Last month 10 years had passed since the death of Agha Shahid Ali, one of the great contemporary poets of the subcontinent. The historian Manan Ahmed examines some of his most haunting work, and the legacy he left.
Manan Ahmed 15th Jan 2012
Agha Shahid Ali
here is a found poem titled "Suicide Note" in Agha Shahid Ali's Rooms are Never Finished (2001).
I could not simplify myself.
This one line lingers alone on a blank page.
Agha Shahid Ali must have been a funny man. I say this because his poetry drips with a wicked smile. A wickedness born out of a tease, a glee at knowing something you don't, but will enjoy when you hear the punch line. It is a welcome wickedness. In those years I lived/happily ever after. And still do./I played with every Gretel in town/including Gretel, my sister. His small volume A Walk Through the Yellow Pages (1987) plays with Grimm's tales. The poem "Barcelona Airport" carries the epitaph "Are you carrying anything that could be dangerous for the other passengers?" and begins, O just my heart first terrorist. That is a laugh ringing out into the concrete and the steel of any airport. He must have been a fun person to hang out with — full of laughter and wine. I make an assumption about the wine, but then, what poet doesn't like glasses filled/with the moon's dry wine. When I picture him, someone I never met, I see him slightly tipsy in a crowded room, calling his love, My finger, your phone number/at its tip, dials the night.
Rumination on love, on defiance, on the ways in which epic and belief coincide in religion and poetry — makes “From Another Desert” that rarest of creations, a masterpiece, one that Faiz would gladly claim for himself.
In June, as the summer woke in Berlin, I carried Agha Shahid Ali in my bag. At a bus stop, sitting on the U-bahn, waiting for a friend at a café, I would dip into his work. Take some words (the entire map of the lost will be candled) and just stare at them in my mind. His work is built on images in stark relief. Even his commands. Especially his commands. The world is full of paper. Write to me. They force your attention back to the will behind the words. Mad heart, be brave. Or the oft-quoted Call me Ishmael tonight.
The imperative makes me hear his voice. Not a "poet's" voice but that of this man alone: Agha Shahid Ali.
There is an immense amount of love in his poetry — in the four major collections, The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987), A Nostalgist's Map of America (1991), The Country Without a Post Office (1997) and, finally, Rooms Are Never Finished (2001) — though I make no quantitative claim. But listen: In the midnight bar/your breath collapsed on me./I balanced on/the tip of your smile,/holding on to your words/as I climbed the dark steps. That is modern love. You were kind,/reciting poetry in a drunk tongue./I thought: At last! That made me smile, in recognition. As it must to everyone who has ever fallen in love. Or dreamed about it. At last! Such is the meticulous power of his words. I thought, here is a fine practitioner of teasing apart that intoxication of desire and willingness to submit. Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight/before you agonize him in farewell tonight. This last a Ghazal, even. I will write, I said, about the gorgeous ghazals he wrote or translated. Hear: The one you would choose: were you led then by him?/What longing, O Yaar, is controlled in real time?/ Each syllable sucked under waves of our earth -/The funeral love comes to hold in real time! The rhyme and the refrain. The ecstasy and the control. The language, you would have noticed, was English. Yet the words? The words could have come from Hafiz or Ghalib and Faiz. I am unsure if writing that is not a slight to Agha Shahid Ali's craft.
n a sense, Hafiz, Ghalib or Faiz (but really, if we are to talk of Ali, we ought to include Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Mahmoud Darwish) have their work enhanced by reams of commentary, of scholarship and of cultural weight. Shahid Ali remembers that he grew up in a household where those names, and their words, were oft recited and fondly remembered. Ali, who died on December 8, 2001, has not attracted that kind of attention yet. By which I mean, specifically, an attention to his contribution to the language of human emotions. Tonight the air is many envelopes/again. Tell her to open them at once/and find hurried notes about my longing/for wings. Tell her to speak, when that hour comes,/simply of the sky. Friend, speak of the sky/when that hour comes. Speak, simply, of the air. Thus concluded the thirteenth, and final, canto of "From Another Desert" — Shahid Ali's telling of Laila and Majnoon guised in that Poundian structure. Yet what it contains — a rumination on love, on defiance, on the ways in which epic and belief coincide in religion and poetry — makes "From Another Desert" that rarest of creations, a masterpiece, one that Faiz would gladly claim for himself. Certainly that sour Muhammad Iqbal would.
Ali’s work has been a bone of contention for years, as academics and readers have repeatedly chosen to view his poetry through filters of identity and nationality (as above)
So what is separation's geography?/Everything is just that mystery he writes in "By the Waters of the Sind" — a poem that neatly ties both Agha Shahid Ali's pained gaze at his distant homeland and his wry shrug at having to bear the public burden of being a "poet of exile". ... I stare at one guest/who is asking Father to fill them/in on — what else? — the future,/burnishing that dark gem/of Kashmir with a history of saints, with/prophecy, with kings, with myth,/and I want them to change the subject. The poem is in his last collection. His first opened with Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,/my home a neat four by six inches. Over those thirteen odd years, in that landscape between a postcard to his father's telling, lies the place from which Agha Shahid Ali came. Cashmere, Casimir, Kashmir — as he often played with words — rests heavy on his memory. But there is a transition that his death has elided. He began as an immigrant poet, and when he died, he was a poet at home, conscious of those in exile. He himself was never in exile. Not like Edward Said or Eqbal Ahmad or Mahmoud Darwish or Faiz Ahmed Faiz — all whom he cites and writes for, in his last collection. That much we can move off the table. But Kashmir is not a representation of Agha Shahid Ali's exile — least from the nation-states of Pakistan or India.
Kashmir is his orientation. It pins his poetry, via bloodlines, to that map of his motherland. There are other maps, of course.
He became an American citizen shortly before his death, and clearly his poetry left Srinagar from the very beginning. By the end of his tragically shortened life, he had emerged as a voice that resonated, carrying songs of Kashmir out to the world. Akin to his contemporaries and analogues, the Mexican-American poet Gary Soto or Vietnamese-American poet Andrew Lam, he wrote for New York, for Delhi, for Srinagar and Amherst, for other poets, for other dreamers, in many registers. Still he is read only through one lens — the longing for Kashmir.
Kashmir is in my blood, too. In the blood of my mother, my grandmother and my grandfather. Like many, I was drawn to Agha Shahid Ali because of his Kashmir. But I stay in his land because of his humour, his love and that almost-drunk smile.