Friday, July 14, 2017

Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff

This is a book I’ve had sitting on my shelf for years and just never got around to reading. But I recently read two very interesting articles about the author, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, which spurred me to action. I pulled the book off the shelf and finally read it. And while it is usually considered a WWI story, it is really much, much more than that.

Born into a Brahmin family, Mukerji had raised pigeons growing up in Calcutta, India in the early years of the 20th century just like so many boys his age and caste did at that time. Calling upon his own experience with his flock of 40 birds and the experiences of others, Mukerji writes about this special pigeon’s life story. Almost from the moment it was born, it’s young owner knows this is a special pigeon, beautiful and smart. The young master decides to name him Gay-Neck or Chitra-griva, Hindu meaning “painting in gay colours.” 

At first, it is up to Gay-Neck’s parents to teach him to fly, and to defend himself against hawks and eagles, a pigeon’s natural enemies, but soon his master takes over with the help of Ghond, a family friend and hunter who is familiar with India’s forests, mountains, and wild life. Together, they take Gay-Neck on trips further and further from home in Calcutta, releasing him to see if he will return to Calcutta. Gay-Neck’s training is successful, but not without mishaps, including having to retrain him after he becomes frightened to fly again because of a hawk attack. 

When WWI begins, Ghond and Gay-Neck are sent to the front as part of the Indian Army. Gay-Neck performs masterfully as a carrier pigeon saving lives during the war, but ultimately both Ghond and Gay-Neck are invalided out and sent home. Ghond suffering with physical wounds and both suffering from PTSD. Both must be healed now.

I found Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon to be a very interesting book for a number of reasons. First, there is the story of just how a homing/carrier pigeon is trained, something I’ve wondered about whenever I’ve read a book about their use in war. Mukerji goes into quite a bit of detail about this, carefully describing how to begin training them and why a trainer might have to tie a pigeons’s wings to prevent it from flying, as well as the retraining process after the pigeon has been attacked or become frightened as Gay-Neck did on the battlefield.

Gay-Neck is also a window into the life of an Indian boy from a high caste. Gay-Neck’s young master (like Mukerji himself), has the leisure time and money to spend on raising his flock of pigeon’s, living in a two story private home with a flat roof for the pigeon coops.  There is no mention of the British until the war, even though India was still a colony of the British Empire, nor any mention of the poorer people in Calcutta. 

But it is Mukerji’s descriptions of natural and religious life that really makes this novel. Whether they are in the jungle, dealing with a tiger, an angry elephant, a killer water buffalo, or resting and meditating at a lamasery with the lamas, or describing the majesty of the Himalayas,  the writing is always beautiful and the language simply poetic. even when Mukerji is graphically describing the action on front lines. At times, during the war, Mukerji writes from Gay-Neck’s point of view since his master was only a teenager and couldn’t accompany his bird to the front. Thus, the reader is able to read what Gay-Neck sees and experiences, from a wild dog at the front, to machine eagles spitting fire in the sky. 

And, the dramatic black and white graphic illustrations by Russian-born artist Boris Artzybasheff are the perfect compliment to this book. 

While I enjoyed finally reading Gay-Neck, what I am not sure about is whether this is a book that would appeal to today’s young reader. Plus, sensitive readers should be aware that there are some graphic descriptions throughout this book.

Gay-Neck won the Newbery in 1928 and I believe, the author is the only Indian author to have won that award to day. You might want to read these recent articles about Dhan Gopal Mukerji. You can find them HERE and HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library.


  1. Have to admit that I deaccessioned this one years ago. It never circulated. I love stories set in India, but the prose style made it less appealing for modern readers.

    1. I'm afraid I have to agree with you. I loved reading Mukerji's prose, but deep down I know kids today wouldn't like it. I also like stories set in India and this was particularly appealing to me. Still, I put it out there just in case one or two readers discover it.