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Thursday, July 26, 2001

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It's a crow's day


"IRUNGO!! Kaakaikku saadham podanum"... screams a voice from the kitchen. During the hustle and bustle of the morning hours in many Chennai homes, feeding the crow is a never-to-be forgetten task. Perched atop buildings, on trees, in temples and often near garbage bins, one never fails to come across crows and crows and more crows.

Wait! The scavenger bird cannot be dismissed lightly. The crow is nothing short of a VIP for Hindus. The scriptures state that food must be offered to lower beings first and one should eat only after the crow has had a bite. The first offering of food is made to God and then to the crow. During death ceremonies (shraddha), the practice of offering food or pinda to crows is still in vogue since crows are believed to represent our ancestors.

The shrill voice of women in a singsong voice beckoning crows to eat, has its own charm. It offers the women a chance to exercise their vocal chords. A discerning ear can even differentiate the ragaas. Small children have now taken over this task from their mothers. Mothers at their wits end, often try to cajole babies who refuse to eat, by showing them the crow pecking at the food.

Over the years, women have resorted to new ways to entice crows. Long, long ago only cooked rice was offered. Later on, cooked dhal and a dash of ghee were added to the rice to pep up the flavour. A separate area, be it the garden/ terrace/ compound wall, is earmarked for the food to be placed for the crow. Women keep a strict watch for cats and chase them away as cats are considered inauspicious. I remember grandmothers hiding behind a tree with a stick and peeping to make sure the crow had the first bite and not the cat. Even the location where the food is kept was changed often to deceive the cat. These days however, crows do not appear as quickly as before. Fear of the lurking cat and the sound of vehicle horns scare them away or perhaps the modern crow is seeking a change in diet - rotis, phulkas and subzis or noodles and pizzas!!

Come January and it is festival time for crows. A lavish spread is laid out for the birds during Kanum Pongal festival. Women of the family place different kinds of coloured rice, cooked vegetables, banana and sweet pongal on a plantain leaf and invite the crows, which descend in hordes to share and enjoy the "Kaka pidi, Kanu pidi" feast. Women offer prayers in the hope that the brother-sister ties may remain forever strong like the family of crows.

Ever witnessed what happens when a crow dies? Scores of crows come flying in from all directions, crying out in shrill voices expressing their sorrow. To ensure that the dead crow is not separated from the clan, the crows themselves peck at the body and devour it.

With pollution on the rise, it is quite surprising that crows continue to haunt our cities though their numbers may have dwindled. "Without the call of the bird in the morning, the day does not seem quite right", says an NRI nostalgically.

The black coloured, much maligned bird is so much a part and parcel of the everyday scene. A group of crows flying home high up in the sky is a common sight at sunset.

The term 'kakai pidipathu' has earned its place as a very popular and catchy phrase in Tamil though not a compliment to the crow. People seem to resort to this to achieve their purpose and get things done.

From a regional level i.e. the song "Ka Ka endrey ellorum ondraaga" in the Tamil film 'Parasakthi' to "Kakai siraginiley nandalaala" of Subramanya Bharathi, the nondescript Indian crow has indeed come a long way. It is now an all-India star thanks to the Hindi film, "Jhoot Bole Kauva Kaate."

VIDYA VASUDEVAN

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