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He was startled by the noise of the hunter jeeps that stopped near him. They carried bird-hunters from the Gulf Emirates who had come with their Pakistani guides and their trained falcons to hunt the houbara bustard, a sort of partridge whose meat is supposed to be an aphrodisiac. One of the guides strode up to Jani. “Brother, did you see any houbara bustards in this area?”
“No,” Jani replied curtly. He cast an envious look at the eagles and falcons perched on the gloved hands of the Emirati hunters as the guide returned to his jeep and the caravan drove off.
A fortnight passed. Jani had bought a new buzzard to toss into the grey-blue sky. After lunch break, as usual, he shoved the chicken into the bal-chatri coop. He had hardly turned away when he saw a shaheen falcon frantically pecking at the plastic nooses and thin wires of the cage while the chick squealed in terror. During its struggle the falcon’s right foot got ensnared in the plastic nooses. Flapping its wings desperately it tried to get airborne again, but in vain. Jani scrambled into action, his heart racing a mile a minute. He took off his turban, tossed it like a sheet over the falcon, then pounced on it. The bird let out an indignant screech. Jani was scared that he might have damaged its wing or even killed the creature. He fumbled in his pocket, took out his knife and cut the bird free of the nooses. The bird was heavier than he expected. It scratched his wrists and hands, but he did not feel the pain. He pressed it to his bosom and kissed it on the head.
“Mom! We’re rich,” he hollered as he entered his home holding the falcon above his head. “This bird can bring us a million rupees or more.” The house rang with jubilant voices and neighbours poured in to extend their congratulations. Jani’s parents, his elder brother and his sister-in-law started planning to bring Jani’s bride because now they would be able to buy the jewelry for her and arrange the marriage feast. Jani heard wedding music in his head and pictured the imaginary bride’s henna-painted hands. He perched the bird on a post and served it with cow meat. His nephews brought a noisy squadron of their buddies to have a peek at the falcon and Jani gave them a lecture about the art of falconry.
News of the precious catch spread like wildfire through Jani’s village and all the neighbouring villages. The village chief passed crackling telephonic messages to the well-known falcon dealers of the district, and next day just after sunrise the villagers crowded into the courtyard of the community centre to witness the historic event. The children outnumbered the men. After a long wait two Datsun mini trucks rolled up. The falcon dealers stepped out of the trucks, followed by their falcon experts. A third dealer arrived on a chestnut horse. Jani’s elder brother brought syrupy tea and boiled eggs for the dealers and experts. The dealers were richly clad. Their aristocratic faces and thin noses dripped with grace and contentment, compared to the sunburnt, malnourished faces of their experts.
The village chief gestured to Jani to bring out his falcon, which was locked up like a crown jewel in the community centre. An exclamation of amazement burst from the crowd as Jani strode proudly with his falcon perched on his gauntleted hand. But a scarcely-heard moan went up from the experts. With their measuring tapes they measured the bird from head to tail, carefully pulling open one wing then the other, scrutinizing the neck feathers and talons. The villagers held their breath. Jani’s heart was coming to his mouth. A smile of approval on the face of the expert could transform Jani’s life.
But the experts were not impressed. Without troubling to mention a price the first two dealers and their men stood up and left.
The third dealer, the one who came on horseback, took the bird from Jani and sat it on his hand. “My friend, you’re new to this business,” he said, wrapping an arm around Jani’s shoulders. “This is a male falcon and the males are smaller than the females. The male falcons aren’t tough hunters, they don’t fetch good prices. Anyhow I will offer you five thousand rupees for this one.”
Jani’s face grew pale. This amount did not even meet the expenses he had incurred during the falconing season. Jani snatched the falcon from the dealer’s hand, slammed a leather hood over its head and stomped off. A murmur rose from the spectators and they melted away. When the news reached home, Jani’s mother swooned and his father fell into a fit of chanting verses from the holy book.