I must thank my planter (an ‘ex’ like yours truly) friend for veering me towards putting this yarn to paper. Jeevan Prakash Gurung (JP to all), one of the most respected tea planters in the Darjeeling planting district has, post hanging up his hat, turned to not just writing his memoirs but to also having them published and distributed. While I daresay he has many more stories to share, thus far he already has three books to his credit!
As and when another one of his books get published, JP very kindly sends me a copy. In his latest book “The Flavours of Darjeeling” which I received a couple of days ago, he relates a rather interesting anecdote which he has titled ‘Chicken Soup’. A story which jogged my grey cells and one which I immediately related to since it reminded me of our own feathered misadventure.
We live within our very own private ‘forest’. Not really one, but I call it a forest because that is what it looks like now with all the trees which I had planted 10/12 years ago having matured and having effectively cut off the view of the house from anywhere around, what I like to call the ‘outside world’. Our very own secluded piece of heaven with plenty of open space which we share with our house staff (a Nepali couple) and our dogs. Hari, our Nepali man Friday, being also very keen on anything of this nature, between the two of us we decided to set up our own chicken coop. The plan being that once the hens started laying, we would have sufficient free range chicken eggs to keep Kitty, me as well as Hari & his family in the pink, leaving some for sharing with our friends.
Not wanting to go overboard on the cost, Hari took on the job of building a rudimentary coop. Basic chain-link fencing going around upright posts using tree trunks harvested from useless trees on our land which we had ring-barked months ago. In a matter of days, the coop was ready to welcome the hens. The plan being that we get twenty layers and two active roosters to ensure that the laying actually happened.
Having crossed him on a couple of occasions when out on my daily walk with the dogs, I was aware that the village close to our house was regularly visited by a live chicken vendor. Had seen this old guy who went around pushing a bicycle which had a large basket strapped to the carrier, with tiny chicken sticking out their beaks and peering out of the bamboo strips of the basket. Having spread the word around amongst the villagers, a couple of days later the fellow was at our gate. What he had in his basket were probably a month-old chicks. That the birds were not of one insipid uniform colour implied that these were the free-range variety. Fascinated as I was by the unusual plumage, ended up choosing twenty of the most vividly coloured chicks.
Within a couple of days, the brood had obviously made themselves totally at home, happily roaming around all over the garden with both the chicken as well as the dogs nonchalantly ignoring each other and going about their respective ‘business’ as though the other lot were simply non-existent.
Within a month of us acquiring them and as the chicks started maturing, I began to wonder at the appearance of wattles and combs on all their faces which had started to get redder. Another week down the road it finally dawned on me that what we had been rearing in our chicken coop, expecting a regular supply of ‘desi’ eggs, was never going to happen because each one of that brood was turning out to be a cockerel.
Can those guys eat! With each one of the birds putting on weight like there was no tomorrow, the cost of the regular supply of bird feed was burning a hole in my pocket and was starting to pinch. With Kitty flatly refusing to even think of the idea of one ending up on our table with, to me, the bizarre logic of ‘they are our pets’; I offered a couple to Muskan whose response seemed to suggest that I was some sort of serial murderer.
Having finally palmed off a couple of the roosters to Hari and some to friends who were not quite as squeamish as my family member, a wild Civet cat did the rest of the honours. Having probably one day chanced upon the coop, the Civet would make a nightly foray to the coop, dig under the chain link fencing, squeeze its way in and make off with another one of the fast-dwindling numbers so that finally we were left with only two, both having this very beautiful and vivid plumage.
One of the two survivors whom I had named ‘Mike Tyson’ was an absolutely handsome rooster who would proudly strut around the house, walking into my office as though he owned the place. More than the pride he exhibited; what separated him from the others was his very aggressive character. While not bothering the dogs, he was ever ready to charge at anyone else who crossed his path. While I too had a couple of run-ins with him, the one who was totally terrified of Mike was Hari’s little daughter who, every time the bugger charged her, would freeze, tremble and break into tears, standing rooted to one spot till she was rescued from Mike.
Saddened me no end when one night Mike eventually lost out to the Civet. The number of feathers strewn all over the coop floor told us that the fellow had put up a big fight, having lost out living up to his name.
In all this, the question which I have never found an answer to is ‘How the hell does one determine the sex of a three-week-old chick’?