a mat spread out by her son-in-law. Sitting down by her side, he would point out landmarks or comment on the serenity of the landscape. A few moments later, reddening under her resigned and knowing look, he would offer some lame excuse and leave her to partake of the scene alone. Freddy would then race back to the cart, pull the canvas flaps close and fling himself into the welcoming arms of his impatient wife.
One momentous evening the rooster happened to chance into the shelter. Cocking his head to one side, he observed Freddy's curious exertions with interest. Combining a shrewd sense of timing with humor, he suddenly hopped up and with a minimum of flap or fuss planted himself firmly upon Freddy's amorous buttocks. Nothing could distract Freddy at that moment. Deep in his passion, subconsciously thinking the pressure was from his wife�s rapturous fingers, Freddy gave the cock the ride of his life. Eyes asparkle, wings stretched out for balance, the cock held on to his rocking perch like an experienced rodeo rider.
It was only after Freedy sagged into a sated stupor, nerves uncurled with langour, that the cock, raising both his tail and his neck, crowed, "Coo-ka-roo-coooo!"
Freddy reacted as if a nuclear device had been set off in his ears. He sprang upright, and the surprised Putli sat up just in time to glimpse the nervous rooster scurry out between the flaps.
Putli doubled over with laughter -- a phenomenon so rare that Freddy, overcoming his murderous wrath, subsided at her feet with a sheepish grin.
Freddy took the precaution of tying the flaps securely and all went well the next few times. But the rooster, having tasted the cup of joy, was eager for another sip.
Some days later he discovered a rent in the canvas at the back of the shack. Poking his neck in he observed the tumult on the mattress. His inquisitive, little eyes lit up and his comb grew rigid. Timing his moves with magnificent judgment he slipped in quietly and rode the last thirty seconds in a triumphant orgy of quivering feathers. This time Freddy was dimly conscious of the presence on his bare behind, but impaled by his mounting, obliviating desires, there was nothing he could do.
His body relaxed, unwinding helplessly, and the cock crowed into his ears. Freddy leaped up. Had Putli not restrained him he would have wrung the fowl's neck there and then.
When the whole performance was repeated a week later, Freddy knew something would have to be done -- and quickly. Afraid to shock his wife, he awaited his chance, which came in the guise of a water buffalo that almost gored his mother-in-law.
At dawn they had stopped on the outskirts of a village. Jerbanoo, obedient to the call of nature, was wading into a field of maize with an earthenware mug full of toilet water when out from behind a haystack appeared a buffalo. He stood still, his great, black head and red eyes looking at her across the green expanse of maize.
Jerbanoo froze in the knee-high verdure. The domestic buffalo is normally very docile, but this one was mean. She could tell by the defiant tilt of his head and by the intense glow in his fierce eyes. Cautiously bending her knees, Jerbanoo attempted to hide among the stalks, but the buffalo, with a downward toss of the head, began his charge.
"Help!" screamed Jerbanno, dropping her mug. Lifting the skirt of her sari with one hand, she fled towards the cart.
"Get to one side, change your direction!" yelled Freddy, gesticulating with both arms.
Terrified into imbecility, Jerbanoo continued to dash in a straight line ahead of the buffalo.
"Move this way, move away!" shouted Freedy, waving his arms east and west and running to her.
Just then a man popped up from the maize stalks and bellowing for all he was worth, waving his shirt to attract the attention of the buffalo, diverted the stampeding animal. Being the owner of the beast, he quickly brought it under control.
Distraught and disarranged, Jerbanoo fell sobbing into Freddy's arms. It was the last time he ever felt a wave of tenderness and concern for his mother-in-law.
Putli was grateful and pleased with Freddy's gallant effort in rushing forward to help her mother. Taking advantage of her sentiments, Faredoon delicately presented his case for the elimination of the rooster.
"God has saved us from a great calamity today," he declared after supper. "We owe Him thousands, nay millions of thanks for His grace in preventing bloodshed. As soon as we are settled near a Fire Temple, I will order a jashan of thanksgiving at our new home. Six Mobedswill pray over enough holy fruit, bread and sweetmeats to distribute amongst a hundred beggars� but it might be too late! We have been warned, the earth thirsts for blood! I intend to sacrifice the cock tonight."
Putli gasped and paled. "Oh, can't you sacrifice one of the hens instead?" she pleaded.
"It has to be the cock, I'm afraid," said Freddy, permitting his lowered head to sink sadly. "We all love the charming fellow, I know, but you cannot sacrifice something you don't care for - there is no point in it."
"Yes, yes," agreed Jerbanoo vehemently. After all it was her blood the earth thirsted after -- her life they were talking about!
Putli nodded pensively.
Next day they ate a succulent chicken and coconut curry.
It was a memorable wedding. Years after people still talked about it. Hedges had been leveled in the compound of the Taj Mahal Hotel to clear parking space for carriages and limousines. Openings were dug in the walls dividing the banquet rooms, reception rooms and lobby of the Hotel to accommodate guests and facilitate the flow of service. Flowers were commissioned from Bangalore and Hyderabad, cheeses from Surat, and caviar from the Persian Gulf. There was lobster and wild duck and venison. There was a bottle of Scotch and Burgundy for each guest, and ambulances, their motors idling, stood ready to convey the inebriated or overstuffed to their homes or to the hospital. Two hundred Parsee families, living in a charitable housing scheme and not invited to the party, were each given a sack of flour, a ten-pound canister of rarefied butter, lentils and a box of Indian sweets. There was a police band, a naval band, a dance orchestra and an orchestra that played chamber music. There was singing.
The revels continued into the small hours of the morning but Tim and Billy left their wedding reception at about ten, changed, collected their light luggage and went to the station. They were seen off by their immediate families. Someone gave Tanya a packet of telegrams just as the train was about to move.
The morning routine never varied, except the day the thunderbox was replaced by the flush system and the morning when Jerbanoo, hoisting the curtain, announced. "Have you heard? I just heard on the radio: England and Germany have made war! We are going to fight!"
Billy clinched the iron-scrap deal within an hour of the news.
The house relaxed with Billy's departure to the office. The children suddenly became boisterous, servants shouted to each other and Tanya went for her bath.
To train a household to the extent that they seek only the master's well-being and approbation is no mean achievement. Whereas Freddy governed his house with the aid of maxims, putting his foot down only if someone's conduct was absurd or destructive, Billy kept his foot down all the time. He tyrannized his house, governing chiefly through Tanya. His commandments were directed at her. They were, in order of preference:
Thou shalt not spend money!
Thou shalt not waste.
Thou shalt give me a minutely detailed account of expenses.
Thou shalt obey thy husband and jump to his bidding.
Thou shalt bring up thy children to obey and to love me more than they do you.
Thou shalt never require anything.
Thou and thy children shall not disturb me.
Thou shalt switch off all light and fans.
The commandments continued endlessly. Few, like Billy, have the overriding tenacity to enslave.
Tanya lived on her toes and on edge. She gave of herself obediently because she had the soul of a romantic. They make good martyrs. She gave in because Billy had been the first man to satisfy her -- and the only one she was permitted to love. The tradition brooked no deviation. Besides, Billy was so rich that her father's wealth appeared paltry. She was the wife of the richest man in the land!