To an article on last year’s National Pigeon Day in America, on June 13, a reader named Nate Howard responded: “This may be the first I have ever ‘commented’ on a site. But I have to share this book with you all. It may be the best book I have ever read. It is called Gay-Neck. Newberry [sic] award winning book. Whatever your thoughts on pigeons and life are, they will be forever changed.”
The book was written by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, an Indian who arrived in California in 1910 as a poor student, and soon started writing. He wrote plays and poetry at first, but quickly moved on to children’s stories and books. In 1923, Mukerji’s autobiography (he was just 33) created a stir: Caste and Outcast was the first bestseller written in English by an Indian in America.
By the time Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon was published in 1927, Mukerji was well-known. In 1928 his book won the John Newbery medal for children’s literature, a new but prestigious American prize. To date, he remains the only Indian to have won that award.
“Gay-Neck” is Chitra-griva, a carrier pigeon of prodigious luck and skill. In the story, a boy from Calcutta raises this bird and adventures with him in the Himalayas in the company of Ghond, a friend and expert hunter. There are narrow escapes for Gay-Neck and cross-country travel for the party between friendly settlements and “lamaseries”, nights spent in the wild atop a crag or up a tree in the jungle.
When World War I breaks out, the young master trains Gay-Neck as a messenger for the Indian army in Europe. There, an injured Gay-Neck delivers a critical message, saving many lives. This is where the story intersects with fact.
Few now remember Cher Ami, but in the 1920s and 1930s this heroic pigeon was a household name in America. In October 1918, a battalion of the 77th Division was cornered on a hillside, taking heavy friendly fire. When 500 men had become 200, the commanding officer dispatched carrier pigeons to tell the artillery to stop shelling.
The first two pigeons were immediately shot down, but the third and last, Cher Ami, struggled through the firestorm to deliver the message. He took a bullet in the chest, lost an eye, and arrived with one leg dangling by a tendon. Because he was a hero, army medics stitched him together with the greatest care and also carved him a wooden leg. Cher Ami died the following year and today can be seen stuffed in the Smithsonian. There are books about him.
Cher Ami was evidently in Mukerji’s mind when he wrote so affectionately about Gay-Neck. At tale’s end, Gay-Neck and Ghond return to India and seek sanctuary in a monastery. Ghond says: “I need to be healed of fear and hate. I saw too much killing of man by man. I was invalided home for I am sick with a fell disease — sickness of fear, and I must go alone to nature to be cured of my fear.”
Mukerji too had a message to deliver. His work is richly spiritual. There are ecstatic descriptions of the sights and experiences of the wilderness, and a conviction that humans and nature are not to be separated. (There’s more than an echo of Rudyard Kipling, though not his mastery; and of E H Aitken, who wrote so beautifully about Indian wildlife.)
Mukerji had a particular combination of afflictions: he was an Indian abroad when there were few Indians abroad, and he was far from India when India was fighting for its freedom. As a result, and not unlike modern émigrés, he turned early to a search for roots, for God and the highest common ground in the encounter between Indian and Western “civilisation”. His story ended badly: miserable and unwell, Mukerji killed himself in New York in 1936.
Of Caste and Outcast’s two halves, “Caste” deals with Mukerji’s childhood as a Brahmin in Bengal, and “Outcast” with his life as an immigrant in America. To a modern reader — including scholars of migration — the meat is in Mukerji’s account of student life, his work as dishwasher and field labourer, his anarchist colleagues, and so on. It’s a moving portrait (and reminds me of Maxim Gorky’s own youthful autobiography).
There’s much more to be said about this complex and talented Indian, but one lesson we can take: for meaningful children’s fiction, we must find new Indian settings, better raw material. If Gay-Neck’s owner travelled in the wild, so should we. Perhaps a future Newbery winner is waiting now in Assam or Jharkand.