The Rebel’s Silhouette: Agha Shahid Ali

Ahsanul Haq Chishti

Hukum-e-shahi hai ki toadh doon qalam apni
Phir rooh ko meri, kaun pukarta hai

Faiz Ahmad Faiz was the poet representative of poor, disempowered and non-elite who carried their emotions throughout his poetic collections. So was Agha Shahid Ali who followed Faiz’s tradition and carried the pain and suffering of Kashmir through and through his verses and collections. Agha Shahid Ali was indeed a legend in himself. Many compare him with Ted Hudges, the British Poet Laureate who passed away in 1998. He definitely was a poet of global stature who had, among his admirers, people like Edward Said, Amitav Gosh, Mahmoud Darwish and Noam Chomsky. He was inspired to a great extent by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, Spanish poet Garcia Lorca and Russian rebel poet Osip Mendelstam.

Shahid’s poetry had a vivid influence of James Merrill. America’s best known poet, James Merrill, a Pulitzer prize winner, who died in 1995, began as a romantic poet but in the later part wrote extensive spiritual poetry. He encouraged Shahid to make experiments in poetry which he did with strict metrical patterns and verse forms such as the canzone and the sestina.
Shahid, hush. This is me, James.
The loved one always leaves.
From I Dream I Am At the Ghat of the Only World

From a casual conversation with Shahid one could decipher his passion for the music of Begum Akhtar and reverence for Faiz. It was this passion that took him to introduce a new genre of ghazals, or the ghazaleques in English poetry.  After many years of toil he came up with Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English in 2000. Ghazal as a verse form created a benchmark to exert a powerful influence which may well prove to be Shahid’s most important scholarly contribution to the canon of English poetry. It resulted in many classics like In Memory of Begum Akhtar and Other Poems, The Rebel´s Silhouette: Selected Poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (translation of Faiz’s poems from Urdu). “If one writes in free verse – and one should – to subvert Western civilization, surely one should write in forms to save oneself from Western civilization”, he once said in an interview.

First time when I met him I was a student of Mass Communication at Media Education Research Centre of Kashmir University. He had visited the centre for a small interactive session with students. It was a memorable meeting during which he took us along on a flight of fancy to the horizon of intellect, literature and of course, sophistication. He talked about his love for Begum Akhtar, reverence for Faiz Ahmad Faiz and his fond love for his motherland—Kashmir. His famed book The Country without a Post Office was in the final stages of release then.

Later I met him for an interview for a special issue of Sensor, a Sunday pullout published by Greater Kashmir in those days. Sensor also carried a special issue on Shahid in 2002 after his unfortunate and sudden demise. Known particularly for his skillful allusions to European, Urdu, Arabic and Persian literary traditions, Shahid’s poetry revolves around both thematic and cultural poles. He has very beautifully blended the rhythms and forms of the Indo-Islamic tradition with a distinctly American approach to storytelling. Most of his poems are not abstract considerations of love and longing but accounts of events of personal importance, and sometimes political importance.

Shahid thought his works were more placed within the limited realm of Western Modern traditions. His dreams, visions, imagination, an overpowering sense of identity with those he loved – his life and death, were tailored on a pattern that owed more perhaps to the influence of Sufis than to the modernists. Shahid was not just a writer of poetry but a vision embodied. To me he was more the heir of Maulana Jallaludin Rumi and Lala Ded than Eliot and Merrill.

The great Indian littérateur Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who later rose to become the second President of India, writes of Tagore that he loved India because of her ideals and not geographical entity. “I am not a patriot. I shall seek my compatriots all around the world”, Tagore had once said.  So loved Shahid Kashmir; not as a geographical entity, but as a civilization.

Living thousands of miles far away from his motherland, Shahid aired and breathed Kashmir. Though he died in what can be called soft exile, he paid back his motherland its due. He carried the pain, tribulations and grief of Kashmir and its people even there. Rather got it validated.

When The Country Without a Post Office came out, it was received with warm applause. Palestinian–American literary stalwart Edward Said described it as a marvelous gift from Shahid. “This is poetry whose appeal is universal, its voice unerringly eloquent,” he remarked, since the collection depicted the Kashmir of times and related with it quite freely.

I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir,
and the shadowed routine of each vein
will almost be news, the blood censored,
for the Saffron Sun and the Times of Rain…

Kashmir was the jugular vein of many of Shahid’s other works, which manifested his deep love for it. Lenox Hill, From Amherst to Kashmir, Rooms Are Never Finished, Postcard from Kashmir, Snowman, The Veiled Suite etc. all are rooted in Kashmir, its  people, beauty, shrines,  chinars, and  saffron.

In 1998 Shahid came up with Lenox Hill, possibly his greatest poem.  The poem was a canzone, a form of unusual rigor and difficulty. It created a soaring reverberation which many a critic of the time could not resist to appreciate. Yerra Sugarman, renowned North American poet and critic described it as a tree of grief, a web of branches entwining pain flowing through the veins of time. In her letter to Shahid on May 17, 2000, Sugarman wrote, “Shahid, you have created the music of language. It’s the expression of a grief of such magnitude that the universe’s afflictions must fall into shadow by contrast”.

The poem was written in the backdrop of his mother’s illness and subsequent death in May 1997. It is full of pain, emotions, grief and love for the mother.

As you sit here by me, you’re just like my mother,”
she tells me. I imagine her: a bride in Kashmir,
she’s watching at the Regal, her first film with Father.
If only I could gather you in my arms, Mother,
I’d save you – now my daughter – from God. The universe
opens its ledger. I write: How helpless was God’s mother!

Shahid’s departure created a void which is difficult, if not impossible to fill. The ambassador of Kashmir is gone, ambassador of its pain, tribulations, pride and nostalgia.
A night of ghazals comes to an end. The singer
departs through her chosen mirror, her one diamond
cut on her countless necks. I, as ever, linger.
From his Farewell poem: I Dream I Am At the Ghat of the Only World

Tennyson had long ago said:
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.

The man has left who could take Roganjosh and Haakh to the drawing room discourses of New York, the plight of coal making rural Kashmir women to debating crowd of Manhattan and Brooklyn and  introduce the pain and suffering from Habba Khatoon to present generation of Kashmir at the international literary canvas. Shahid made his motherland a part of international literary discourse. Kashmir would have wished him to live longer; and he too said:
Someone wants me to live!
A language will die with me.

And in our own humble way: Shu’lai  ishq siyaah posh huva teray ba’ad

Author can be mailed at [email protected]

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