August 26

Mian Nazeer Ahmed and his Pigeons

Published in The Caravan. This is the unedited version. You can read published version here.
Somewhere along Ferozepur Road, running from Lahore to Firozpur in India, is the small town of Liliani Mustafabad. Located on the Pakistani side, Liliani looks like any of the other little Punjabi townships along Firozepur Road, with names like Taari Darbar, Gujoomta, Padween Thhay, Paras Raam, Gunda Singh, Nabi Buksh and Jhalke Darbar. According to legend, the word Liliani came from a distortion of the word Laalian, plural of the word “Laali”, a Punjabi name for a kind of bird that lives in a centuries old tree growing in the center of the township. Liliani is where, as any pigeon dealer from Lahore will tell you, resides one of the oldest and most famous pigeon breeding families in all of Lahore.

None of the pigeon dealers in Lahore could offer a postal address or a phone number– you just arrived in the town of Liliani and asked anyone on the street for Mian Nazir Ahmed. Sure enough, the first traffic policeman I spoke to from my rickshaw on the main road outside Liliani knew immediately who was being referred to, “Oh, Kabootar Walay Baba?”

The policeman directed us to one of the narrow streets that snaked through the town, leading– with the help of further directions from the locals– to a 3-storey cement structure plastered with marble tiles. The house stood tall and solid in contrast to the smaller single story dwellings around it. The street itself was called Mian Nazir Ahmed Mohallah.

The cream-colored front gate of the house was opened by a man in his 30’s with a thick mustache and a permanent arched brow. He was Mian Azeem, he said, the son of Mian Nazir Ahmed and looked after the pigeons with his father.

The large, sparsely furnished marble home reverberated with the ghostly whispers of pigeons cooing and the flapping of their wings. Upstairs, on the largest roof for miles around, sat Mian Nazir Ahmad– a small man on a charpoy set in the sun, dressed in a light brown shalwar kamiz with a black woolen hat pulled over his head bearing the NYPD logo. Behind him were 9 cement rooms containing wooden coops. The imposing structures covered most of the roof, essentially forming a 3rd story. Inside lived more than 500 pigeons.

We sipped from small shiny white ceramic cups of milky tea brought by his wife, who pulled up a chair next to his charpoy. Azeem sat on the charpoy next to his father.

“The breed of pigeons we have here in these cages are called Teddy. Buyers who are well versed in pigeon breeding offer up to 2 lakhs at a time for a pair, but we seldom sell,” Ahmad explained in his native Punjabi. He was referring to the serious pigeon enthusiasts who come from all over Pakistan and from as far away as Bahrain, Kuwait and Dubai to buy his breeds.

“Landownership and Kabootarbazi have been in our family for at least a 100 years,” he continued. Although a long-standing family pastime, it was 64-year-old Nazir Ahmad’s father Haji Mian Mohammad Hussain who was the most ardent pigeon enthusiast in the family. In pre-partition Punjab, when people might have owned at most 20 to 30 pigeons, Hussain had expanded his stock to more than 200.

The family wielded considerable influence in the community. One of their ancestors, Mian Rasheed Ahmad, presided over the first village council of Liliani after the original council was dissolved when Pakistan was formed. Over the years, a number of family members– cousins, uncles and brothers– have continued to hold key positions in the local administrative bodies. But the main pastime of the family has remained looking after the pigeons. Their considerable land holdings in the area have allowed for pigeon breeding to become their sole occupation.

According to Iqbal Qaiser, a native of Liliani and author of a book on the history of the town called Liliani Di Tawareekh, “If you look at Punjab from high above, you will hardly see a roof without pigeons.” The practice of rearing pigeons, says Qaiser, is believed to have come from Central Asia. “No one knows when pigeons were first reared in the subcontinent, but they are mentioned in local folklores and there are many folk songs about them.”

Sculptures, drawing and bird toys have been found among excavations from the ancient Harappa and Moenjodaro civilizations. The history of the Mughals is replete with references to pigeons in written accounts as well as visual archives. Princes loved to pose with a dove perched ever so delicately on their wrist. In recent times, however, serious breeding has been seen as a wasteful pursuit.

“We do this because we don’t work. This is the pastime of kings,” said Azeem.

Local competitions offering lucrative prizes have aimed to leverage the image of the hobby as a legitimate sporting event. “When the posters go up everyone comes to see,” Azeem said. “Now they think this practice is good. Before they used to look down upon it.” A 2006 article in the Daily Times newspaper in Pakistan reported on an endowment from the Bahraini Sports Ministry of 2.5 million rupees invested towards an annual ‘Bahrain Cup’ to be held from 2007 onwards in Lahore, offering cars and large sums of cash prizes to serious pigeon breeders. The entry fee to these competitions, according to Azeem, is anywhere from 1 to 2 lakh rupees. The prohibitive fee alone ensures only the richest and most serious breeders compete in the events. Nazir Ahmad says his generation alone has lost more 400 acres of land over the costs of caring and betting on the pigeons, “nuqsaan hi nuqsaan hai iss mein” (there is only loss in this hobby) he said.

Nazir Ahmad spends between 15,000 to 20,000 rupees daily on his flock. Two young men-— caretakers and trainee fliers– come every morning to clean the cages and feed the pigeons. The feed consists of a mixture of different types of grains: wheat, rice, maize and seeds. But the prize pigeons are given a special mixture the night before the big event.

“When they are being prepared to fly, we feed them real pearls, almonds, gold, pistachio and amber. They are fed a lot of special things before they fly,” said Azeem.

Marked with a stamp identifying the owner, the pigeon is flown at a fixed time from the rooftop. The competitors watch the bird through binoculars to make sure it is visible at all times.

“The pigeon has to be right above the zero needle of the binoculars looking like a tiny fly,” said Azeem. The pigeon stays aloft for hours before landing back within the boundary of the roof. An inch outside the designated boundary results in disqualification. Nazir Ahmad’s pigeons have remained the uncontested champions at the Punjab level competitions for the past 10 years.

“We work very hard and God gives us glory,” said Azeem.

Training begins at birth. Each pigeon is carefully groomed for the first 60 days of its life. Its feathers are carefully bound with thread. Binding the wings keeps the pigeons from flying away too soon, so they can become used to being around their handler. After a week the threads are gradually opened from the center, moving outwards every 4 to 5 days, allowing the pigeon to fly a little bit more, until the 20th day when all the thread is removed and the bird is allowed to soar freely.

Azeem had discovered an exceptional flier in a recent batch of purebred Teddy pigeons he had helped rear. The bird had a small elegant body and the glowing outer red rim in its eyes particular of its breed. He had known it was special even before he had cut all its threads. But one night the prized flier failed to return to its home. By sundown Azeem had accepted the loss. The next day the family received a phone call from across the border.

“A Sardar ji called us. He asked if the pigeon was ours. My cousin’s number had been on the stamp. He asked him whose pigeon it was. When my cousin answered it belongs to Mian sahib, the Sardar ji became very happy. He had heard of Mian Sahib. He offered to bring the bird to the border to return it to us,” said Azeem.

But Azeem’s cousin told the Sardar Ji to keep the pigeon and breed it for future fliers. “When the chicks hatch, they will be excellent fliers. It will make you happy.”