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A pigeon-fancier’s enduring bond with his feathered friends

Uday Gaikwad, a pigeon-fancier, spreads open the wing of one of his homers to explain its shape. STEPHEN CHINOY FOR THE CARAVAN
31 October, 2023

It was the summer of 1994. A group of children in Pune’s Ajmera Colony struck an unlikely friendship with a homing pigeon who had been let go by an elderly couple in the neighbourhood. The pigeon started roosting on the terrace of their building and would fly around the children when they played, as if to join them. They fed it and fashioned a nest from a wicker basket.

The children—Riyaaz, Gaurav, Amol, Lal Bahadur and Uday Gaikwad—all between the ages of eleven and twelve at the time, took care of the bird and christened him Shahenshah, Urdu for emperor. “The terrace was his kingdom,” Gaikwad told me. “He would not let any other bird around his perch and would peck at any bird that tried to share his territory.”

For Gaikwad, that was the beginning of his journey as a pigeon-fancier—a person who keeps and breeds pigeons. Now in his early forties, he has over a hundred and fifty pigeons. Being a pigeon-fancier “was a universe unto itself,” he told me, as he gushed about the types of pigeons and their characteristics. The field, he said, “had famous teachers, whom aspiring fanciers coveted and wanted to learn from.” Gaikwad works in a multinational firm but has had to limit his career as he avoids work trips for more than three days. “I do not train them anymore but, when I did, I would spend around nine hours every day,” he said.

Shahenshah set Gaikwad on a course that took him from the bird markets of Pune to the streets of Bangalore in search of a guru, despite opposition from his family, who considered his hobby to be a waste of time. Familial disapproval was a relatable theme with every pigeon-fancier I met. “People think anyone who has anything to do with pigeons is a tukaar”—wastrel—Rajesh Sasar, a co-founder of the Pune Pakshimitra Association, told me. In Gaikwad’s case, there was family precedent. A cousin, Sunil Thorat, ten years his senior, was also a fancier. Thorat, who had dropped out of school, worked as an autorickshaw driver, and Gaikwad’s parents feared he would do the same if he did not get away from the birds.