Winter 2006
The Case of the Spying Falcon
by Iftekhar Sayeed 
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A falcon was found where it had no business to be, and with antenna and radio  transmitter, too. It was brought down – in more senses than one – by the offer of bread and meat. And then, of course, it was arrested. Never mind which country arrested it, or which country it was spying for. Suffice it to say that the spy who came in from the sky was on South Asian soil, or air, according to taste.

Why did the falcon, an otherwise self-respecting bird, do it? What could have ended as a long and honourable career, with a retirement and pension of daily rats, in some splendid aviary, terminated ignominiously in a bribery scandal and arrest! The publicity alone must have made this a cause célèbre among the bird community of South Asia.

And that’s part of the human element here. A corrupt South Asian falcon would not be the slightest source of surprise or mystery for Transparency International. TI has not yet begun to publish a league table of graft among the species, but I suppose what’s true for one kind of biped goes for the other. We learn at school that Diogenes famously mocked the definition of man posed by philosophers as ‘a featherless biped’ by plucking a chicken and tossing it over the wall. The philosophers then promptly added the qualifier ‘with long nails.’ Now, the very same Diogenes used to go around looking for an honest man in broad daylight using a lantern.  If he were alive today, he would no doubt be on the lookout for an honest falcon using infra-red binoculars. 

For the rara avis just arrested is a kind of elevated South Asian. Notice the combination of medievalism and modernity in its accoutrements. There are the natural talons; but superadded to them are a transmitter – of very high power, we are told – and a metal ring, of more mysterious powers. Birds – rather, pigeons -- had been used by the Rothschild brothers to communicate key events occurring in their banking empire (that is, the whole of Western Europe). Imagine waking up one morning to hear a flutter at your window-sill and learning from a bird that Maria-Theresa had been dethroned by Frederic (not yet the Great)! News of the defeat of Napoleon was despatched to all the capitals of Europe by pigeons. From a pigeon to a falcon is an upgrade, but in this day and age one would have thought a satellite would be able to pick out details missed even by the canniest feathery biped. 

And then there is the humanitarian aspect of the thing. Surely there must be a UN convention prohibiting the use of falcons for cross-country spying? But, then, these UN resolutions are so frequently toothless! One would have expected the RSPCA to have a look-in on the matter by now; but I suppose if the bird is well fed (which it seems to be), they would have no complaint. And I don’t remember reading any recent, up-to-date reports by Amnesty International on the cruel, inhumane use of birds-of-prey as spooks. And what about the treatment of POWs? Not that the falcon in question was caught in the thick of fighting. But there is a quiet conflict going on at the moment, and one presumes the status of the bird to be that of a POW. Should the POW be returned, what is to be its fate? Or perhaps it should not be returned. These are, surely, international issues, of moral concern at the highest level, and not at all a matter of sovereign dispute. Nations that mistreat bipeds with feathers invariably mistreat bipeds without feathers. 

And spare a kind thought for the errant falcon. It took a dive, admittedly; but how many fellow-citizens, coming to the tail-end of a career, looking ahead from the present height at the future prospect, have not felt a similar temptation to add a little extra to the nest-egg? Hmm? The bird was being all too human. If the tone of this essay seemed judgmental at the beginning, it has changed. One cannot but sympathise with the creature. Why should we set standards for lesser beings when the highest being is lesser than the least? And what did our flying friend want? A mansion? A big house in England?  A foreign account? Fine clothes? Flashy car? No! A mere morsel or two of bread and meat. 

Bread and meat. Why, most South Asian humans do not see enough of the first, never mind the second! And yet they are duped and gulled, on empty bellies, into false and senseless conflict with others equally duped and gulled, and with similarly empty bellies. What was the falcon doing up there in the first place? Spying. Perhaps it had decided at a crucial moment in its career that the nation it had been spying for was not worth spying for anymore. Perhaps at that altitude it saw the clear light of reason and reflected on the raw deal that falcon and non-falcon alike have been getting in South Asia. Perhaps from a bird’s-eye perspective it saw the nations of South Asia as they really are, and plumped instead for a piece of meat and a crust of bread. Perhaps it finally decided to focus on the important things in life. 

A poet once remarked on “an old man’s eagle eye.” He had nothing to say about an old man’s falcon-eye, but one can stretch the metaphor a centimetre or two. It seems that we should all look down on South Asia from a very high vantage point, build ourselves a communal eyrie, and gaze at the narrow stretch of real estate that we collectively worship. And we should go without nourishment for the entire period that we are up there – and to make sure, there should be a constitutional provision that no food will we transported to us for several days. And what shall we crave when we come down, first thing? That’s right.

Bread and meat. 

(Iftekhar Sayeed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he currently resides. He teaches English as well as economics and is a language consultant to several organizations. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Postcolonial Text, Unlikely Stories, Freezerbox, Pennine Ink, Current Accounts, Mouseion, Poetry Monthly, Asia Week, the Journal of Indian Writing in English, Himal and many other publications.