Bigdi Amma didn’t know what to do with the pigeons. All her ruses and tricks were proving ineffective. Each would work a few days, some even weeks, and a few even for months. But eventually, the pigeons would learn to work their way around them all. And as newer, younger, pigeons flew in with the older ones, they would come trained. How, she would never know. Because the pigeons didn’t live where she sat with her sacks of grains opened and the grains set out in mounds to attract the regulars and tourists alike. The pigeons came from some place behind all those amaltas trees that surrounded this part of the city and gave the place its wide open look. The pigeons that flew in with the promise of easy pickings had been fed on a regular diet of millets, cracked corn, sorghum and wheat that Bigdi Amma had been selling for years ever since she left her husband and his family in the village far away. Now all the grains she sold were the ones that she had seen being cultivated in her youth; grains that had fed her then, were feeding her now.
Only the pigeons would take a good share out of it. And that was a problem for two reasons.
One, because the grains that got eaten were the ones that she could have sold. That was obvious, The other reason was loaded with irony. The grains she sold were bought by people who wanted to feed the same pigeons. So the birds would anyway get the food they were after. If only they would wait for her to get paid for it.
Bigdi Amma sat on a wide footpath around which the city’s chaotic traffic buzzed all day. But on early mornings, when walkers and devotees of the temple behind her and photographers and tourists looking for a quieter side of the city and breakfast hunters who frequented the famous South Indian joint a few paces away, the place looked very different. Other than days when it would rain, Bigdi Amma saw brisk footfall. The locals and devotees would buy their regular cupful of pigeon feed that she would mix and hand over in a paper cup for a fixed amount. The contents would then be strewn around the footpath for the pigeons to go pecking. The sight of so many birds against the magical light of the morning hours would draw in photographers who would buy without enquiring about the price or keeping a count of the number of cups they had bought. As long as they could catch in their shutters the sight of the grains flying against the black and yellow of the footpath and the birds catching a few in mid air, or taking flight as the grains settled and then returning again to get their share. Motion blur, she had heard some of them say, as they showed the results to each other. The tourists, who sauntered around without this being on their must-do lists, would get caught in the moment and buy a cup or two of the grains, and feed the birds — some as an act of charity, some as something they could take back home and speak about. To this last lot, Bigdi Amma would charge more than she did the locals, justifying this act of cheating by arguing that it was still a lot less than what the people they bought the trinkets and souvenirs from charged them.
But the trouble were the pigeons. The birds that were essential to her business were also a threat to it.
Between her arriving at her station and spreading her wares and between people coming in to buy and feed the birds, there were these birds who always hung around. Not caring one bit to see the difference between the seller and the feeders.
For Bigdi Amma, their presence was the advertisement she needed to draw people in. But as they stood around, nodding their necks in that strange way, they would keep testing her reach and patience by nibbling at the grains from her mounds. She had once set out some incense sticks to ward off the pigeons from her circle, just enough to have them still hanging around for people to turn up. That had worked for a few days, but the pigeons had gotten used to the smell and smoke, and she too had realised the cost of burning all those sticks was an investment that was simply not worth it.
Next had come a pigeon net. A canopy that she put around herself, wide enough to cover the sacks and the grains that were spilling out. But this must have been the shortest that she had toyed with any idea. The pigeons did get stopped in their tracks, but the way they hung around the net, looking in at the abundance that was out of reach now, made for a very bad picture of Bigdi Amma. A person who stopped the poor hungry birds from eating so others could buy the food from her and feed them instead. Yes! She would exclaim when she would return to her shanty that she shared with another woman who begged outside a temple when it opened, and worked as a cleaner inside before it opened. Yes! If I don’t stop the birds from eating without selling, I would be the one who will be poor and hungry.
But despite her protestations, she had to let go of the pigeon net that had also come at a cost.
Next came a stick that she would threaten the birds with. But the most critical moments when she couldn’t wave the stick around was when she was filling up the cups with the grains and talking about how hungry the pigeons were today as so few people had fed them, her tried and tested statement that made people buy more. On these moments she herself couldn’t be seen as refusing the same birds a few grains from her lot.
Finally, she had settled on a fan. It was a version that came with a chargeable battery that she could also use at her shanty in the summer months, and also to keep some pigeons away. But this came with its own peculiar issues. The fan would blow a few grains around and the pigeons found it far easier to peck at these than to risk getting closer to the woman.
Years had passed since she had started out in this trade. Doubtless, many generations of pigeons would have come and gone. As had many people who had moved on to thinking the exercise futile, or having switched to feeding other life forms, or to seeing other places that offered scenes worth sharing. But the population of the fed and the feeders continued to hold a balance that always kept her in business. Barring the irony of having to push the very beings away that brought her her daily bread and the bottle of dark rum that she and some of the neighbours from the shanty looked forward to every night.
It was on a night when they were half a bottle gone when the old lady who sold export discards at traffic junctions spoke of an old dog that would sit on the side of the signal every day. It was nothing more than a casual remark, as she took a bite of the samosa that someone had brought, and wondered who was feeding that dog.
The next morning, Bigdi Amma woke up thinking of the dog. Maybe it was her compassionate side that brought to her the vision of an old starving dog in need of food and companionship. Or perhaps, it was her business side that wondered if this could do the trick. Either way, after having coaxed people into shelling out more to feed the birds than the birds themselves would have liked to eat, she stood up as always by noon, packed the five sacks of grain, and stuffed the remaining paper cups in one of the bags, and called out to the waiting rickshaw puller who brought her wares in and took the remainder out every day. Only this time, she asked him to take a detour. That’s how it was that the next day the people who turned up to feed the pigeons saw an old dog sleeping beside the woman. Soon, the regulars starting bringing biscuits and breads for the dog, and the one-timers fished around for anything that they might have on their person That could be considered dog-food. If nothing, a few would leave a little cash with the old woman to buy a meal for the dog with.
As for the pigeons, they finally learnt to keep a safe distance from the animal who had no interest in hunting one, even if one flew and sat right on its jaw. But the pigeons didn’t know that. All they knew was to now only peck at the grains thrown at a distance by the people who bought them in cups.