pinjare ke panchhi re, tera dard na jaane koe
bahar say to khamosh rahe tu
bheetar bheetar roye re
keh na sake tu, apni kahani
teri bhi panchhi, kya zindgani re
- Kavi Pradeep on the ‘Caged Bird’
I do not remember when I first heard the song; I must have been very young. But I can almost imagine: the radio bleeding the melody into a rainy afternoon; while I watched mother work around the kitchen, sitting on a counter. Like she still does, she must have explained. I can hear her speak. ‘You just cannot imagine the pain of the caged bird. The bird is meant to soar, right? How terrible putting it into a cage!’ Wide eyed, I must have nodded and agreed. And the rain must have come down harder, as if it were angry, too.
The song struck a chord with me. It became my sad song. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine Kavi Pradeep – who was given the title of Rashtrakavi, and who wrote the famous bone-chilling Aye mere watan ke logon song – writing the song with ink that was made of tears, and singing it in them.
At that time, still unknown to the concept of empathy; I sympathised with the caged bird. I thought about its melancholy little voice, and its longing eyes, staring away at whatever shred of blue sky it could see from inside the cage. If ever I happened to see a bird in a cage, I ached to just turn the key to its freedom – never once did I have the courage.
The caged bird – one who sang and mimicked and had a hundred different colours hidden under its wings – was the world’s ‘entertainment’.
Much later, on a family vacation, I remember watching the lions being fed at the Guwahati zoo. In a large green enclosure, the lions dropped their bored act and all ran to the small gate from where a van carrying their meat would toss in their food. They fought and growled playfully as they snatched the meat. The zoos have forever made my mother sad, and I recall her justifying – perhaps to her own self – that the poor beasts would have been poached had they been out in the wild.
And I wondered, like I always do, if they were happy. They seemed that way – they were running around in whatever space they had, they were growling, they were fed. Why then, did my eyes notice a little weakness around their limbs? Some laze? If they were being offered raw meat for food – and regularly – and had no fear whatsoever of a gun, did the bars of the cage no longer seem like they were closing in on them?
The first zoo – short for Zoological Park – was established in 1828 in London, for the purposes of observing the animals and studying their growth and life. Of course, the human – who had immense time to kill and a dearth of subjects to study – thought that not knowing about other species would somehow not make him knowledgeable enough.
And man caged other beings for ‘knowledge’.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
- Maya Angelou, Caged Bird
Maya Angelou was an African-American social rights activist, a poet and an author. In her famous autobiography, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, she writes about her struggle as a young black girl after the Civil Rights Movement. Her Caged Bird, who sings of freedom, makes me search for what freedom is. Is freedom a goal we are crawling at? Is it the riches, which have long been ill-famed for caging the man in their brilliance of the jewels and money? Is freedom travel? Is it the feeling that seas can be overcome, and skies mapped? Or is freedom, simply, a right to speak one’s mind? Is it the right to think without fear?
Google provides me with a confusing answer. In George Orwell’s words.
Freedom is slavery.
‘Entertainment’ and ‘Knowledge’: were these pseudonyms for slavery, for freedom?
College was always a distant dream for me. I couldn’t – as hard as I tried – just bring myself to imagine a place where I’d study away from home. I couldn’t imagine those new people, lectures or hostel rooms. When I finally reached college, I chattered away for the entire first day – perhaps scared that if I stopped, I’d know the loneliness.
If they were being offered raw meat for food – and regularly – and had no fear whatsoever of a gun, did the bars of the cage no longer seem like they were closing in on them?
In the evening, I went for a walk with the new acquaintances I’d made. And we came back only a little after six. We were shouted at. Six was the limit. Eight o’clock, back then, seemed like a whole new world of opportunities and freedom. Now, after eight, locked up safely in the hostel – am I caged like the bird? Do I understand its pain? Do I empathise now?
Probably. I understand the bird more than ever before. In the corridors, looking at the silent road outside; at the dark, whispering forest; at the yellow moon – my world still knows no bounds. I am free in my cage because I can dream. The fat lock chained on the door has never stopped me from talking, expressing, thinking, dreaming. Inside the guarded campus, where I am checked for my presence inside the privacy of my room every night – I do not feel caged. This cage is my world – I breathe its air, I eat its food – I am always watched, but I’ve stopped feeling lost.
Perhaps, I think, the caged bird sings of the unknown things – a positive note, a pleasant trill. The lions in the enclosure – they laugh and play, they have never known another way.
On the way back home, I sit impatiently in my seat, waiting for the plane to land. Outside the window, I can see the beginnings of the city – the depletion of vegetation and mountain folds morphing into neat rows of tall, modern apartment complexes. The pilot announces the landing, the outside temperature, along with thanks for flying with them. When the plane stops after taxiing to the gates, everyone stands up together, trying to reach their bags in the overhead bins.
The hostesses wait for the signal to pull open the doors. The passengers wait, restless. Then, with a signal, and a click; sunlight floods in. And along with, almost simultaneously, a pigeon flies into the cabin. I laugh in delight, an auntie shrieks in horror. And that makes me wonder if man ever thought about caging the bird because – like the auntie – he was terrified of a little meat and feathers? The bird flails about, till the back of the cabin – where I’m sure someone has opened the back door to let it out.
I walk out with the rest of the crowd, down escalators, through baggage halls, looking for my father. I spot him through the glass, a wide smile – waving. I almost run. I now know when the cage came into play – man created the cage for everything that was different, and not understandable: like a bird. He kept his fears in there, and his expectations – where he could feel that because they were in his sight, he somehow had power over them.
But ‘Caged Bird’ never really became a phrase. ‘Free Bird’ has.
 From the movie ‘Naag Mani’ (1957) – written and sung by Pradeep
 Poem “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (1983)
 From George Orwell’s famous book, 1984 (1949)
About the Author
Varnika Upmanyu is studying for an engineering degree, but wants to write many books. She has grown up by the sea, on the hills and in between. Her favourite place in the world is a library.