Poetry in the city.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The Delhi Walla arranged to meet American poet William Meredith at the Charity Birds Hospital in Chandni Chowk.
Popularly known as the Jain Bird Hospital, the medical shelter receives 60 injured birds daily. It was established in 1930 by two brothers, Lala Sardari Mal Jain and Lala Ratan Lal Jain, who lived in Old Delhi’s Gali Guriyan street. The hospital originally consisted of a tin shed. Its present building was set up in 1957. Today, it is run by Pracheen Shri Agarwal Digambar Jain Panchayat, a council set up by the elders of this strictly-vegetarian community. The ailing birds are kept in numbered cages and are set free on recovery.
The New York-born William Meredith first visited India in 1980. A few years later he had a stroke and fell to aphasia, a dysfunction in the brain that affects ability to construct language. The poet struggled. “I produced Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems in 1997,” he says, looking at a bandaged pigeon. “That collection featured The Jain Bird Hospital in Delhi.”
Mr Meredith shares this poem with us.
The Jain Bird Hospital in Delhi
Outside the hotel window, unenlightened pigeons
weave and dive like Stukas on their prey,
apparently some tiny insect brother.
(In India, the attainment of nonviolence
is considered a proper goal for human beings.)
If one of the pigeons should fly into the illusion
of my window and survive (the body is no illusion
when it’s hurt) he could be taken across town to the bird
hospital where Jains, skilled medical men,
repair the feathery sick and broken victims.
There, in reproof of violence
and of nothing else, live Mahavira’s brothers and sisters.
To this small, gentle order of monks and nuns
it is bright Vishnu and dark Shiva who are illusion.
They trust in faith, cognition, and nonviolence
to release them from rebirth. They think that birds
and animals—like us, some predators, some prey—
should be ministered to no less than men and women.
The Jains who deal with creatures (and with laymen)
wear white, while their more enterprising hermit brothers
walk naked and are called the sky-clad. Jains pray
to no deity, human kindness being their sole illusion.
Mahavira and those twenty-three other airy creatures
who turned to saints with him, preached the doctrine of ahimsa,
which in our belligerent tongue becomes nonviolence.
It’s not a doctrine congenial to snarers and poultrymen,
who every day bring to market maimed pheasants.
Numbers of these are brought in by the Jain brothers
and brought, to grow back wing-tips and illusions,
to one of the hospitals succoring such small quarry.
When strong and feathered again, the lucky victims
get reborn on Sunday mornings to the world’s violence,
released from the roofs of these temples to illusion.
It is hard for a westerner to speak about men and women
like these, who call the birds of the air brothers.
We recall the embarrassed fanfare for Francis and his flock.
We’re poor forked sky-clad things ourselves
and God knows prey to illusion—e.g., I claim these brothers
and sisters in India, stemming a little violence, among birds.
A poet’s world