Three nights before Eidul Azha, nine-year-old Iqru went to bed hungry because he was too angry to eat. He and his 14-year-old brother had had such a violent fight that women from the neighbourhood had to pry them apart. The issue was pigeons.
The morning after the fight, Iqru rubbed his eyes and scanned the sky above. His uncle, his brothers and he have a couple of dozen pigeons between them in Khairo Dero — a farming village, 25 kilometres from the city of Larkana, where they all live. His trained eye searched the skies for pigeons, strangers to his village, who had flown into his territory and were potential catches. Minutes later, he spied one and like a hunter, leapt off his charpoy and rushed up the stairs to the roof, his feet caked with mud. There, he pulled out a couple of his own pigeons from a small dark shelter and flung them into the air, hoping to fool the straying pigeon into thinking this is home. He hurriedly laid out fresh water and a fistful of wheat kernels. When the pigeon was trapped, he tossed it in with the others and let out a squeal of victory.
Iqru is one of Sindh’s thousands of ‘pigeon kids’ — children who rear and bet on these birds. He is a skinny little fellow with freckles across his cheeks and hair like a hedgehog. He blinks constantly, fidgets when he talks and rarely smiles at home. His real name is Iqrar Ali, but even his cousins don’t know that. And he has never seen the inside of a classroom. A kabootri, as these children are known in villages across the province, usually don’t go to school. Iqru spends his days, instead, feeding, flying and capturing pigeons, winning and losing bets.
For thousands of children in Sindh rearing and betting on pigeons is more than just a passion
Iqru’s four-year-old brother sensed excitement on the roof and joined him up there, squatting by the shelter and cooing at the pigeons, calling them by pet names he’s given them: Guddi, Pari, Sohni. Within half an hour, a group of aggravated neighbourhood boys called for Iqru from the street below, demanding their pigeon back. In turn, he let out a string of cusses, puffed up his shalwar with an arrogant tug and yelled back at them saying no terms for pigeon-return had been set. The two sides sized each other up and the losers saved their revenge for later.
Iqru’s mother noticed the usual drama taking place on the roof and began persuading him to come downstairs for tea. After ignoring several calls, he clambered down, grabbed his teacup and went back upstairs. There, he dunked his rusk in the tea, his neck still craning toward the sky. At 9:30, his mother began hollering for him and his grandmother pitched in with an abusive shout. He spit in the dirt and made his way down, hitched up their donkey cart, and snatching food from his mother, headed out to a farm about two kilometres away.
He caught up with his father there, on the edge of a paddy field, for a few mouthfuls of fried potatoes, helped his little brother to build a pretend pigeon shed and practised his sling-shot skills. An hour later, his father sent him home, the donkey cart piled high with animal fodder. Iqru dumped the heaped donkey cart at home and walked out to a neighbourhood alley where about 25 kabootris had gathered for their daily hangout. Two men in their 30s were engaged in heated argument: one of them was Iqru’s uncle, boasting about his pigeon’s stamina and the other man was mocking and challenging him. Soon enough, a date was set for a match.
Iqru ran home, skipping the night’s Salman Khan movie at the teashop, and helped his uncle crush a handful of almonds, pistachios and crystallised sugar to feed his pigeon. The family women taunted them: have you ever tasted an almond yourselves?
The next few days passed by in a blur: all of Iqru’s attention was focused on the competing pigeon. The night before the match, he pumped the pigeon’s stomach and then helped his uncle crumble five anti-psychotic tablets and mix them into a ball of flour for the pigeon to eat. This helps the birds to fly in a drug-induced state for longer. Iqru himself didn’t get much sleep that night.
On the day of the tournament, a crowd of dozens of children and adults have gathered. Elderly kabootris slowly hobble their way to the starting point. Both pigeons are sent up into the air and the long wait of seven or eight hours begins. The pigeon that returns home last, wins. That whole day Iqru follows the pigeons’ flight through alleys and fields, not registering the heat, forgetting hunger. By late afternoon, his pigeon lands. Iqru and his uncle lost. Iqru had collected and bet 200 rupees. His uncle had bet 2,000.
The match is over and the kabootris all disperse, turning their attention to a grand cup worth 30,000 rupees set for a few weeks after Eidul Azha, when people – and their pigeons — from 12 villages will contest the championship. Iqru, too, has his eyes set on that trophy and decides to make up with his brother. After all, they own the pigeons jointly and fights over who has the right to capture new birds are nothing new. They call a truce and join hands to prepare one of their champion birds for the big trophy. And so it goes for Sindh’s pigeon kids.
The writer is a journalist, media trainer and founder of Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org