Books are such wondrous beings. On one page you are enjoying your evening with a nomadic family on the Mongolian steppes, watching the matriarch firing away orders to the family, in style. Come the next page, you are suddenly transported back to your childhood.
“There were scenes of hysterics as the little children were tasked with rounding up the most mischievous goats. They sprinted after the animals, diving to catch whatever body part they could lay a hand on, whether it be the leg, ears, or even tail, but often ended up facedown in the dust. When one particularly large and courageous goat made a break for the open steppe beyond camp, one of the boys, probably no older than ten, swung onto a horseback and, with his chest pushed out like a little man’s, went galloping off with a shriek.”
Rewind to an era that sound pre historic to my kids who haven’t seen even a stalk of rice. When there were no supermarkets and you had to run behind a hen to have a chicken dish for lunch. And ducks.
Watching chickens hatching was one of the favourite pastimes of summer holidays. And the ducklings. The mother ducks are an active lot. Not for them, the days of sitting idle on top of a group of dumb looking eggs. And they needed the daily frolic in water. A wet body on top of a growing baby inside a shell? That would have been a sure shot recipe for disaster. As the shell broke, the chickens looked cute, covered in tiny, soft feathers. The ducklings were weird.
My memory deserts me here. When did the surrogate mother retreat and the real one take over? What I do rememeber is the joyous jump of ducklings into water. Mother first and the kids after her.
Duck roast was a delicacy, reserved for special occasions. Especially my grandmother’s quite famous whole duck roast. Boiled potatoes, mashed and mixed with spices stuffed into the tummy that would now be emptied of all the gory stuff like intestines and gizzard. More about that in another post. The whole process deserves a story by itself.
While the hens would be left to wander around by themselves, ducks were always cooped up. Except in the evenings. We were never a part of the letting out. Rounding them up in the evening was the real adventure. Hens are an odedient lot, except for a stray one. They seem to know by instinct when the time came. Obediently they would walk into the hen house, one after another. A particularly rebellious one would perch itself on a tree branch and refuse to come down. No amount of coaxing, cajoling or even threats would make them budge. Some days, they would just be left to their own devices, out of sheer exhaustion on the part of the chasers.
The ducks. ‘Taking to water like a duck,’ is not an empty idiom, you realize. The first few moments after the door of the pen was opened was of confusion. Then the excitement would begin. Freedom, they seemed to shout. Skuttling across on their webbed feet, their wings opened out, waddle had a different meaning. It was a cross between a run and flight. The last leg was the best. They took flight at the last moment, with a loud quack of sheer joy and abandon. For a few brief moments they would be flying like other birds, before the weight of their bodies made them land in water with a loud thud and splash.
Rounding them up a few hours later was another story altogether. Think of a kid having the time of her life with her friends in a park. And telling them time is up. Oh, the horror of it! First, it’s a gentle shoo, shoo. Then the shout, and ultimately a whack on their bottom with a bamboo pole. We had our tactics too. First we would place ourselves at strategic locations, then the chase would start. There never was a gentle moment, just the sheer adventure of it all.
Rebels were everywhere. A couple would escape our watchful eyes and escape. Off they would go, swimming madly across the canal. And follow we would. Helpers were all around, on the way. They would join the chase. Someone who had been taking a peaceful bath would suddenly be thrown out of their reverie by the cackling ducks racing through the water and equally boisterous kids chasing them over the shore. Who would win was always a moot point. Their fate was sealed the moment the tiny beaks forced their way out of their shells.
Looking back, I realize how everything was taken for granted. Life had its natural course whether it was for us kids or the ducks we chased. Questions were rare. That’s the way things were, life was. The tiny embryos took warmth from a stranger, found their way out of the shells, were fed and then would find their own feed, laid eggs that were taken away and would finally end up, spiced and cooked, on random dining tables. Not one of us questioned why they were killed. We just waited, longing for bits and pieces of those perfectly browned whole duck roast. Another story, for another day.
(i) the quote is from ‘On the trail of Genghis Khan’ by Tim Cope
(ii) picture courtesy google images