Not so long ago, on a hot summer afternoon, we embarked on a journey. It was a journey like never before. A journey into the hinterland of Tamil Nadu. A journey into a land where bulls were not beasts but reincarnations of Bheema, a land where pigeons were not messengers of love but veteran racers, a land where roosters didn’t just announce the dawn of a new day and rams didn’t just produce three bags of wool. It was a strange and wondrous land. It was a land worth falling in love with.
So there we were, my guide and I, riding through Theni’s backyard on a black motorbike, making scheduled halts to talk to the sportsmen and unscheduled halts to prevent dehydration.
First stop: Pannaipuram. Home of the well-known Illayaraja and the little-known Rekla racers. While we admit that we love the music of the former, we were more interested in the tales the latter had to tell. Pannai Kumar, the local DMK District Youth Secretary took charge and held an impromptu workshop on the dynamics of the Rekla race. On the face of it, a Rekla race looks chaotic – the bulls, the men on the carts, all rushing madly to the finish. But when Kumar told us about the hours of sweat and blood that goes into the process, we were truly bowled over.
At Markainkottai, Sellapandi told us how he feeds his rooster badam and boiled eggs to make it stronger. Vellaivi, his current favourite rooster was duly displayed. All of a sudden, the big fat rooster (weighing a good three kilos) was thrust into our hand. While we buckled under the weight and the fear of holding a fighting rooster, we must admit that it was an adrenaline high.
We then set off in search of the Jallikattu bulls. Unfortunately they had gone grazing. So Ranjith of Kottur showed us some photographs instead, and even the yellow-green t-shirt that the bull chasers must wear. We looked at the fierce bulls in the photographs, thanked our lucky stars that they were not around, and got going.
On the last leg of our whirlwind tour, we met MS Mariappan of Upvaapatti. A walking Wikipedia, Mariappan seemed to know something about everything. The weight of a Rekla cart, the politicization of Jallikattu, the unique characteristics of Kombai dogs, the exercise regime of a racing pigeon, and the diet of a fighting ram – he knew it all.
After a long and fruitful conversation, we left Upvaapatti and headed to the bus stop at Periyakulam. On the rickety bus ride back home, I looked out of the window at the full moon and imagined those animals, each looking up to the same moon from their sheds. Would they too be wondering what tomorrow held for them?