‘Let me tell you about winds’

Agha Shahid Ali-Michael Ondaatje

By Meghna Mudaliar

There seems to be an intrinsic relationship between geography and culture in Ali’s A Nostalgist’s Map of America (1991) and Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) that suggests that it is only in the landscape of the individual’s memory and experience that culture may be located and validated. Both writers seem to craft subtextualised landscapes through narratologies that begin as explorations of subjective impressions of geographical spaces, and are transformed into decentralised spaces in which unofficial and personal histories are ‘mapped’ through correlations between the psychological and empirical landscapes that represent individual journeys. The idea of cartography is intrinsic to both texts, with Ali taking on the task of a ‘nostalgic’ map-maker of American territory and Ondaatje’s protagonist, Almásy, journeying to the Sahara in the late 1930s as a member of the Geographical Society to chart the desert on foot as his nemesis, Geoffrey Clifton, takes aerial photographs while assisting on the same mission.

In both writers’ recollections of individual landscapes of the mind, memory seems to act as a cartographic and palimpsestic force that seeks not to erase or overwrite recorded histories and landscapes, but rather to inscribe them with personal recollections to authenticate them. One of the ways in which Agha Shahid Ali’s A Nostalgist’s Map of America addresses the idea of map-making is to chart the poet’s journeys across the American landscape in a way that creates an individualised landscape that combines elements of America’s geography and details from the poet’s memory. In A Nostalgist’s Map of America, Ali speaks of discovering the American landscape by mapping America by road when he describes his trip back home after seeing his sister off at the airport in ‘In Search of Evanescence’:

When in Route 80 in Ohio

I came across an exit

to Calcutta

the temptation to write a poem

led me past the exit

so I could say

India always exists

off the turnpikes

of America. (41-49)

Singh and Schmidt write in Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity, and Literature:

Not only does this poem brilliantly evoke India in the physical and geographical markers of America, but it also implies that real living, meaningful existence, takes place off the turnpike—away from the frenetic motion that is America—and in India, in the little towns and communities to which those exits lead. (378)

Perhaps such an interpretation is somewhat limiting in the circumscribed dialectic it attempts to create in terms of the poet’s identification of a frenetic America and an almost idyllic India. Rather, it would seem more viable to imagine Ali’s literary landscape in terms of movement and stillness, and of moments in which that which is ‘off the map’ can suddenly emerge into the quotidian consciousness when the imaginary line between the ‘city limits’ of literary genres and motifs and the wilderness of the writer’s memory is crossed.

Agha Shahid Ali, around 1998 (Image from the interview for the 'Poets of New England' series with William Moebius)
Agha Shahid Ali, around 1998 (Image from the interview for the ‘Poets of New England’ series with William Moebius)

This sense of history may be correlated with the way in which the English patient creates a sense of fragmented recollections of the Sahara desert on the eve of World War II through the notes he makes on the margins of his copy of Herodotus’ Histories, his most precious possession that remains largely intact during the plane crash that burns away his face and his identity. Almásy says to Hana:

I have seen editions of [Herodotus’] The Histories with a sculpted portrait on the cover. Some statue found in a French museum. But I never imagine Herodotus this way. I see him more as one of those spare men of the desert who travel from oasis to oasis, trading legends as if it is the exchange of seeds, consuming everything without suspicion, piecing together a mirage. ‘This history of mine,’ says Herodotus, ‘has from the beginning sought out the supplementary to the main argument.’ What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history–how people betray each other for the sake of nations, how people fall in love. (119)

This view of history as containing individual lives that are cul-de-sacs is always one that, in Ondaatje’s hands, seeks out “the supplementary to the main argument,” seeks out that which exists off the turnpikes of the highways that mainstream historians are likely to follow. In describing the aftermath of the most destructive war that the world has known, Ondaatje chooses to populate his history of the world at the time through the lives of four disparate individuals brought together by chance in a ruined villa in Italy. None of them belongs there, and Almásy’s sensibility in particular seems to recall the ways in which Agha Shahid Ali gathers evidences of his life in America by charting a partly real, partly imagined course through his adopted home country.

There seems to be, in Ali’s A Nostalgist’s Map of America, a very distinct sense of personal landscapes that are both real and imagined. In ‘Snow on the Desert,’ he seems to evoke his homeland through a sense of culture that is discovered, in some ways, through geographical elements:

As I drove back to the foothills, the fog

shut its doors behind me on Alvernon,

and I breathed the dry seas

the earth had lost,

their forsaken shores. And I remembered

another moment that refers only

to itself:

in New Delhi one night

as Begum Akhtar sang, the lights went out. (52-60)

Firstly, there is in these lines a sense of geographical spaces as almost a mediating force between Ali and his recollections of culture. Culture itself never seems to be a filter or a mediating force in his work, but is rather outlined and determined in terms of geographical elements. In the above lines, Ali evokes a sense of driving through the foothills, enveloped by fog, in an almost cinematic and diegetic portrayal of landscape as a guiding force in his discovery of culture. Ali’s poetic narratology may be interpreted in terms of a diegetic rather than mimetic structure, since his tone seems to interpret the political through the personal; it is usually through storytelling that he seems to evoke a sense of how cultural forms gain credibility through their reflection in an individual’s life. This may be understood in terms of how he moves from geographical to cultural spaces in the above lines: after firmly establishing a visually diegetic sense of how he is embedded in a topographical space, he then introduces a memory of cultural icon Begum Akhtar performing a concert in New Delhi. Akhtar’s music is here a cultural signifier that exists “only for itself,” and Ali seems to want to liberate such cultural signifiers from having to be more than what they are, or to express a sense of how they are significant in an individual’s memory. It is a remembered landscape of cultural frameworks that do not distinguish between culture and geography. Just as the landscape he is driving through gives him a shared sense of “the dried seas/ the earth had lost,” so it also leads him to a cultural memory in his own mind. Ali says of the poem:

Long ago in Delhi, I heard Begum Akhtar very often. In one particular case there was a power failure. The lights went out and there was absolute silence. The microphone was also dead. It was an outdoor concert and for a minute or two the voice was coming from very far away, an echo. And in that echo I heard, with such clarity, something amazing that she used to do with her voice. Just haunting. (Ansari and Paul, “Calligraphy of Coils”)

Ali goes on to reflect on the visual correlative that he creates between the sense of driving through the fog in Arizona and the sense of hearing Begum Akhtar’s voice coming from far away at the concert in Delhi:

It was a fog that was very neatly dividing the city. That’s why the line, ‘the sliding doors of the fog’. That moment was so unique. [In writing a poem] there is always the question of metaphor and simile, so what could I compare [this moment] to? I thought it could only be compared to another [incomparable] moment. Two moments juxtaposed to show that neither can be compared to the other or to anything else. But that juxtaposition creates a kind of translation, a kind of a crossover. That moment of Begum Akhtar’s had stayed with me for over ten years, and it was so many years later that I found the right moment to introduce it into a poem. (Ansari & Paul, “Calligraphy of Coils”)

The poet’s discussion of metaphors and similes in this context is almost an allegory for cultural processes, and the way in which they make forced connections between cultural signifiers to create an overall sense of cultural identity. Whereas for Ali, identity seems less cultural and more a geographical landscape with snow in the desert: the incomparable juxtaposition of unlikely comparisons of remembered events that are authenticated only by the impossibility of their comparison, and which yet becomes valid in the individual’s mind.

As Singh and Schmidt point out, Ali “compares that earlier moment in Delhi to the present one in Arizona, almost conflating the two homes” (379). Ali goes on:

it was, like this turning dark

of fog, a moment when only a lost sea

can be heard, a time

to recollect

every shadow, everything the earth was losing,

a time to think of everything the earth

and I had lost, of all

that I would lose,

of all that I was losing. (72-80)

The recollection of loss here is both individual and geographical, creating an interplay between the different ways in which geographical loss can be understood. On a geological level, the planet has seen countless changes that have determined its present landscapes; by the same token, the personal landscapes in which an individual’s life is played out change because of individual, cultural and political redefinitions of the spaces that human beings inhabit.

Home, in other words, is nebulous. In The Country without a Post Office, Ali writes in the poem ‘Postcard from Kashmir’:

Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox

my home a neat four by six inches

I always loved neatness. Now I hold

the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.

This is home. And this is the closest 

I’ll ever be to home. (lines 1-6)

The idea of writing as a means of narrating the cartography of a personal landscape also seems to indicate here that the most that can be recollected through such a process is a photographic — and idealised — view of the place that the poet often associates in his mind with the idea of home: “Despite the yearning for home that the poem records, there is also the definite suggestion that home is transportable — in this instance, through a postcard, and by extension… through one’s writing, through a poem” (Singh and Schmidt 380). Also, “the coexistent feeling of homelessness and the desire to claim some physical, emotional and psychical territory in new homelands is thus seen in much of the collection A Nostalgist’s Map of America” (Singh and Schmidt 380). Ali is “looking for his ‘own country’, and when he can’t find it, he tries to create it in his mind” (Singh and Schmidt 380). While such an interpretation of ‘Postcard from Kashmir’ is necessarily limiting in terms of its attempt to impose a ‘neatness’ of ideology on the poet’s narratology, it seems to indicate that the territories one creates in one’s mind are as real and valid as geographical ones.

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje, photographed by Ulla Montan. Courtesy: www.ullamontan.com

Ali describes the memory of rainfall in three geographically distinct spaces: Kashmir, Delhi and Arizona, outlining the individual’s relationship with climate, planetary forces, and landscapes. He says:

We have rain in Kashmir which sometimes leads to floods, but it does not have quite the same feeling as the rain in Delhi has. When I went to Delhi for the first time in summer, in July, and I saw these rains, I [saw] a very romantic season and I could see why you would want to be in the arms of your lover. Then when I went to Arizona there was this flood. I arrived and there was rain for two weeks. It was unusual in the desert and they called it monsoons… At a personal level the rain brings so much memory back to me, especially of some very important love relationships that I have had. The rain is also very important culturally, mythically, anthropologically, ecologically. It is the rain that brings a city back to memory, and makes it memorable, and [is the preserver] of memory. (Ansari and Paul, “Calligraphy of Coils”)

In these moments of comparison, it is the kind of rain in the three places which defines them rather than any cultural signifiers. It is the rain which is mythical, rather than cultural aspects of Kashmiri or any other culture. Ali writes: “home is in a lover’s arms.” Shadows, mirages, and deserts blooming with impossible roses are the geographical and earthy emblems that are interspersed with references to lovemaking, and references to kisses and bare arms. The unclothed body may be an emblem of liberated spaces in which identity is defined through the memory of felt experiences of the body, rather than through cultural assumptions. Experience is extremely physical and empirical in nature, mediated by the morning (which brings parting) and night (which brings togetherness), and individual bliss is determined by the Earth’s rotation rather than cultural limitations. The language he uses is relieved of cultural burdens, but laden instead with the memory of individual experience. In the poems discussed, memory is triggered by geographical and climatic factors, and situated in the landscape of the individual mind through a personal language which reflects the poet’s sensibility.

What rain is to Ali’s poetic consciousness, the wind seems to be to Ondaatje’s narrative in The English Patient. Through reading Almásy’s notes, Hana learns about the different kinds of winds that Almásy chronicles, which gain mythical proportions in his descriptions of how they are revered in the desert:

There is the —–, the secret wind of the desert, whose name was erased by a king after his son died within it… The mezzar-ifoullousen–a violent and cold southwesterly known to Berbers as ‘that which plucks the fowls’… The Samiel from Turkey, ‘poison and wind’, used often in battle… The harmattan blows across the Sahara filled with red dust, dust as fire, as flour, entering and coagulating in the locks of rifles. Mariners called this red wind the ‘sea of darkness’. Red sand fogs out of the Sahara were deposited as far north as Cornwall and Devon, producing showers of mud so great this was also mistaken for blood… Herodotus records the death of various armies engulfed in the simoom who were never seen again. One nation was ‘so enraged by this evil wind that they declared war on it and marched out in full battle array, only to be rapidly and completely interred.’ (17)

Almásy’s narrative uses a magic realist technique to create a sense of the many functions of the mythical winds of the desert: they perform trivial acts like plucking fowls; they are used as weapons in battle; and kings attempt to erase them, but can do no more than cause their names to be forgotten, while their effects are still as potent as ever. In Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation of the novel, Almásy is relating this narrative to Katharine, and they are the ones who are ‘interred’ in a jeep while a desert storm rages around them. In the novel, Hana reads the notes while sitting in a ruined villa that is riddled with armed and forgotten mines. The idea of storytelling in the context of a perilous situation gives Ondaatje’s narrative a sense of immediacy and potency in terms of how personal stories make the novel’s political contexts authentic and real.

Like Ali’s incomparable moments, a similar juxtaposition may be identified in Almásy’s discovery of the Cave of Swimmers in the Sahara desert, a prehistoric dwelling which has exquisite figures inscribed on the walls of the cave that confirm that there was once a sea in what is now a barren landscape. Recalling Ali’s sense of the seas that the Earth has lost, the Cave of Swimmers becomes a palimpsestic record of lost histories that are recalled by the cartographer’s efforts to scour the Sahara on foot to map the forgotten realities of its past. Also, of course, it is the fact that Katharine is later to die waiting for Almásy in the same cave that gives his discovery of the Cave of Swimmers an unbearable and photographic sharpness in his memory. Almásy’s narrative as he recalls carrying the dead Katharine out of the cave of Swimmers brings the narrative back to the idea of charting a personal landscape that prioritises the individual’s memory over political histories and boundaries:

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography–to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.

I carried Katharine Clifton into the desert, where there is the communal book of moonlight. We were among the rumour of wells. In the palace of winds. (261)

All Almásy desires is to walk upon an earth with no maps, which simultaneously undermines and enriches his sense of being a cartographer of uncharted territories, and which also creates a subtext of individual passion and grief in the charting of his own journey from prominent cartographer to unknown spy. Both Ali and Ondaatje seem to inscribe palimpsests of individual recollection over official histories and homogenous geographical boundaries in the way that they present deeply personal narratives that reclaim politicised and historicised landscapes.


Meghna Mudaliar has a PhD from Stella Maris College where she taught History of Ideas, European Literature in Translation, American Literature, and Victorian Fiction. She has also taught the Poetry, Fiction and Translation Studies courses at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM). Her academic interests include Romantic poetry, magic realism, and palimpsest history. Her PhD research was focused on how writers who do not subscribe to a homogenous cultural identity locate their sense of home within a textual framework, and drew on the concepts of imaginary homelands, juxtapositions, and the contrapuntal.

Works cited:

Ali, Agha Shahid. A Nostalgist’s Map of America. New York: Norton, 1991. Print.

Ansari, R. and Paul, Rajinder S. “Agha Shahid Ali: Calligraphy of Coils.” Himalmag.com. March 1998. Web. 24 February 2005.

Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.

Singh, Amritjit and Peter Schmidt. Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity, and Literature. Jackson: University Mississippi of Press, 2000. Print.


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