Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The Crows of India by Merlie M. Alunan


I Hearing Crows


The cries crack the dawn of my first day in India.

Kraaaa! Kraaaa! Kraaaa! Kraaaa! Kraaaa!

dissonant hymnal as the night orbits to day.

Kraaaa! kraaaa! kraaaa! the strident cry stains

the morning stillness, black slivers of wings

darting here and there seeking a level of air,

kraaaa! kraaaa! kraaaa! kraaaa! kraaaaa!

a raucous unremitting outcry rising

to the pale sky from the trees of Lodi Garden,


We see more crows later as we go around.

We don't hear them as much as on that first

dawn in Delhi. They're out at first light,

swarming the rooftops, twos or threes dipping

on the sweaty riksha man, the pakora vendor,

the seller of flowers, the raggedy saddhu in a trance

by a roadside ashram. They are a black litter

on the red earth in Madurai, black missiles

sweeping over the saltbeds, the coco palms,

the young pines along the road to Pondicherry.

In Chenai they adorn the spires of St. Thomas' Cathedral.

Rows of them sit on taut electric wires strung

pole to pole along the highway, looking down

at the stolid cows plodding among the speeding lorries,

they roost on trees, they stray on pavement, grass,

sandy beaches littered with fishbones and snails.


They sit in wait for the ofal we throw to dogs,

cats, the sacred temple mice, the monkeys

grubbing on the narrow ledges of our parsimony.

One fine morning, while eating breakfast

on the patio of Peerless Hotel, we welcome one

to our table. He blinks a wary eye at the toast

we offer him, snatching it quick and soaring away

with the tidbit in his beak.


II Feeding Crows

We take to saving crumbs from our plate

--a bit of bone, a bite of meat, a piece of bread,

some basmati we wrap in paper napkins

and smuggle in our pockets for when

we go out to the streets where they wait,

perched hopefully on fences, scanning the scene

for any morsel escaping our stingy hoard.

They are not choosy, anything that beak can break

or claw carry away is crows' food.

They'd pick the eyes out of any carrion,

dog or prince, proffered by brahmin's hand

or by a casteless unknown, food all the same.

Pragmatic, unscrupulous, indiscriminate, proud,

ungrateful, too, if you wish, taking what they want,

what they need, and damn if they care who

they're getting it from, or how.


In the park at Panjim in Goa, we scatter grain

on the pathway beside the Mondavi estuary

where the flocks abound. They drop from the low trees

to the ground to claim the bounty, leaving nothing

for the hungry dogs sniffing for their share at a distance.

We are their momentary godlings, giving largesse

from shallow pockets. How well the crows know it,

fluttering back to their perches, forgetting that very instant

the hands that filled their crop. Back in their perches,

they sit and wait, who knows for what?


Crows never fly alone. They keep within one another's

line of vision. The flock, that's their indubitable destiny,

claiming an aerial ghetto reserved For Crows Only.

I warrant they must be totally without intention

when they kill or steal, utterly, sublimely innocent,

blameless and pure as they are meant to be, and hence,

efficient for the moment's needs, the moment's deed.


III Crows Waiting


Waiting, that's what they know best how to do.

But not, like Moses, one imagines, waiting

for a voice in the wild to tell them where to go

or what to do, or for a light in the sky to show them

what's true or false, right and wrong, evil and good

in the nature of things. Crows do not wait

for a sword-and-sceptre bearing Messiah

to come and secure a future, which, surely,

does not exist in crow language. Kraaa! Kraaa! Kraaa!

that's their entire repertoire of speech and does enough

for what they need to say to one another or to hear--

beyond the moment's need to feed, for instance,

and to breed, there are only the streets and open fields

where crows may hunt for mice and early worms

and live, or die by snares and sticks and stones.


It must be hard for them in winter,

no food for days on end, no shelter, what with the trees

unleaving. Cold and hungry, crows drop from the sky

as frozen meat (Would they eat their kind? I don't

want to know.) Just like that, they become

our metaphor supreme for mass murder and death

by any means. Of such events in human history we say,

"They died like crows"--remember, Hitler's ovens,

My Lai, and close to home, Ampatuan--that's to say,

brutally, violently, and quite without purpose.


We see the last of India's crows in Mumbai,

in the Dadar district, where humans

greatly outnumber them, and around

the Gate of India, large flocks fight the doves

for popcorn, peanuts and pakora crumbs.

When at last the plane lifts off for home

we say to each other, "Not a feather

in the luggage, make sure," laughing at how

we've gotten back unscathed, and as empty

as when we came. Not so, of course.

We're wrong there. We're not really rid of them,

in fact, we're never going to be rid of them.


IV Home with Crows


Back to my own flock now, in the land of my birth,

the crows find me again. How they found me,

I think I know--they came as weightless baggage

in the mind. They visit at night, one sits on the pillow

near my ear, another perches on my right big toe.

They talk to me thoughtfully in the global language

of their tribe, "Kraaa, kraaa, kraaa, kraaa!"

It means nothing. Then again, maybe it does,

something, everything important to their kind--

to feed, to breed in season, flock, flock together--

your salvation and your end, and then, to die

in the frost of winter when death comes easy to crows.

Well, also to humans, think of that,

though humans may think otherwise.

Tough crow wisdom. Believe....


Merlie M. Alunan


In a letter she re-accounts (23.11.2012) that in 2010, the Republic of India through it's agency for culture and the arts, Sahitya Akademi, granted her the Ananda Coomaraswamy Fellowship. It allowed her to travel through India for almost a month, to read poetry in eight major cities, from Delhi down to most of South India, ending in Mumbai. During her last poetry reading in Mumbai she met the 'redoubtable Dileep Jhaveri. When she recalls all of this, then she states that the most amazing thing of her poetic odyssey was in fact that she was accompanied everywhere by flocks of crows.

"We are quickly installed into the India International Center, in a room whose large windows open to the Lodi Gardens. A thick wall of trees block the view to the Lodi. That evening when we look out, the trees are only a thick black shapeless mass, except where the light from the building fall on the leaves. We slept almost immediately. It isn‟t long before we are stirred out of sleep by unfamiliar noises—not the honking of cars and the drone of motors of a city waking up, but a strange caterwauling of many different voices. There is no rhythm to the sounds, just a general uprising dominated by a harsh

kraaa kraaa kraaa-ing call.

"Crows!" I cry.

I was a child of five when I first saw crows. They followed the farmers as they opened soil, to pull out the worms in the first rain of June. But that was sixty years away. I never saw crows again in my country, not in the mountains, especially not in our cities. Now I hear them in the dark of my first dawn in India. It is still too dark to see anything outside. But the light comes fast, as though the birds are singing the sun back.

Cradling a cup of tea in our hands to ward off the chill, we go to the balcony. Already the birds are rising from the trees, all imaginable sizes of birds—the solid crows making black streaks in the grey-blue sky, little sparrows, swifts and robins, many different kinds of birds, rising from the still dark trees and soaring to their different levels in the heights of air. It is amazing to see the tiniest birds rising higher than anyone else. It seems to me that each one of them knows exactly which height of sky they are meant to be. As the sun touches the tops of the trees, the exodus becomes even more frantic. There is much squawking and kraa-ing and twittering and streaking, swooping, zinging out to their daily haunts, the waiting fields and woodlands, and, I soon discover, even the streets of the city, which the crows have chosen for their own hunting ground. Soon when all the birds have flown away, the Lodi Garden becomes quiet, its guests gone to their businesses wherever or whatever they are.

We watch this scene in reverse at sunset. As the sun dips, the birds return to their tree hotels—in flocks of hundreds, in groups of twos or threes or fives, in countless masses, and occasionally, the rare lone ones, swooping over our heads, drawn as if by magic to the sheltering boughs. The crows light on the topmost branches, bending them with their weight. There is much shoving and pushing and flitting here and there until everyone has found his own berth among the branches. As the dark mantles the trees, the birds fall silent gradually. It is early September. The air is especially thick and heavy. Rain falls soft and slow almost daily and the sky is always grey. All throughout our odyssey in India, the birds are always with us, hovering, swooping, singing, dancing their intricate ballet in the air above us, screaming in the middle of the night in voices so distressed, it almost seems as if the world were coming to an end. But they are always there to announce the dawn in happier voices, erasing the terror evoked by their night cries."


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