He asked me a lot of questions about India, a country about which his main source of information, he said, was from a children’s book about carrier pigeons. Dan had kept pigeons too and was impressed with the accuracy with which the author described their habits. The author, he said, shared my last name.
I was intrigued because usually I am asked about Bharati Mukherjee, not Dhan Gopal Mukerji. And also because I had never heard of the book which I later learned had been awarded the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1928, for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”
Dan seemed so taken with this book he had read years before that I wondered how I could have missed it. How did we Indian kids grow up lamenting the absence of good children’s books in English by Indian authors, written about Indian characters and set in India, and never come across this prize-winning work?
I had intended to read this book ever since but hadn’t got around to it until a couple of weeks ago when a pigeon was captured in the Pathankot region of Punjab. By now most Indians probably know that the pigeon flew across the border from Pakistan with a stamped message written mostly in Urdu and including a phone number. The bird is currently in police custody.
I cannot help but compare the “spy bird” with the hero of our book who was also a highly successful spy and a brave and loyal servant of the British Empire. Here is the story of gallant Gay-Neck who, despite his many adventures, always managed to find his way home. But, this, alas, was not the case with his creator.
Dhan Gopal Mukerji was born to a Brahmin family near Calcutta in 1890. His parents sent him abroad to prevent him from pursuing his anarchist politics in India. Educated at Berkeley and Stanford, he has been described as the first successful Indian man of letters in the US.
It was in America in the 1920s that Mukerji began to write children’s books such as Kari the Elephant and Hari, the Jungle Lad. But his most successful book was Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, published in 1927. It is the delightful and frequently thrilling tale of Gay Neck (Chitra Griva in Bengali,) an “iridescence-throated” carrier pigeon, and his many adventures in Calcutta, among the Himalayas, and even in wartime France. The book is based on the author’s own experiences in India as a boy, when he owned a flock of forty pigeons, not uncommon he points out among Hindu boys at the time.
There has been some discussion among readers of whether or not the title needs to be changed. I hope it is not – even though googling it by its name can lead to unexpected results – because this book right here is a little piece of history and must be preserved in its original form.
Even though Gay Neck was intended for an audience of children, the writing is remarkably sophisticated and the story layered with multiple meanings. On the surface is an entertaining account of Gay Neck’s life, of which every stage is described in great detail.
So we observe his birth, how his parents teach him to fly, how his young owner trains him in direction, and so on. In the process, we learn a great deal about the rituals and habits of birds as well as other animals.
But instead of a dry academic treatise, what we have is a lyrical and yet fast-paced narrative. Mukerji manages to ascribe human emotions to the creatures in a poignant way. The pigeons, the stars of the book, feel parental and filial love, loyalty, fear, and grief, emotions that motivate everything they do.
For instance, in a touching image towards the end, after a tumbler pigeon has perished in a battle with a buzzard, his wife sits on the parapet, “scanning every direction of the sky for a sign of her husband.” This effect is achieved without the kind of cheesy sentimentality that many children’s books are guilty of.
When Gay Neck runs away, his owner is forced to go in pursuit, accompanied by his friends Ghond the hunter and Rajda the priest. They scour the Himalayas for the pigeon, stopping on the way at a lamasery in Sikkim, where Buddhist monks pray for Gay Neck.
Before the pigeon is found, the narrator and his friends encounter wild elephants and other dangers of the forest that provide some tense moments. There is also much drama throughout the book, whenever birds of prey such as eagles, vultures, and buzzards try to attack and kill Gay Neck and his little companions, with mixed success. These are recurring episodes but do not feel repetitive, even though Mukerji probably worried that they might. For, in his dedication to Suresh Chandra Banerji, he says, “If the hero of the present book repeats his escapes from attacks by hawks, it is because that is the sort of mishap that becomes chronic in the case of pigeons.”
A few chapters are narrated by Gay Neck himself, where he describes his adventures that no one else could have known of. Mukerji urges readers to “use the grammar of fancy and the dictionary of imagination” to appreciate the pigeon’s version. Like the dialogue between the humans, Gay Neck’s speech sounds lofty and archaic when read today.
He begins his story with exhortations such as “O wizard of all languages human and animal, listen to my tale.” His account is particularly entertaining when he describes his experiences in France during the first World War, where he is sent to serve as a messenger pigeon.
His view of France may well have echoed that of any Indian traveller at the time. He calls it “a very strange country” and grumbles about why “ a land has to be cold when it is not high.” The war sections are dramatic, as the pigeons dodge enemy bullets and airplanes (“vast eagles”) on their way to delivering vital messages. Gay Neck proves to be an invaluable, courageous, and loyal servant of the war and like many others like him, he returns home with a severe case of PTSD, from which he must be healed.
Not all the book is comprised of chases and narrow escapes though these do take up many pages. Mukerji’s writing is often very lyrical and his descriptions of both the city and the mountains are sensuous and vivid. The Himalayan landscape in particular and all its fauna and flora are evoked with much care. Here is an example:
“The finger of autumn had already touched the rhododendrons. Their flaming petals were falling out; their long stems, many feet high, rustled in the winds. Leaves of many trees had begun to turn, and the air was full of melancholy.”
Elsewhere he describes “the indigo-blue hollow of the sky,” where “orchids burst out almost overnight and opened their purple eyes…”
This poetry is not merely aesthetic but in fact linked to a kind of awestruck wonder at the landscape that becomes blatantly spiritual at times. For one thing, the Buddhist lamas offer their benediction both to the humans and the birds, promising freedom from fear and Eternal Compassion in times of duress. But in addition to the Buddhist prayers, the narrator references Hindu spirituality through the grandeur of the Himalayas and their “inviolate sanctity.”
He says, “Heights like that of the Everest are symbols of the highest reality – God.” This kind of direct sermonising may irritate some readers, but is not uncommon in children’s literature such as the Christian symbolism in C.S Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Gay Neck has been hailed by critics as one of the few novels by Indian or Western writers to use the Himalayas in a meaningful way. Ironically, it is reported that it was only in his last years, following personal problems, that Mukerji turned to spirituality, but this book suggests otherwise.
Apart from religious sermons, there are some observations on the nature of mankind woven through the story, but these never get heavy-handed. At one point Gay-Neck says, “Tell me this: Why is there so much killing and inflicting of pain by birds and beasts on one another? I don’t think all of you men hurt each other. Do you?” The irony of these lines becomes clearer when, a few pages later, we are plunged into a world war.
Dhan Gopal Mukerji’s life was eventful and ultimately tragic – he hanged himself at the age of 46 – and his book is suitably romantic. He never patronises his young readers, and yet manages to impart both information and lessons.
From this book you will learn the art of tying a pigeon’s feathers, and why heights are free of beasts of prey. Gay-Neck provides an interesting glimpse of the Great War through the eyes of a young Indian – and of course a carrier pigeon! It also clearly serves as an attempt to represent and interpret India and in particular Hindu culture to Americans.
In an article written for The Horn Book in 1937, Elizabeth Seeger says, “Whatever attractions or affinity brought him to America and kept him here, where his spirit often suffered, the West gained immeasurably by his coming, and India cannot have lost by having so eloquent an interpreter among us.”
The book, which is something of a collector’s item now, includes stunning black and white illustrations by Boris Artzybasheff. Fortunately, it does not appear to be available in any electronic form, which means interested readers will have to purchase a beautiful copy, maybe even too beautiful for the bottom shelf.
Oindrila Mukherjee is a writer and an Assistant Professor at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can follow her on Twitter at @oinkness
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