Monday, October 13, 2008

Gay-Neck (aka Chitra the Pigeon)

Poor Gay-Neck. His name (and the book title) is rather unfortunate today, especially given the age of the kids that are most likely to read about him. Since my local library recently provided home access to the Oxford English Dictionary, I was able to learn that "gay" didn't become commonly associated with homosexuality until the 1940's; Dhan Gopal Mukerji wrote Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon in 1927.

Mukerji obviously refers to the definition of gay that means: "bright or lively-looking, especially in colour; brilliant, showy" - on the second page of the story, he says:
"His name was Chitra-griva; Chitra meaning "painted in gay colours," and Griva, "neck" - in one phrase, pigeon Gay-Neck. Sometimes he was called "Iridescence-throated" (p. 16).
Although I don't think that Iridescense-Throated: The Story of a Pigeon is much of an improvement over Gay-Neck, I do think that American publishers could take a cue from their British counterparts, who've changed the title to Chitra: The Story of a Pigeon. It's exotic without being overly weird, and maybe then kids wouldn't be afraid to check it out of the school library. But perhaps the fact that Gay-Neck won the Newbery award - and is listed by this title in so many places in the U.S. - prevents us from changing it.

Anyway, Gay-Neck was an interesting book, quite different from what I expected from "The Story of a Pigeon." There was information about pigeons' lives, but I also learned about India in the early 1900's, and even a bit about World War I (from the perspective of a carrier pigeon).

As I was reading Gay-Neck, however, I felt a nagging sense of familiarity. Finally, "O beloved ones of Infinite Compassion" (p. 178), I realized that certain phrases and descriptions reminded me of the Rudyard Kipling stories that I read as a child - especially The Jungle Book and Kim. There are elephants, tigers, water buffalo, fierce hawks, wise hunters, and even wiser lamas who live in splendid lamaseries high in the Himalayas in both. It's all very colorful (no pun intended).

Some of my favorite parts are the rather poetic passages (or, as Mukerji says, "the grammar of fancy and the dictionary of imagination", [p. 74]), like this description of a night that Chitra, the narrator (Chitra's unnamed teenage handler), and the narrator's mentor, Ghond, spend tied to the branches of an enormous banyan tree (so they don't fall when they doze off):
The tiger had vanished from under our tree. The insects had resumed their song, which was again and again stilled for a few seconds as huge shapes fell from far-off trees with soft thuds. Those were leopards and panthers who had slept on the trees all day and were now leaping down to hunt at night.

When they had gone the frogs croaked, insects buzzed continually and owls hooted. Noise, like a diamond, opened its million facets. Sounds leaped at one's hearing like the dart of sunlight into unprotected eyes. A boar passed, cracking and breaking all before him. Soon the frogs stopped croaking, and way down on the floor of the jungle we heard the tall grass and other undergrowth rise like a haycock, then with a sigh fall back. That soft sinister sigh like the curling up of spindrift drew nearer and nearer, slowly passed our tree. Oh, what a relief! It was a constrictor going to the water-hole. We stayed on our tree-top as still as its bark - Ghond was afraid that our breathing might betray our position to the terrible python (pp. 61-62).
One thing that I didn't particularly like about the story was that the different parts seemed so unconnected. First we learn about Gay-Neck's birth and training, his odyssey across India and his battles and his mate, and then bam! He's in Flanders with Ghond and the Indian Army, carrying messages for the Commander-in-Chief, "who looked like a ripe cherry and exuded a pleasant odour of soap....unlike most soldiers" (p. 141).

The black and white illustrations were beautiful and unexpectedly striking - though interestingly, few of the works featured pigeons. I Googled illustrator Boris Artzybasheff, and found quite a bit more information on him than on the author. Apparently Artzybasheff illustrated Gay-Neck quite early in his career, and went on to do hundreds of more well-known pieces of graphic art, including about 200 covers for Time magazine. Check out one of his two-page spreads from Gay-Neck here:

I also rather enjoyed the spiritual side of the Chitra's story, with the narrator's musings about the "inviolate sanctity" of the highest peaks and the many different animals' instinctive acknowledgement of dawn. The lamas do steal the show with their kindness and their meditations on courage:
"Here let it be inscribed in no equivocal language that almost all our troubles come from fear, worry, and hate. If any man catches one of the three, the other two are added unto it" (p. 128).
The ending was also quite satisfying, including some surprisingly modern reflections on animals in their natural habitats, and thoughts on the emotional ravages of war - personally, for Ghond and Gay-Neck, and for mankind in general, who are "so loaded with fear, hate, suspicion and malice that it will take a whole generation before a new set of people can be reared completely free from them" (p. 171-172).

How can I not recommend a book about a pigeon (a pigeon, of all things!) that ends with this paragraph (p. 191)?
"Whatever we think and feel will colour what we say or do. He who fears, even unconsciously, or has his least little dream tainted with hate, will inevitably, sooner or later, translate these two qualities into his action. Therefore, my brothers, live courage, breathe courage and give courage. Think and feel love so that you will be able to pour out of yourselves peace and serenity as naturally as a flower gives forth fragrance.

Peace be unto all!"


Rebecca Reid said...

Great point about renaming the book. I think that would be a good idea.

I also liked the illustrations, but I can't say I loved the book. It also reminded me of Kiplings Jungle Book in style. But I didn't think it was very well-written overall -- and it did seem disconnected with the various narrators (like when Gay-Neck narrated!).

Sandy D. said...

I should note that I read this soon after reading Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea", and that some of the the descriptions and musing about the Himalayas were much the same. I don't know if both authors were just struck by the same things, or if its a common reaction to the highest mountains in the world.