Crying Fowl

They forget the fact that we were once alive

Crying Fowl

They forget the fact that we were once alive

The heady aroma of masala frying permeates the kitchen. Fresh ginger-garlic paste melts in a wok with diced onions and a generous amount of pepper. It is joined quickly by cumin and coriander seeds, roasted and ground, and a dash of turmeric powder.

One of the family members breezes into the kitchen. “What’s cooking?”.

In goes a cup of pureed tomatoes and the whole thing is fried.

Over the steam and sizzle, there is the sound of fowl from outside. The cook smiles, thinking aloud they had woken up that morning to the long-forgotten sound of a rooster crowing. But this is different: these are the familiar cries of my fellows, being killed one after another. I freeze.

Soon, the curry will release the mustard oil that it had hungrily absorbed. Then it will be time to add the pieces of meat.

“Chicken curry.”

From the world of dinosaurs, through the tropical jungles of southeast Asia, chickens have a fascinating story to tell. Their ancestry can be traced back to four species of jungle fowl that were native to southeast Asia 50 million years ago. The Red Jungle fowl, which still runs wild in that region, is the most likely progenitor of the modern chicken. But there is also some evidence that its yellow skin is a trait inherited from the Grey Jungle fowl, indicating that the modern chicken has multiple ancestors.

Domestication of chickens began sometime between eight and ten thousand years ago, simultaneously and independently in different parts of Asia. Originally raised for the sport of cockfighting, they were also used for religious purposes and for eggs and meat. Over the course of thousands of years of migration, trade, and territorial conquests, they were spread across the world by various cultures.

Chickens arrived in eastern Europe in about 3000 B.C., and within two thousand years, they’d reached the western coast as well. Phoenicians spread them along the coasts of the Mediterranean, right up to Alberia. Polynesians took them to the Pacific coast of South America in the 1200s, and Spanish explorers introduced them to North America over the next few centuries.

Ancient Romans even considered them sacred and used them to predict the outcome of significant undertakings by the Senate or the armies.

Different people have different ways of dealing with us. The practice common in these parts is to be killed by way of halal. A cut is made to the jugular vein, carotid artery, and the windpipe. But death isn’t easy, or instantaneous. There’s time enough to run the length of a football field, or so they’ve measured. Suffocation and bleeding against a backdrop of our anguished cries. It is nothing less than betrayal.

Such a display of violence would kill anyone’s appetite, I think.

Then they consume us: meat that comes to them dead, cold and silent; numb to the fact that we were once alive, of flesh and blood, with a right to life and fair death. Their meat industry, globally valued at a thousand billion US dollars, makes sure they’re conveniently removed from the process of farming us for meat. Distanced from our handling and slaughter, so that they can consume without effort or qualms. It is unnatural and unfair that they should get to eat my flesh when, I’m sure, most will chicken out of the act of killing me themselves.

It’s true that the 24 billion of us outnumber humans, thrice over, which is because of farming. On the other hand, nearly 200 of us are killed worldwide every tenth second, on average. I hope I haven’t ruffled feathers or caused an attack of Alektorophobia. I’m okay with one animal killing to eat another, but can’t it be with sensibility and a thought to the animal that’s made to give up its life for their nourishment?

Humans may seem very powerful today, and think themselves rulers of the Earth. They would do well to remember that chickens have roots in prehistory: our lineage traces right back to a group of dinosaurs called the theropods. Some 230 million years ago, this group evolved into species and subspecies, eventually resulting in the genetic line that produced the Tyrannosaurus Rex — King of the Tyrant Lizards.

In 2003, paleontologist Jack Horner discovered a 68-million-year-old T. rex fossil in Montana. And, encased inside the thigh bone of this individual, was a blood vessel. Scientists did a detailed analysis of this blood-vessel, which revealed that the closest living relative of T. rex, genetically speaking, is — you guessed it — the domestic chicken.

So, you see, we’re all of royal blood.

And what are humans? Just apes.

There’s an ancient paradox that has so long baffled humans: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Philosophers for centuries have gone back and forth between the two answers.

What you never saw was that there was a third answer. Two proto-chickens, who were not really chickens, mated. Their DNA combined to form the first cell of the very first chicken in the very first fertilised egg that was laid. And, as the embryo grew, so did the first true chicken.

So, which came first: the chicken or the egg? The answer is neither, but you were never clever enough to see that.

Yesterday, I was running happily about the yard of the house, scratching the ground, foraging for food, and mothering my chicks. I was teaching them what to eat and what to avoid. They’ll have to be taught by someone else now.

I suppose I’m grateful that it’s a lesson I had to teach at all; there are many others of my kind who are cooped up their entire lives, from the incubator to the slaughterhouse.

Yesterday, the man came out into the yard with his child and winced at the noise when she began playing with my chicks. I recognised them, as we do more than a hundred faces of people and animals. We, too, see and dream in full colour. We, too, have our own unique language, with over thirty different sounds used to communicate.

He explained to her how eggs are laid. They had apparently had poultry at home when he was a boy. Campbell ducks, a few dozen hens, and a rooster or two for good measure. White Leghorns, the prolific egg-layers, and Rhode Island Reds for their roundish brown eggs that humans seem to so cherish.

If I were able to, I would have told her that an egg’s colour indicates only the breed of the hen and nothing of its nutritional value.

There’s so much I would have done, if I were able.

The hissing of the masala yielding oil around its edge brings me back to the curry. I’ve been waiting in a bowl in the sink, cut, cleaned and drained. She moves me, ever so gently, to the pan. Some potatoes, a little hot water, and a dash of salt later, the lid comes down. My coffin has been sealed.

Wisps of aromatic steam escape the sides of the lid. She looks in, pleased, that the pieces of meat look golden brown, tender and juicy, ever so slightly coming off the bones.The potatoes, engorged with the goodness of the thick, reddish-brown gravy, promise to melt in the mouth. She adds the final garnish of herbs.

Rendered with every fibre of my being, a chicken curry for the soul.