National

Why Must Agha Shahid Ali's Poetry Always Be Remembered?

Be it Brooklyn or Massachusetts or the streets of Delhi, Agha Shahid Ali carried Kashmir in his heart wherever he went.

View of the Jhelum in Jammu and Kashmir. (Photo: Getty Images)
info_icon

If I were to dedicate my words to Agha Shahid Ali, I would say, “In the world of free-verse poems framed in foreign languages, he will always be a ghazal written in Arabic.”

He would always be a familiar silhouette of nostalgia in a strange world because, in my memory, a verse dictated in a foreign language may fade, but the couplets written in my mother tongue will live forever. For me, Shahid Ali is like my mother tongue, a language I will always be deeply connected to.

Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet, was born in Delhi and spent his childhood in Srinagar until the age of 12. He belonged to a highly educated family, and moved to other countries to pursue a career in literature, as well as to teach at universities as a professor.

But be it Brooklyn or Massachusetts or the streets of Delhi, Shahid Ali carried Kashmir in his heart wherever he went. His poems are the way to the rain, ruin and recollection of Kashmir and its archive history —the wait for spring and almond blossoms, the peaceful days of listening to Raj Begum’s voice on the radio, the gardeners of Shalimar Bagh, the keeper of minarets and muezzin’s Call to prayers— but also the frozen memories of midnight soldiers lightning Kashmir in golden flames, the last saffron from the burning fields of Pampore, curfewed days, lost homes, the letters of love and longing that went undelivered forever and the half-written dream of life without exile. 

In the last stanza of the poem, The Country Without a Post Office, (primarily as Kashmir Without a Post Office) he expressed:

I've found a prisoner's letters to a lover—
One begins: ‘These words may never reach you.’
Another ends: ‘The skin dissolves in dew 
without your touch. ‘And I want to answer:
I want to live forever. What else can I say?
It rains as I write. Mad heart, be brave.

There is so much beauty that he brought to literature and documented so much pain that drowned Kashmir.

Shahid had always been aware of the loss that not only had its impact politically but also extended to a personal level — and this is what makes me read and remember his poems that are fiercely lyrical, eloquent and speak of reality, at large. 

“Everyone carries his address in his pocket so that at least his body will reach home.” I never thought the uncertainty of death could be explained with such simple words, the way he did. What world can that be, where you cannot find freedom even in the place you call your motherland?

Shahid wrote at the end, “Waiting for you is like waiting for spring. We are waiting for the almond blossoms. And, if God wills, O! those days of peace when we all were in love and the rain was in our hands wherever we went.” He expressed the loss of freedom and tranquillity without mentioning the words and that was his power of poetry. From his poetry book A Walk Through The Yellow Pages to Rooms Are Never Finished (a finalist for National Book Award, 2001), he had woven a painfully beautiful world of poetry and left behind a home for Kashmir to stay in forever.

The old Kashmir is forever there, nestled between the lines of his tender metaphors and of course, shrinking in the mailbox of my beloved poet, Shahid. He always loved Kashmir and his poems, like polaroid pictures that are not giving up on their colours anytime soon, are a reflection of it. I have spent my evenings reading them.

On one such evening —July 25, 2023— I discovered that Shahid's poems had been removed from the curriculum of two leading universities in Kashmir. It shattered my heart, not because his literary legacy is doomed —it can never be— but because now there will be winters and summers in Kashmir without any classroom readings of Shahid’s poetry and discussions about how it is more than just a collection of words. 

The reason his poems were dropped is that they unapologetically fall into the category of ‘Resistance literature’, which showcases challenges in liberation struggles or writing in exile. It is one way to rethink the conventional norms, defy oppressive practices and bring hope during hard times.

It all reminded me of what Saadat Hasan Manto said, “If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable.” It’s true because whatever Shahid wrote, it was about wild humour, paradoxes and fearless fantasy, all while staying grounded to the roots of reality. He never wanted to be a national bard but always a poet who uncovered the truth, shared personal experiences and preserved the emotions of people who have or had been through the exodus, and tyrannical times and became refugees in their own country. 

In one of his ghazals, he penned:

He’s freed some fire from ice, in pity for Heaven;
he’s left open—for God—the doors of Hell tonight.

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight. 

You can imagine how his imagery cracks open the world of exile, desolation, nostalgia, loss and lament. In the tribute letter ‘The Ghat Of The Only World’, Amitav Ghosh quoted Shahid, “I wish all this had not happened. This dividing of the country, the divisions between people  – you can’t imagine how much I hate it. It makes me sick. What I say is: why can’t you be happy with the cuisines and the clothes and the music and all these wonderful things?” 

Advertisement

The world becomes a terrible place when humans think they can own it. We are separable to it and we must accept it and until the world becomes without us again, why can't we fill it with things —empathy and care— that make it a beautiful place to live in?

His farewell poem to the world, I Dream I Am At the Ghat of the Only World, is an elegy about how people you love always leave. Whenever I read it, I feel there is the sweetness of honey lingering between his words overlaid with the pain that comes with the sting of a honeybee. 

Advertisement

“A night of ghazals comes to an end. The singer
departs through her chosen mirror, her one diamond
cut on her countless necks….”

“love doesn’t help anyone finally survive”

“Mother, will I lose you again, and in this,
the only world left?...”

“SHAHID, HUSH. THIS IS ME, JAMES.
THE LOVED ONE ALWAYS LEAVES.”

He wrote to Begum Akhtar, one of the people he had dearly loved in his life, and to his mother, whose loss had kept him awake even in his final moments. In the end, he found solace in the belief that he would be then reunited with his mother in the afterlife. James Merrill, who deeply influenced Shahid’s metrical verses and attended his first reading at the Academy of American Poets, was mentioned in the closing lines of his farewell poetry.

Advertisement

Shahid died peacefully on December 8, 2001 —two years before my birth— but his poetry still transcends the timeline to touch the souls of people like me, who know how he will always live in our mind like hope in a bleak light. 

He had always been fond of words and so he said to the world, in his poem The Stationery

The night is your cottage industry now,
The day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

I’m writing this for him and his love for Kashmir, Old Bombay films, excitement for being on camera, Spanish poetry and Lorca’s poems, the smell of Rogan Josh, Hindi songs by Kishore Kumar, his friendship with James Merrill, his beloved poet Emily Dickinson, his strong connection with ghazals and the gatherings at his home in America where he felt happy watching people come together and talking and forgot that time was ticking fast and he was nearing the end. More than anything, I’m writing this for his love for poetry.

Advertisement

We shall meet again, in Srinagar, Shahid Ali, where I will find your words, floating like shikaras on the Jhelum river, mapping your love for Kashmir, as vast as its waters. And I will remember your poetry because no matter how the world turns out to be, mad heart, be brave.

(Shailja Bahety is a freelance journalist and poet. You can reach out to her at @shailjabahety on Instagram.)

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement