The pavilion at the old polo ground had been converted into an arena for the illegal cockfights that Murugan conducted on the raja’s behalf. When Murugan had first moved to Shikargarh in the late 1970s, he had been astounded by the untapped fighting potential of the Karianath and had decided to introduce the sport in Shikargarh. He brought in other fighting breeds from his native Tamil Nadu, trained a batch of Karianath fighters and soon got the locals hooked.

The raja became obsessed with the blood sport and quickly appropriated it as part of his own martial tradition. Within months, he had labelled himself an expert in the field and fabricated an entire historiography of the sport in the Adhpanga lineage.

This was of no consequence to Murugan, who was happy to stay in the shadows and cement his position in the larger scheme of things. He harnessed the insatiable appetite of the Kairus for drinking and gambling by establishing the Saturday-night cockfights. This weekly spectator-sport extravaganza was the only form of public entertainment in the area and brought in substantial revenue from illegal gambling, and illicit mahua and ganja sales.

The raja took the lion’s share of the proceeds, but Murugan and his associates also pocketed a sweet share of the pie. It was a win-win for everybody except the poor Kairus, who were caught in an endless web of debt and delusion.

The raja’s personally trained squad of Karianath fighter cocks had been the undisputed champions for years, until his bastard son Teja, born of a devious third- generation rani thirty years ago, had begun importing a genetically modified version of the dangerous long-tail Aseel, a legendary fighting breed. The Aseels had taken the cockfights by storm and upset the status quo.

Teja was a threat to the raja in more ways than one. He had already begun breeding the fighter Aseels at his own Teja Murga Farm, a high-end operation on the outskirts of town, and was expanding his poultry business to other popular breeds for general consumption. Teja was trying to influence the locals to move away from the overpriced Karianath and monopolise the poultry market. Besides, he had cosied up to the state government and was certain to get a ticket to the legislative assembly elections the following year.

'Fighter Cock' author Sidharth Singh.

The incumbent MLA, Bhogi Kumar, an old flunky of the raja’s, was set to retire in the next term and Teja had smartly positioned himself as the only remaining option for the ruling party in the area. Teja’s ambition was to become the MLA of Bombeli, the constituency that Shikargarh fell under, take complete economic and political control, and put an end to the miserable rule of the Adhpanga lineage. With no heir in sight, Teja felt entitled to usurp the raja’s power. In all of Raja Ratan Shah’s life, nobody had made him feel more insecure than his own bastard son.

The Ambassador zipped into the polo ground, raising a thick cloud of dust in its wake. Sheru followed the raja towards an outdoor floodlit arena, adjacent to a pavilion thronged by hordes of villagers cheering excitedly in the middle of a cockfight. As the fight ended, the crowd noticed the arrival of the raja and a hushed silence fell upon the gathering. Murugan rushed to greet the raja as he took his usual seat at the top of the pavilion, and asked Sheru to sit beside him. Sheru felt a thousand eyes on him as they settled into their armchairs.

The raja glanced enquiringly at Murugan, who bent down and murmured in his ear, “Teja has won all five fights so far, Raja Sahib.” The raja was visibly irritated and grabbed a fresh glass of mahua kept next to him, encouraging Sheru to follow suit.

Just then, a hysterical cackle sounded from across the arena, washing over the silence of the crowd like a wave of panic. Seated on a row of red plastic chairs across the fighting pit were Teja and his cronies, surrounded by their lethal army of fighter Aseels, ready to draw blood. In contrast, the Karianaths in the raja’s corner seemed confused and pecked each other nervously.

Teja raised his glass of mahua to the raja, then turned around and winked at Bajrangi, who was dressed in plain clothes and seated amid the crowd on Teja’s side. Teja gulped down his drink, threw away the plastic glass and got up from his chair. He swaggered across the pit and stood with his arms outstretched victoriously.

“Raja Sahib zindabad!” he shouted. At five-foot-nine, Teja was considerably shorter than the raja, but what he lacked in height he made up for in girth. Built like a bull, he sported a thick handlebar moustache and wore white kurta-pyjamas and sneakers in the style of local politicians. He folded his hands obsequiously and walked backwards to his chair, feigning respect. The raja was seething with rage by now, but with all eyes on him, he gestured with a wave of the hand for the fights to recommence.

The gathering erupted in cacophony. Bookies sprung up like field rats from among the crowd and rapidly began taking bets. Sheru could see that the people of Shikargarh, largely Kairus, were hooked to this gambling racket. They consumed copious amounts of mahua and ganja, and milled around with nervous excitement.

One of Teja’s men brought a fierce-looking Aseel into the pit. The raja picked one of his Karianaths, a young battle stag that was taken inside the pit by its handler. The cocks were pitted by a touch of beaks, and the fight began. The Karianath was aggressive from the get-go, circling the Aseel in top spinner style, using quick footwork. The Aseel, a battle cock of some repute, stood its ground, weaving and bobbing, looking for an opening.

As the Karianath tried to take the Aseel head-on, the Aseel jumped up in the air and came crashing down on its head, slashing its neck with a short-blade fitted on its left foot, killing it instantly. Half the crowd “ooh”ed in pity while the other half “aah”ed in joy. A lot of money exchanged hands. This was Teja’s sixth straight win of the night, and he was jubilant.

An old Bollywood hit played shrilly on loudspeakers installed around the arena. Teja and his henchmen danced wildly to the song, rousing the crowd to join in, and turned the arena into a rave. The raja plied Sheru with more mahua as he moved on to another ganja chillum, blowing smoke like a steam engine and descending further into the grip of lunacy.

By now, Sheru was also drunk and had no choice but to drop his guard and enjoy this insane spectacle. The raja signalled for the music to stop and for the next fight to begin. Teja decided to field the winning cock once again while the raja entered his top fighter, the champion battle cock “Toofani”, in this bout.

As earlier, the cocks were pitted beak to beak and the fight began. Teja’s Aseel, overconfident from the previous bout, went for the kill immediately, attacking the Karianath from all angles, in a departure from its earlier bob-and-weave style. Toofani circled around in a slinky top-spinning style, its quick hopping reminiscent of B-grade kung fu films.

The Aseel took a few quick jabs at the Karianath, who warded them off with ease. Then the Aseel charged down the pit and took a giant leap. The Karianath countered with a massive on-the-spot jump, and, in a gory mid-air collision, kicked the Aseel in the eyes with both its long-bladed feet and blinded it completely.

Fighter Cock

Excerpted with permission from Fighter Cock, by Sidharth Singh, Penguin Books India.