Saturday, 17 February 2018

Parrots, pirates and prostitutes

-Brian Mendonça

I was saved by a parrot today.  My friend had given me detailed directions to his house which I was going to visit for the first time. After describing to me all the relevant landmarks along the way, including the temple, the sign board, the pathway that branched to the left, he ended with a flourish, ‘I have a parrot.’

This innocuous detail, after my patient listening rankled. Why should I bother if my friend possessed or did not possess a parrot? Surely he was wasting my time!

As I made my way to my friend’s place I took the correct lane as it meandered to the left. But I was bewildered as a sea of houses confronted me.  I had no idea what to do -- stranded as I was in the middle of a narrow pathway up the incline. At any moment a car could come my way and berate me for blocking the road.

That is when the parrot, perhaps sensing my discomfiture screeched loudly. The unmistakeable sound in an otherwise bucolic surrounding gave me the cue I was looking for. I glanced upward in the direction of the sound and seemed to make out a bird in a cage that was swaying inordinately. Not only did the parrot propel me out of my misery, s/he also alerted my friend, its owner.

It was with interest I chanced upon the restaurant O Papagaio on the road to Sodiem, Siolim. Papagaio means ‘parrot’ in Portuguese. I still cannot make the connection.
Of late, parrots have been looking demure in cartoons. They sport just the right semi-serious expression. In fact, sometimes they even elbow out the cock or cockerel for newsprint space.

Little children are introduced to Mittu the parrot at class I. Marigold, the NCERT textbook for this level portrays Mittu as an intelligent bird who outwits the gross black crow to lay claim to the yellow mango on the tree. Mittu picks up a red balloon and bursts it near the crow causing him to fall off the tree.

The parrot is the constant character in Shyam Benegal’s art film Mandi (1983). It is through her dialogues with the parrot in the cage that Shabana Azmi as Rukminibai, the brothel owner and ageing prostitute, scripts her freedom. Smita Patil too, as the prized courtesan Zeenat, feels her trapped life is mirrored by the parrot in captivity. The parrot becomes the confidante of the down-trodden.

There was a special bonding between pirates and parrots, in the golden age of piracy pegged by Angus Konstam at 1714-1722. Dan Nosowitz  notes that parrots were preferred to other pets because they did not eat as much as dogs and monkeys, and what they did eat, i.e. seeds, fruits and nuts, could be stored on board during the long voyages. Besides, they were colourful, intelligent and funny – a great item to show off in port.

As I was leaving my friend’s place, he gestured up at the parrot. ‘He also talks,’ he said.
Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, Goa on Sunday, 11 February 2018. Pix of Indo-Persian dagger with parrot hewn on hilt of gold. Courtesy mughalart.

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