I was eating bamboo curry at Kirandevi’s house, watching a hen and her babies scratch and peck the ground for grain and insects. Whenever mom recklessly shuffled her long reptilian limbs, raising some dust, the developing furballs would run forward to where her claws had shuffled and peck at anything that was not dust-colored. Beside them, another red hen sat in the same place I had found her two weeks ago, in the corner of the room with her body flattened over twelve eggs in a pie dish. She growled and raised her feathers whenever something larger than a chicken approached. It was the kind of scene that you’d expect to find in an artist’s rendering of how the overfed oversized overmedicated chickens of American poultry farms once were.
As I sat there munching on tender bamboo or bans in parboiled rice, both hens began to emit the same low whirring growl, and at this, the baby chicks froze in place, one with its head turned awkwardly toward its back, about to ruffle its feathers, another midstep, and the other two coming back up from a peck. Usually when a mother hen panicks, her babies will run, flap and chirp opposite the direction of the threat. Run away from something that will hurt you is a sensible learned response in the animal kingdom. But growling and freezing is not something I’d ever seen in a domesticated animal, especially one as incompetent and as seemingly far removed from its wild ancestors as a chicken.
Noticing my preoccupation with chickens that could have passed for an exhibit in a wax museum, Kirandevi said, “Uparwallii chiriyan yeh khaata hai.” The bird above eats them. The mother hen was alerting them to a hawk that was now overhead. They remained frozen as their mother’s growling continued. The threat soon passed, and as the chicks came out of their trance, we all resumed our pecking.
I don’t think it’s possible that this is a learned behavior. I mean, baby chicks can be conditioned to run away quickly when they watch their little brother get trampled by a cow, but there must be something deeply imprinted in a baby chick to freeze on command, especially as suddenly as these little guys did. Although this village is fairly remote, there should be enough people around to dissuade a hawk from coming down on Chicken Little and therefore prevent any acquired instinct. Anyway, my guess is as good as Marc Hauser’s.
Later in the meal, Kirandevi pointed to a pair of long chicken legs underneath the bed. They belonged to a large white chicken. It turns out she was asking whether I would like to eat this chicken, the one that was alive, vaguely in hiding and looking me in the eye. I told her no, I don’t eat chickens in India. . . which is a half-truth: I don’t eat chickens that I’ve seen alive.
Only in India have I lived so intimately with chickens, slept with them, eaten with them, occasionally eaten them, and even petted them. I’m currently living with a family of eight in a two-roomed house. I moved in a week ago, amid rain and thunder, wet jeans and everyone getting paid their 80 or 100 rupees for their workday. I set my two bags down and saw this.
It’s one of the ten chickens the family owns, and it roosts on the beam in the room every night. It’s the same beam I smack my head on every couple days. I was startled to see it there so I reached out to touch it. To my surprise, not only was it a real chicken, but it didn’t move. Apparently, although they scatter at the drop of a hat, chickens don’t see things physically below them as a threat. Not too far from this chicken sat a goat tied to the corner of the wooden bed. “Do janwar hai?” I asked. Two animals?
“Nahiin, chaar.” No, four.
There were two more goats under the bed.
I’ve had a hard time writing about this place and its people because it doesn’t do it justice to encapsulate it in first impressions. I suspect I’ll be writing a lot more about this place when I return to the States, especially as I draft a report regarding the impending food crisis in this area.
Right now, I’m still working with things as they come. One of the questions I’ve been asking in my interviews is what the food situation has been like from one day to the next. One man didn’t eat today out of respect for his dead brother-in-law, who succumbed today to brain malaria. Our recorded conversation has a short interlude where several women proceeded by in tears.
I can be sure of one thing — I have renewed gratitude for the fact that I live in a country with a functional democracy, safe drinking water, and a government that provides quality education and healthcare (comparatively). Also, the U.S. is a country that values its human resources more than its material resources. You don’t see anyone getting paid 2 dollars for a day of construction work in the hot sun. More soon.