What We Learn About Kashmir From Agha Shahid Ali’s Haunting Poetry

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What We Learn About Kashmir From Agha Shahid Ali’s Haunting Poetry

Illustration: Arati Gujar

“Everything is finished, nothing remains.”
I must force silence to be a mirror
to see his voice again for directions.
Fire runs in waves. Should I cross that river?
Each post office is boarded up. Who will deliver
parchment cut in paisleys, my news to prisons?
Only silence can now trace my letters
to him. Or in a dead office the dark panes.

I first came across these lines in Kashmiri-American poet, Agha Shahid Ali’s collection The Country Without a Post Office in 2016 when a group of “anti-national” JNU students had gathered to protest the executions of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat. They had named their event “A Country Without a Post Office”. I was so intrigued by the title that it led me to seek out Ali’s poetry. In my search, I didn’t just stumble upon a poet, but also an idea of Kashmir that isn’t otherwise available.

In a Scroll piece, writer Radhika Oberoi introduces this Kashmir, “Kashmir, in Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry, is in the saturated colours of a postcard; it is also the monochromatic desolation of mourners, sentries in bunkers, the coal of burning leaves. To read the cluster of poems that belongs to The Country Without a Post Office, first published in 1997, is to walk through the ‘rubble of downtown Srinagar’ in a stupor, and witness its devastation in extravagant verse, swollen with grief.”

Born in New Delhi on February 4, 1949, Ali spent most of his childhood in Kashmir, starting to write poems when he was only 12 years old. Although he moved to America in 1976 to pursue higher education, he continued visiting his parents in Srinagar every summer. After earning a PhD in English from Pennsylvania State University and a MFA from the University of Arizona, Ali went on to publish a number of books, which include Half-Inch Himalayas (1987), A Walk Through The Yellow Pages (1987), A Nostalgist’s Map of America (1991), Rooms Are Never Finished (2001), Call Me Ishmael Tonight, and a posthumously collected volume, The Veiled Suite (2009). Besides, he also translated Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry in English (The Rebel’s Silhouette; Selected Poems) and compiled a volume of ghazals in English (Ravishing DisUnities).

In my search, I didn’t just stumble upon a poet, but also an idea of Kashmir that isn’t otherwise available.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that an individual’s ideals and beliefs are greatly influenced by the culture in which they are brought up – it was no different for Ali. Brought up in a secular household, his poems explore themes of motherland and how strife sullies the idea of it. The summer of 1989 for instance, was different for Kashmir as it was for him. After the allegedly rigged elections of the previous year choked dissent and paved the way for armed resistance in the valley, Ali’s poetry acquired even greater meaning. He was the lone voice that became the wounded cry of his people, capturing the brutal atmosphere of violence, arson, and political storm. His observations were impassioned and ironic, instructive as well as perceptive. In his poem, “Paradise On Earth Becomes Hell,” he wrote about the helplessness of the situation while invoking Begum Akhtar:

It was ’89, the stones were not far, signs of change everywhere (Kashmir would soon be in literal flames)…
I shelve “Memory” to hear Begum Akhtar enclose — in Raga Jogia — the wound-cry of the gazelle:
“Not all, no, only a few returns as the rose
or the tulip.” That ghazal held under her spell.
But when you welcomed me in later summers to Kashmir,
every headline read: PARADISE ON EARTH BECOMES HELL.

Oberoi further expands on Ali’s interpretation of Kashmir, “The poet’s Kashmir is a broken promise; it is the Jhelum that carries a dismembered body, Zero Bridge and Zero Taxi Stand, the songs of Habba Khatun, Gupkar Road and Residency Road, the Times of Rain. The poet’s Kashmir is a geopolitical vision, revisited in memory, its horrors an image of graphic beauty.” You see, even as landscapes of America and India, New Delhi and Brazil, Uruguay and Chechnya jostle for space in his poetry, his words are always grounded in Kashmir. A deep sense of loss echoes through the litany of references about his homeland in his poetry. Consider this excerpt from The Blesséd Word: A Prologue for instance:

Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can.
I write on that void: Kashmir,
Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire,
Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Cašmir. Or Cauchemar in
a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire, Kasmir.
Kerseymere?

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that an individual’s ideals and beliefs are greatly influenced by the culture in which they are brought up – it was no different for Ali.

Ali wrote about the Kashmiris who became the victims of Indian military forces, giving a peek into a world where citizens are routinely interrogated to prove their patriotism and where carrying identity cards is second nature. In “Dear Shahid,” he hauntingly captures the horrors of such oppression, “Everyone carries his address in his pocket / At least his body will reach home.” Over the years, Ali’s words are a helpful reminder of  the close link that exists between language, literature and history, especially in times of crisis.

While recounting the poet’s last days in his eulogy The Ghat of the Only World: Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn, author Amitav Ghosh, a dear friend of Ali, states that he nursed a desire to return to Kashmir. Ultimately, he was laid to rest in Northampton, in the vicinity of Amherst, a town sacred to the memory of his beloved Emily Dickinson. He died young at the age of 52 and on his grave is written:

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means: Listen, listen
It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic

Today, it’s been six months since the abrogation of Section 370 in Kashmir that culminated in an internet shutdown. Kashmiri voices continue to be silenced today as they were back in Ali’s days. Perhaps, Ali’s writing has never been more relevant – Kashmir has never needed a witness as urgently as it does now.

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