Here’s to you, Mr Cock-a-doodle-do! | Daily News

Here’s to you, Mr Cock-a-doodle-do!

Uncle Robert ‘Rory’ Calhoun, was an elegant British gentleman of Irish descent. Calhoun was actually not a relative, but a close friend of my grandfather and regarded as part of the family. The moniker ‘Rory’ was thrust on him by me, inspired by the famed Hollywood screen idol of the time, Rory Calhoun. But his celluloid namesake, for all his heroic make-believe antics could never have held a candle to Uncle Rory who was essentially a real-life adventurer of the highest order.

Calhoun spoke with just a hint of an Irish accent that many women thought ‘delightfully cute.’ He was a ruggedly handsome with a thick shock of brunette hair. It was rumoured that he had distinguished himself as an officer in the French Foreign Legion and had been decorated highly for bravery in Syria and Algeria. He sported a neatly trimmed moustache which served to accentuate his piratical air. He was muscularly slim, broad-shouldered and moved with panther-like grace.

An inveterate gamecock enthusiast, although the sport was illegal in the island, he had earned a reputation as an expert breeder of prize fighting cocks. As children we listened to his incredibly daring escapades during police raids and tales concerning the underground world of rooster fighting. There were hardly any animal rights activists at the time, though certain elite dowager types frowned on the sport calling it a blatant example of animal cruelty. But its adherents in that spacious post-colonial period were quick to refute such condemnations of their favourite pastime as absolute ‘poppycock.’

The quick-witted Calhoun often pointed out mockingly that those same opponents of the sport relished a mouth-watering chicken curry, at a time when poultry were mostly slaughtered in home backyards by slitting their throats with a sharp knife. Because of cockfighting’s popularity its devotees were many. The circle of gamblers came from all walks of life including the humble labourer, the fisherman, the moneylender and even the Village Headman, whose duty it was to enforce the law. The news spread quickly on the clandestine gambling grapevine that a Friday or Saturday night cockfight was on the cards. The cockpits were mostly owned and managed by influential landowners. Indeed, cockfighting although illegal, was the second most popular sport after horse racing, which was legitimate in colonial Ceylon. Unprecedented crowds attended these bouts, despite the occasional police raids. People from every class owned gamecocks. After all, they were far more affordable to ordinary folk than thoroughbred race horses. As a die-hard gamecock enthusiast, Calhoun was rumoured to have imported several fighting roosters from India, the Philippines and Indonesia. His country home was also a breeding farm for gamecocks.

Calhoun’s pride and joy among his fighting flock was a rooster named ‘Ramasamy’ who had earned himself the enviable reputation of being an invincible fighting machine in cockpits as far apart as he capital’s suburbs as well as the deep south and the far-flung outpost of the northern peninsula Jaffna. Ramasamy always set the feathers flying and beat even his most formidable opponents into a cocked hat.

Calhoun’s most intimate buddies mischievously commented that the fighting rooster had an uncanny resemblance to its owner, both physically as well as temperamentally. They teasingly pointed out that they both demonstrated the same feisty and insufferable characteristics, stressing on the likeness of the swagger and their tendency to hang out with the chic chicks. They hinted that the cocky attitude of both had given them a reputation for arrogance, aggression and promiscuity. Calhoun took the ribbing with his usual good humoured disposition dismissing it all as inconsequential cockamamie chicken talk and humour most fowl.

Many of the contenders and their owners were celebrities among the sport’s followers who were almost always irresistible punters. They gambled as much as their financial standing permitted, the humble worker betting perhaps a day’s wages while the affluent high-rollers risked spending a couple of thousand rupees (whopping sums at the time) on a single bout. But Calhoun was dead set against roosters being equipped with steel blades or gaffs which were attached to the game cocks as artificial spurs.

Indeed, legend had it that Calhoun had once entered his prized gamecock ‘Ramasamy’ in a bout that took place in a dinghy cockpit in Colombo. The gambling den was situated in the heart of the capital’s Colpetty area by the sea. The arena was located in the premises of an abandoned rambling decrepit building with a sprawling backyard concealed by overgrown hedges. It was a cloudy night and the cockpit was dimly lit with the flickering lights of a dozen hurricane lamps.

The story goes that just as Ramasamy had predictably bested his opponent in a flurry of flying feathers there had been a warning cry of a police raid. The rest of the story had entered the realms of family as well as cockfighting mythology. There was a fluster of activity among the spectators who dispersed and melted into the darkness like the spectres of the night. Calhoun had pocketed his winnings and picked his still belligerent rooster from the cockpit. He faded into the concealment afforded by the gloom and dense unkempt shrubbery with the rest of the fleeting phantasmal fugitives.

Calhoun had found himself breathless on the Colpetty railway tracks where he slipped off his white linen jacket and covered the bird with it. He strolled down the Galle Road in the direction of Colombo’s famous promenade heading towards the island’s oldest hotel where he was a regular guest. The receptionist greeted his late night guest warmly, while handing him a room key as he signed the register. Calhoun ordered a bottle of whisky and a sandwich to be sent up to the room. He later recounted that he had attended to the bird’s injuries with dabs of whisky as a disinfectant. He claimed he had fed the bird sandwich crust before turning in for the night.

The actual fun began around an hour before daybreak when a disorientated Ramassamy must have found himself in unfamiliar surroundings. The entire hotel was rudely awakened by an ear-splitting lengthy crowing as the fighting cock-bird perched on the bed headboard and let loose with the lustiest yodel that threatened the stability of the room’s glass panes. The crowing continued until it grew into what seemed a full-throated proclamation of protest.

Fortunately the hotel management and guests viewed the entire fiasco with cheerful humour. But when Calhoun entered the hotel bar the following evening, the guests had setup an orchestrated surprise to greet him.

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