Save your soul — Lahore’s cagey bird trade
By Kirran Syed and Asher John
LAHORE: Free the parrots, beseeched a birdman on the streets of bustling Liberty Market. Sure enough, a car pulled up and the negotiations began.
Brothers Tausif and Mansab Tariq of London agreed on two parrots at Rs 50 each. The birdman reached into his crammed cage and held out two squirming green lives. The brothers cupped the tiny heads, and the birds were set free.
This is how many birdmen in the city make their living. They take money from passers-by to free finches, pigeons and parrots. The men and women who pay for the birds’ freedom are told this act would gain them the blessings of God.
Some condemn the birdmen of Lahore as vultures operating on human guilt. Free the birds and you save your soul, say the birdmen. Waris Gill, who is one of the birdmen hawking his blessings in Gulberg’s markets, says it’s either this or starvation. “We don’t like it either,” Mr Gill said of his three-year-old vocation. “We have to earn bread for our children,” said the father of seven.
Mr Gill buys about 500 birds wholesale each month from Tollington Market and other private sellers on the outskirts of the city. Birds like sparrows cost around Rs 4 and are sold—or set free—for Rs 5. The profit is paltry, a “few hundred” rupees each month, he said. It is usually the relatively well off who patronize the birdmen, he added.
Islam opposes the idea of setting birds free to earn the goodwill of Allah, said Sahibzada Saeedur Rehman Ahmed, administrator of Darul Uloom Hanfiya mosque in Liberty. “It is just like kidnapping someone for ransom,” he said. “Instead of freeing birds to get God’s appreciation, it is better to give money to a poor person for food.” Others like Professor Shaista Sirajuddin, who has rescued many birds from birdmen and keeps them in a large aviary at her residence, said cramming birds in a tiny cage for profit is scandal. “I’ve often felt I needed to save the birds and whip the people who sell and keep them to within an inch of their lives,” she said.
“It’s not a question of blessings,” said Ms Sirajuddin. It’s a sign of the times that people feel they can absolve themselves by freeing caged birds. “Which is why one finds (birdmen) outside mosques ... this is an unholy trade,” she said.
This sort of sentiment has translated into activism on the part of the some quasi-governmental organisations, which can fine bird sellers up to Rs 2,000 for cruelty to animals. Chief Inspector Chaudhry Niaz Ahmed leads the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which fines those who keep their birds hungry and crammed.
“The government does not give us enough money to do our work and we also lack staff to patrol Lahore,” said Mr Ahmed. The organisation has only five people to patrol the streets, he said, expressing surprise that the practice of freeing birds for salvation was taking place in the upscale environs of Liberty Market. Birdman Mr Gill breathed a sigh of relief and said the fines and patrols were few and far between. “We recognise the officials,” he said of the animal rights activists. “Sometimes they catch us. Usually, when we see them, we run.”