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  Captive birds, working monkeys
India: In Calcutta, a blacksmith employs monkeys while a tailor performs a weekly rite of freeing caged birds.
By Sk. Azizur Rahman
Special To The Sun

CALCUTTA, India -- On India's streets, parks and tourist spots, countless people earn their bread by entertaining passers-by with monkeys. But a blacksmith in the eastern state of Orissa has given new meaning to the phrase "monkey business."

Kalicharan Maharana employs two rhesus monkeys at his workshop to run the bellows of his charcoal oven.

Animal lovers are outraged, and labor officials are dumbfounded, but Maharana doesn't understand what the fuss is about. Cows, elephants and other animals earn their keep, he points out.

He befriended the monkeys when they came to his shop for food every day. "One day it struck me that, properly trained, they could probably do some jobs just like the average [human] worker," he says. "So I chained one of them and started to train her at the blower."

The monkey tried to run away. "But my love and patience finally paid off," Maharana says, "and she replaced my human blower operator. It was a big relief, because the other [human] assistant was costing me 40 rupees [about $1] a day."

The working monkeys were discovered by government officials conducting a routine drive against shop owners suspected of flouting labor laws.

Taken aback, the inspectors were unsure whether the blacksmith was breaking any laws. They considered prosecuting him under the Indian Child Labour Prohibition & Regulation Act. But perhaps they had some sympathy for the poor, illiterate blacksmith, who earns barely 60 rupees ($1.50) a day in the ramshackle workshop. They advised him to let Mini, the 2-year-old simian, work no more than five hours a day because she was a "child laborer."

They had no complaint against the employment of Kuni -- Mini's 8-year-old mother -- because she is considered an "adult" under labor law.

Maharana manufactures tools such as sickles, hammers, chisels and pickaxes. As soon as he places iron bars inside the charcoal oven, alert and agile Kuni springs to her hind legs, grabs the handle of the bellows and rotates it with remarkable efficiency.

For four years, Kuni has been running the blower almost single-handedly. Little Mini, a "trainee," has been learning the trade for six months.

Some animal lovers have protested, arguing that he has enslaved the monkeys. Kuni works a 12-hour day.

But the blacksmith is not fazed by his critics. "I love the monkeys as much as I love my four other children" he says. "I give them good food like bananas, vegetables, rice -- and I have no way to pay the wages to them.

"Look at their faces," he implores. "Do they not look happy with me?"

The labor inspectors found his argument convincing. They recorded in their inspection register: "At Kalicharan Maharana's workshop Kuni and Mini are voluntary workers refusing to take any wage for their service."

Noor Nobi Mollah, a tailor in Calcutta, thinks people who keep birds in cages while calling themselves bird lovers are wrong. And every week he puts some of his meager earnings behind his beliefs.

Mollah and his three brothers run the sewing machines 12 to 14 hours a day in their tiny workshop on the veranda of a century-old building.

But on Mondays, the tailor takes time off from his machines to perform his most "precious duty" -- freeing caged birds.

Every Sunday evening, as soon as his week's production has been bought by the wholesalers, he gives three-fourths of his earnings to his wife for the family. He keeps the rest for his "Monday rite," which he has been performing for almost a decade.

Selling birds has been banned in India since the early 1990s. But bird markets still flourish openly in many places, after police and wildlife officials have been paid off. At Calcutta's weekly pet market, village trappers sell more than 6,000 birds to the local sellers every Sunday. Next morning the sellers offer their captives at different markets around the city.

And on Monday morning, Mollah will be at his local market. While the typical bird buyer prefers the healthier and more beautiful birds, Mollah looks for those still in cages, unsold after hours or days.

Toward noon, as prices begin to drop, he bargains to buy as many birds as he can with his 250 to 300 rupees ($6 to $7). He takes the birds home to give them grain and, if needed, first aid.

In the afternoon, at a nearby burial ground, he takes the birds from their cages one by one and sets them free. In the past 10 years more than 12,000 starlings, sparrows, mynahs, Indian finches and others have flown to freedom.

Mollah's ritual stems from a tragedy 10 years ago, when an accident killed his son and two nephews.

"To them, death came so easily," he says. "No magical power could return my lost children to life, and in a strange way I strongly realized the significance of life. I kept on thinking how I could do something to save a living creature, to relieve it of its pain. Then I thought of releasing birds."

Unlike almost all his Muslim neighbors, this religious man does not sacrifice any animal on the day of Id-ul-Azha, the annual Muslim ritual of sacrifice.

Mollah sits by the graves of the three boys as he frees the birds, muttering prayers: "Allah, I can do so little with my limited ability. If you think that I am doing a good job releasing these birds from cages, please keep our children in peace in your heaven. Probably I pray something like that when I release the birds," he says.

Mollah's wife and four remaining children are sometimes unhappy with him for what they think is frittering away hard-earned money on his "meaningless" ritual. Sometimes local people who cannot understand his philosophy make fun of him in public.

The tailor does not care. "An elephant does not need to heed the barking dogs around," he says. "I shall keep setting birds free until the last Monday in my life."

Originally published on Apr 24 2000

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