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– Gameness til the End
By Vivekananda Nemana
May 24, 2016
Illustrated by Harsho Mohan Chattoraj
In the deepest recesses of Andhra Pradesh lives an illegal syndicate, a secret society that trains hundreds of merciless, blade-wielding killers and sets them loose in bouts of mortal combat, where the loser’s corpse is that night’s dinner for the winning trainers
Vijay Prasad had already lost three of his prized birds to the biggest, baddest cock in Karnataka, with a record of 14 consecutive opponents bested. Everyone said this cock was ruthless, undefeatable, arriving at his fights atop a donkey, while his owners raised a din with drums and horns, so confident their cock would never go down that they’d fashioned their prizefighter with earrings of solid gold. They called him the Executioner, because his fights would usually end with the opponent’s severed head on the ground, its lifeless body running amok in one last moment of indignity.
“Very stupid looking bird, big bloody legs,” said Vijay, thoughtfully puffing on his cigarette. “But what a ferocious fighter, yaar.”
Vijay’s entrant was from his family’s farm in Andhra Pradesh, a small, unimpressive white cock nobody thought stood a chance. But as soon as the referee started the fight, Vijay’s rooster shot forward and sliced through the champion’s wing with a sharpened spur. It happened that fast. No one could believe their eyes. The furious champion pecked back, his mangled right wing hanging by a limp thread, but Vijay’s bird knew he had already won, and drove his spur through the Executioner’s heart. The crowd gasped as this bejewelled tyrant finally collapsed to the ground. Official rules state: the victor keeps the loser’s bird, so that night Vijay and his friends feasted on the flesh of the former champion.
“What celebrations that day!” laughed Vijay. “You won’t believe, that bugger gave us five kilos of good meat.” He pocketed the gold earrings too.
Vijay sat in the courtyard of his spacious farmhouse, on the banks of the Godavari River near Rajahmundry, a couple of nights before the Sankranti harvest festival. He’s trim and spry for his 68 years, despite a penchant for imported cigarettes and evening libations. Vijay is the kind of man who apologizes if he forgets to offer you a scotch, the kind who can make a subject like cockfighting sound sophisticated. Even his features – not joking here – are bird-like: high cheekbones, beady eyes, hooked nose over a pencil-thin moustache. The sun was setting overhead, marking the beginning of those three days every January, when fight rings light up the coastal Andhra plains, some of them rudimentary gatherings in coconut groves, others elaborate enough to suit the tastes of a Vegas hustler.
Not that Vijay’s above a good old local fight, but a man of his experience and seniority prefers the grander, more high-stakes productions. Like the Kentucky Derby-style affair at the old alum factory the next town over, meticulously run from the ordered progression of fights down to the valet parking. There are box seats, a fully stocked bar, a buffet and big screens streaming a live feed of the ring. It’s a lakh if you want to fight your bird, and bets equal to or far greater than that are par for the course on the sidelines.
“Bloody class, yaar.” Vijay clucked his tongue and twirled his fingers through the air. “And you won’t believe, there are all these women there too! They come dressed in saris and they’re betting 20, 30,000 rupees on each fight.”
In theory, all of this is illegal, cockfights having long ago been deemed far too savage and atavistic to befit any modern democracy. Your standard betting-on-birds fight simultaneously violates the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, the Andhra Pradesh Gambling Act and the Andhra Pradesh Towns Nuisance Act of 1889; even attending a cockfight could potentially land you in jail. And on January 7, the High Court of Andhra Pradesh reminded the state government that such laws indeed exist, directing police to take “strict action” against any offenders.
In practice, nobody cares. Sure, police raids and crackdowns have been known to happen, but the Godavari delta is not a place so willing to abandon tradition, especially not on Sankranti, the ancient festival of the winter harvest, when this fertile land is flush with cash and people are feeling lucky. While I was there, fights were happening, unhidden, in nearly every village, the gambling was reckless, and at some of them, police sat casually in the audience, in full uniform, enjoying the action with a cup of tea and a cigarette. And in an even greater irony, an MP from the ruling Telugu Desam Party, a gloriously rotund and bald- headed man named Maganti Venkateswara Rao, kicked off a cockfight in the city of Eluru, as did BJP politician Gokaraju Ganga Raju.
This year, media reports claimed that Rs 500 crore change hands during the Sankranti fights, but it has to be higher: a single match can inspire as much as five lakhs in bets, and matches occur around the clock for three days, at hundreds of venues across Andhra Pradesh.
Which brings us to the most important rule of cockfighting: You don’t just play to win. You play to make it rain. No one understood this better than Vijay’s old pals who called themselves the Syndicate, fat cats who pooled their money into a secret facility, hidden in some forlorn banana plantation, where, year-round, a team of full-time trainers raise an army of killer birds for Sankranti.
“The Syndicate are so loaded they can simply pour money into their cocks,” Vijay explained. “Which means we are going to see some amazing fights.”
The location of the Syndicate’s training compound is something I’m not at liberty to discuss, except to say that it was somewhere along the impossibly lush expanse of coastal Andhra Pradesh where the Godavari River kisses the Bay of Bengal with a mouth 170 kilometres wide. The grounds were a grid of overturned bamboo baskets, full-sized fighting cocks tethered beside each, about 100 in total, every one of them a trained killer. At first they just seemed like ordinary chickens, but after a moment I could appreciate how still they all stood, proud specimens of rippling muscle, magnificent black and red, speckled downs gleaming in the sunlight.
“Just look at this bloody big bugger.” Vijay’s avian features twisted into a tight grin as we examined one of the birds. “Calm and cool. Calm and cool… Just look at those legs.”
The bird in question was a 28-inch-tall rooster with black and gold feathers, a sweeping, symmetrical tail, a chest so muscular that it burst through his shiny coat, a trimmed comb above his head and almost no wattle beneath his chin, so that contenders wouldn’t have any dangling appendages to peck at. Once armed with spurs, he could, according to Vijay, slice clean through a human hand. He was an undefeated champion, too: 12 kills and hardly a single scratch. Worth 50,000 rupees at least, but most definitely not for sale.
“When he finds a target, he strikes… so fast. The other bugger has no chance.” Vijay’s voice turned dreamy as we gazed at the ferocious bird, his searching eyes more like a hawk’s than the panic-stricken pinholes on most chickens. “This fellow knows it’s a matter of life and death.”
Sankranti in Andhra Pradesh revolves around “knife fights”, in which a sharp blade is tied to the right leg of each bird. This is the IPL of cockfighting: faster, gorier and far more fun for gamblers than the non-lethal fights without knives that occur during other times of the year. The cocks strike harder and faster the more they bleed, so the match actually increases in pace until one of the birds is too injured to raise a talon and the other hastily finishes him off. The process rarely takes more than a couple of minutes.
None of the roosters at the Syndicate’s compound had names, not even this magnificent beast Vijay was admiring. What’s the point of naming them? One day, after the prize fighter has defeated his share of lesser birds, after tens of lakhs of rupees have been gambled in his name, he too will be felled by the spur of a faster, stronger fowl, his illustrious career put to rest on somebody’s dinner plate. Competitive cockfighting is a vast and complex world, with myriad breeds, customs and rules of play, accorded not only by country but region and time of year – sometimes even the time of day. During the San Marcos Fair in Mexico, cockfights share the spotlight with performances by Latin Grammy winners like Alejandra Guzmán. In Cuba, owners don’t fit blades on their birds, and they don’t wager on winners, either. The Tamilians, Telugus and Tulus love to gamble, and tie blades on the right foot, while in the Philippines, where the sport is still legal and broadcast on TV, the blade goes on the left. In Bali, the blood of the defeated cock is considered an offering to evil spirits.
Perhaps the one universal constant in cockfighting – apart from the obvious – is that it is, by and large, the provenance of men. Tough guys handling tough cocks. Naturally the members of the Syndicate, now gathered under a shed in their training compound, were South Indian boss-types: a hotelier, a Tollywood film producer, a retired member of an elite police division, grunting orders to lackeys and drinking Crown Royal out of a paper cup at, what, 11am? Other men kept walking up to the shed, apparently to pay their respects, occasionally sticking around for a drink. I saw one man dressed in pure white khadi, sandbags beneath his eyes, heavy gold rings on four or five fingers and a severe handlebar moustache. He inspected the compound while fondling, inexplicably, a long whip. But he disappeared before I could ask anyone who he was.
We were all grunting, drinking, keeping conversation to a minimum, a palpable sense of impatience among man and fowl alike, because it was time for carnage but the fights were delayed. A deal had been cut with another syndicate – location and personnel unknown – to duel five or ten of their best cocks for a winner-takes-all Rs.10 lakh bet, but the police were reticent. The Syndicate had sent a delegate to frantically negotiate and arrive at a mutually agreeable arrangement.
“It’s like we just came here to drink and eat,” complained the ex-policeman. “Damn crooked cops.”
“Tell our liaison to give them whatever extra they need so we can get started,” instructed the hotelier to an assistant.
“You don’t ever worry about the cops?” I asked.
Vijay laughed as though I just asked whether the earth was round. “Arre… If Chandrababu [Naidu, the current chief minister of Andhra Pradesh] tried to stop us, he’d be booted out of office the next day,” implying that there was simply too much money and power vested in cocks to ever stop the Sankranti fights.
More worrisome than the police are the animal rights groups, since they’re actually sincere. The Indian branch of the Humane Society, an international animal rescue group, has nearly managed to eradicate cockfights in the states of Maharashtra and Odisha. Andhra Pradesh is next in its sights.
“We’re teaching kids that it’s okay to kill animals for entertainment,” said Alokparna Sengupta, the society’s deputy director. Its volunteers have documented the cruelty of the Andhra fights, to support court cases like the Animal Welfare Board getting Andhra’s High Court to instate this year’s ban. But ultimately, the government reneged on its promise to crack down, Sengupta said. “We reached out to a lot of police inspectors, and just a day or two before the fights, everybody stopped responding.”
The good folk of the Syndicate wouldn’t have any of that chickens’ rights nonsense.
“See now, put this in your article,” said the Tollywood producer, towering over me. “Ninety per cent of these animal-rights people are non-vegetarians. What about the animals we eat? And what about trees? The Mother, you know from Auroville, once had a dream in which trees have spirits too. So should we stop cutting down trees and plants as well? Should we just starve instead?”
Absurd, yes, but what’s attestable is this: until their (gruesome) deaths, and notwithstanding any (painful) disfigurations suffered by survivors, gamecocks live like kings and train like Stallone in Rocky IV. Three weeks before a scheduled match, the ancient trainer of the Syndicate’s compound, a lungi-clad man whom everyone calls Uncle, wakes up at 4am and makes the birds run until they’re exhausted. Then he throws them into a river, forcing them to swim for their lives. Then he makes them run again. And swim. And run. “And I keep doing that for about an hour,” Uncle said. “Until they’re good’an exhausted, and angry as god. Then we give ’em a hot massage.”
For breakfast, the birds receive 100 grams of fruits and nuts, followed by a careful grooming of the feathers. In the evening, they eat millet smeared with egg and “a thimbleful of breast milk.”
I must have looked confused, because Uncle dropped his voice to a whisper and leaned in.
“Human breast milk”
When the Syndicate’s much-awaited fight was finally ready, it was, well, kind of a disaster. The challengers were, mysteriously, arrested on their way to the ring, and further frantic negotiations with the police were underway to secure the release of both men and cocks. Meanwhile, other contenders tried to find suitable match-ups for their weak-looking birds, putting their roosters together to see if the birds would fight. There were long pauses between matches as owners deliberated over which cock offered the most promising fight, and bickered over how much they were willing to bet. But when a fight finally occurred, hundreds of men crushed around the ring, screaming out odds and taking bets and craning for better views of the orange-black cloud of dust and sparring feathers. Then I figured out what the long whip wielded by the man with the handlebar moustache was for, because here he was with a gaggle of men, all of considerable heft, whipping them back from trampling the cocks mid-fight.
“Arre, bloody stupid birds all of them, yaar,” Vijay hissed. “Really a substandard event.”
Vijay and I ditched the Syndicate’s fight and drove through the greenery, passing maybe half a dozen fights along the way, each a roaring scene of chaos, a blur of whips and cash and feathers. The alum factory fight had been shifted to a new venue, a wedding hall surrounded by paddy fields, for vague and quasi-legal reasons that apparently had to do with local power dynamics. Vijay was immediately disappointed – it wasn’t the same. There was no bar, no buffet, no big screen TVs playing highlight reels. Still, it was a world apart from the roughhewn fights earlier in the day. A security guard ushered us into a cool, open patio, where families picnicked, children played and small groups clustered around picnic tables with their own private bartenders. The whips had nothing to do, sticks hung limp at their sides.
And everybody carried massive stacks of cash, betting 20 or 30,000 worriless rupees per fight.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was interested in a small wager. I’d been hesitant to bet all day, but we agreed to put Rs 1,000 down on a match between two rookies, one pure white and the other the colour of rust. Both birds were from the same village – from the same training facility, in fact – and for a moment they hesitated, hackles fully extended, studying each other so carefully I wondered if one recognized the other as a stable mate. The orange bird parried, but his opponent was a hair too quick. White feathers flew harmlessly all over the ground as the orange bird’s kicks narrowly missed their mark. About a minute in, the white bird dealt a devastating blow, slicing the rusty cock through the stomach, knocking him onto his back. His owners – who had some 50,000 rupees riding on the fight – frantically tried to revive him, rubbing ash on his wounds and spitting water onto his face. Another crunch of bones and wings as the white went in for the kill. In a final act of defiance, orange managed to lodge his spur deep into white’s thigh. Exactly half of the crowd cheered.
I walked out of the cockpit and saw that the losing bird was still alive. He had been critically wounded beneath his wing and was draining blood fast. His trainer rubbed a sliced lemon over the bird with a touch of sadness in his eyes – a surprisingly tender moment, I thought, considering that he had doomed the bird by fighting it for money. Maybe it was easier when the birds died on the spot.
“That helps clean the blood clots,” Vijay explained, pointing to the lemons. “But it’s very painful for the bird.”
And for the first time that day I took a good look at a dying bird, and it was only then that I realized that chickens visibly express pain – eyes wincing, beak open, head cast down, as though, in the last painful moments of his life, the bird was contemplating his crushing defeat. The trainer draped him in a blanket and the rooster nipped at his pinky.
My money had been on the winner. I walked away, Rs 1,000 richer, as the auburn cock closed its eyes forever against the cool, concrete curb.