Ruffled Feathers

It was one of the finest buildings in South Mumbai. Not a fly could enter unnoticed. Though it had been constructed on slum land, today it bore an elite address. The affluent and the successful aspired to stay here. And stay they did, after paying a fortune for their apartments. There were twenty storeys in all, with three levels of parking, three lifts for the owners, and a separate lift for the domestic help. 

Security was watertight. Five sturdy guards in uniform patrolled the premises, maintaining a vigil twenty-four hours a day. Not that the neighbourhood was dangerous, but every precaution had to be taken. That’s why the maintenance charges were high: fifty thousand rupees a month. But no one minded, no one complained. And there was CCTV, too, eagle-eyed scanners that spotted every movement. 

The male servants were frisked and their identities checked before they entered and left the premises. The maids got away with a bit of flirting: they knew how to soften the men in uniform. But the chauffeurs were checked morning and evening, and this would annoy them, for they had their pride, these men of spotless appearance. 

There were strict rules. Every visitor would have to enter his name and address into a logbook and on leaving would have to sign out. This would annoy the visitors, but rules were rules, and security could not be compromised. 

It was surprising, then, that a pigeon got into the shaft. This was the long vertical enclosure that ran down the bathrooms, carrying the plumbing pipes all the way from the first floor to the twentieth. It was a wonder how the bird got in, considering that the shaft was covered with a special bird mesh. It could be inferred that the pigeon had been looking for a safe place to lay her eggs and, in her quest for childbearing privacy, had torn through the mesh. 

The bird was noisy. It cooed without pause, its cooing growing louder with every passing minute. Sometimes, as though seized by some terrible impulse, it would flap its wings and fly up, beating its wings so furiously that feathers from its body would dislodge and float into the bathrooms. 

Fed up with the noise, the women of the building decided to take their complaint to the property manager, Major Anirudh Sood, who had his office on the ground floor. The major was a broad-chested man with a jowly face, small, alert eyes, and a faint ironic smile. He ordered tea for the ladies, who had begun to talk among themselves. They spoke for about ten minutes, discussing servants, chauffeurs, and noise levels from the adjoining chawls, before realising they were there for an important matter. 

Kamal Suchanti was the first to speak. She was a glum-faced woman, seventy years of age, residing alone on the third floor. She said that the bird had added to her constipation problem. As it was, unloading at her age was such a problem. And just when she would get the urge the damn bird would start its song of oppression – hootoo, hootoo, it would go, and she would freeze up. Then the bird would rise to a higher level and, still going hootoo, hootoo, would excrete onto her bathroom window. It seemed to be mocking her, this bird. 

The other women offered suggestions. Had she tried bananas, papaya, plums, or black grapes, all time-trusted remedies in the battle against constipation? Then someone asked: Had she tried throwing water at the bird before she began her business? 

‘Not just water,’ said Major Sood quickly. ‘Piping hot water! To shock, to stun!’ 

‘Of course not!’ said Kamal Suchanti, horrified. ‘That would be cruel. Horrendously cruel.’ 

‘Maybe we can fumigate the shaft?’ said Mrs Vyas helpfully. ‘That should help get rid of the bird.’ 

‘No,’ said Mrs Bansal. ‘That pigeon is pregnant, and we don’t want to harm her babies. That would be like the Bhopal Gas tragedy. We don’t want that on our conscience.’ 

‘No, surely not!’ said Mrs Venkatraman. ‘Whatever we do, we shouldn’t endanger the bird or its eggs. After all, we are civilised people.’ 


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