If you polled the average person who has lived in or visited India on which animal caused them the most consternation, the vast majority would immediately describe a horned bovine meandering through busy thoroughfares, giving no cares to the desired progress of its human neighbors, slowly chewing on a day-old roti or an abandoned chappal. This doesn’t hold true in my case. After living in India three times, I have seen many of these docile obstacles—enough to desensitize me to their omnipresence. No, instead, if asked which animal brings me the most grief, my mind’s eye fills with the dusky silver wings and burnt sienna eyes of the rats of the sky; i.e., pigeons. Or, as they are more affectionately referred to as I yell out my window, filthy कबूतर (kuh-BOO-tur).
Pigeons and me go way back. I remember taking my early morning rickshaw rides to Hindi class in Jaipur and glaring in barely concealed revulsion as men threw seeds to hundreds of winged rodents at the major intersections on JLN Marg. I would clutch my scarf tight to my mouth and nose—certain that some communicable disease was torpedoing its way into my pulmonary system. I also remember one particularly steamy day in the middle of monsoon as I stood beneath a tree with some of my friends, waiting for an autowala to pass by. I was minding my own business when something soft and wet fell on my head. With growing dread, I patted my hair to find that a sky-rat had defecated on my person. My friends couldn’t stop laughing, and an Indian in the group exclaimed that having a pigeon empty its cloaca on you was, in fact, a boon. To date, three other pigeons have chosen to bestow upon me said blessing. I still fail to see what good fortune came from said encounters, but an overall distaste for my winged oppressors has persisted.
As fate would have it, my Ahmedabadi bathroom window opens onto a narrow shaft in my building that is home to, and I am estimating here, about a million pigeons. No matter the time of day, I can hear the cooing and rustling of my feathered neighbors over the whir of my ceiling fan. One afternoon, I heard a ruckus coming from my bathroom and opened the door to see two pigeons locked in mortal combat on my sill. Without a moment’s hesitation, I grabbed the sprayer from beside my toilet, rushed to the window, and aimed tandem jets of tepid water and blistering curses at the belligerents. At the first kiss of liquid on feather, the combatants fled their battleground. My mouth quickly flapped aside its profane tongue to form a shout of victory. For that brief moment, sprayer in hand, triumphant smile on face, I had protected my territory. After returning the sprayer to its mounted home, I immediately called my landlord to have anti-pigeon spikes installed. Best money I’ve ever spent. All is now quiet on the bathroom front.
In full candor, I realize that my relationship with pigeons could use some couples therapy. Quite to my dismay, the pigeons seem to care very little about my personal feelings toward them. They continue on their merry way, their beady eyes castigating me with accusations that I’m the one who always starts it. Maybe I do, but if they would just stop relieving themselves on my rooftop terrace, I would be less inclined to instigate a confrontation.
Our relationship being what it is, you can probably imagine my amusement when I went to my favorite Chinese restaurant in Ahmedabad one afternoon, located at a rather nice hotel, and was brought to a warm table by a large, sunny window that afforded me a clear view of, what I will kindly call, a pool infested with pigeons. I remember resignedly shaking my head, thinking that pigeons get better access to amenities than almost anyone else in Ahmedabad. What I would do to be able to lie by a pool all day on a nice, secluded terrace should not be reduced to writing. And here are these pests, getting all of the perks while I spend most of my time trudging down the sweaty street with the rest of my hoi polloi kind.
I turned from the scene, smirking slightly to myself at how truly pithy and deep my inner monologue was, and opened my menu. Somewhere between the soups and the dim sum, a movement on the terrace caught my attention. A figure, arms behind his back, was slowly pacing the outer rim of the pigeon pool: a young Indian man in an impeccably white uniform. I was transfixed by this calming tableau, and after a few minutes realized that what I was viewing was a carefully choreographed performance, being played out for no one in particular’s benefit on this sunny upper balcony.
The piece began with the young man at stage left and the two dozen or so pigeons scattered about in the pool stage right. The man would begin walking toward the pigeons, eyes fixed on nothing in particular but everything in general. As he neared a pigeon, it would take flight, circle lazily above the set, and settle at the end of the pool stage left. Eventually, bird by silver bird, the man would reach the last remaining pigeon stage right. As it slowly completed its choreography and alighted in the water near center stage, the young man would serenely turn on his heel, hands still clasped behind his narrow back, and begin his journey back to stage left, causing the same flight reactions in his avian partners.
The act continued on a never-ending loop as I spooned my hot and sour soup, as I attempted to use chopsticks to eat rice, as I placed my spotted napkin on the table after paying the bill. For the better part of an hour, the young man in white had not broken stride and not a pigeon had excused itself to the side of the stage for refreshments. This continuous whirling of partners had transfixed me so that at one point I had absent-mindedly stabbed myself in the upper lip with my noodle-laden chopsticks. As I took my leave and the elevator doors began to close, I kept my eyes trained on the outside scene, intent to absorb as much of the performance as possible. As the mirrored doors converged, I could just make out the young man in white pivoting in place to begin again his unending choreography before I was confronted with the face I recognize as my own.
My experience at the lunch theatre consumed my thoughts for quite a while. What an absurd thing to observe. Surely the young man was a pool attendant. Did one of his supervisors tell him to keep the birds out of the water? Or, was he simply doing it to pass the time during the early afternoon hours when no one was on the deck demanding more towels or a mocktail? But, the thing that struck me the most was how pointless the whole exercise seemed in hindsight. The pigeons weren’t leaving the pool. The gray potpourri of their shed feathers was still slowly growing across the pool’s blue surface. But the young man in white continued his patrol, unconcerned with the immediate effectiveness of his actions.
I return to this episode frequently as I sit at my desk staring blankly at a screen or as I watch the scenery pass by my window from the backseat of a car heading toward a far-flung district. There are so many instances in my fellowship when the easiest thing for me to do would be to exit stage right. Whether it’s because I’m not feeling it that day or because the situations seem too difficult to deal with, I’m presented with a plethora of opportunities to give up—on a task, a day, a week, or a complete project. It’s in those moments, that precipice of throwing it in, that I’m reminded of the young man and the pigeons. Of how he wasn’t seeing any immediate results, but he continued to do his job. It’s then that I withdraw from the edge and settle back into the steps of my work. I might be in the chorus, I might not have any lines, and I might never make the final cut for the company once the show moves to Broadway. But I’ll have done my job. And that should be enough for me to continue on my path—as linear and monotonous as it may currently appear. There is a quiet dignity in doing what is expected of you, especially when you think no one is watching.
Last week, I went back to the restaurant for lunch and asked to be placed by the large, sunny window. As we approached the table, I eagerly looked toward the pool area. Searching. The young man in white was not there. Neither were the pigeons.