Musk of itself

Agha Shahid Ali

Jacki Lyden talks with Agha Shahid Ali for NPR, ‘All Things Considered’ at Izhar Patkin’s Studio, 28 July 2001, New York 
In ‘The Ghat of the Only World: Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn,’ his obituary to Agha Shahid Ali, novelist Amitav Ghosh mentions a conversation between him and the poet:

I once remarked to Shahid that he was the closest that Kashmir had to a national poet. He shot back: “A national poet, maybe. But not a nationalist poet; please not that.”

In many ways, Ali’s poetry epitomizes concerns that are more valid than ever today, twelve years after his death on 8 December 2001: questions about what constitutes political, intellectual and personal freedom; about the nation state; and about the craft as well as the integrity of writing.

Two aspects of Ali’s poetry that stand out with regard to his continuing significance in contemporary writing are his concern with history as narrative and the role of memory, and language—and, by extension, cultural identity—as a mythological rather than historical terrain. One of the most striking similarities among poets in Agha Shahid Ali’s generation is a distinct lack of literary anxiety about writing in English, an aspect of their work that delineates a powerful distinction between their common concerns and those of poets belonging to the previous generation. Shahid Ali, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Ranjit Hoskote and others do not agonize about ‘whoring after English gods’, having their tongues ‘bound in English chains’, or justifying writing in their mother tongues.  Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry seems situated, rather, in a literary landscape in which the political informs and directs the personal, and in which new hybrid literary forms have evolved as a result of political and geographical relocations.

History and memory seem to be inevitable concerns in writing within the contexts of such landscapes. In many ways, literary form in Ali’s poetry is almost representative of empirical boundaries in the ‘real’ world, where traditional literary forms, with their linearity and narrative structures, seem analogous to the overarching narratives of historical discourses. The forms of storytelling and personal discourse displayed in Ali’s poetry, on the other hand, seem to be ways of reinventing the literary landscapes that his poetry inhabits. As Joshua Gage has observed while defining the ghazal form, “the ghazal has a non-narrative unity” that seems to underscore the fact that literary as well as historical discourses “are too dependent on narrative.” Ali seems to corroborate this definition of the ghazal in his insistence that “the ghazal creates a profound and complex cultural unity, built on association and memory and expectation.”

Ali’s belief that the ghazal is based on association and memory rather than a linear narrative style is distinctly reflected in his application of the form in his work. In the ghazal ‘Even the Rain’ he takes a purist’s approach to the form, establishing the traditional matla (the first couplet, which sets the rhyme and refrain for the rest of the poem), qafia (rhyme) and radif (refrain) of the ghazal form but taking liberties with linguistic structures, bending language to his will and to the seemingly greater purpose of remaining faithful to the form in question. For example, the fourth couplet includes the lines: “Drinks were on the house./ For mixers, my love, you’d poured — what? — even the rain.” Shortly after, in the sixth couplet, he writes: “He held just one thing back till he got even: the rain.” The ghazal traditionally repeats the same radif at the end of each couplet, although the example from ‘Even the Rain’ seems almost subversive in its retention of the linguistic phrase “even: the rain” with the addition of a punctuation mark which alters the semantic function of the phrase. Further, the embedded “my love” in the fourth couplet recalls the traditional ghazal’s amorous directive, since it is often addressed to an absent lover.

The semantic aspects of language as the medium through which memory is recollected is further explored in Ali’s translations of poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, where translation becomes a form of creative adaptation. He writes in ‘Memory’, an adaptation from the original Urdu poem by Faiz: “Near me breathes the air that’s your kiss. It smoulders,/ slowly-slowly, musk of itself.” Two phrases stand out quite distinctly in this context. First, the phrase “slowly-slowly” is a literal translation of the Urdu “dheere-dheere”, the word being repeated for emphasis and rhythm, something that is not usually found in the English language. Secondly, the phrase “musk of itself” seems to suggest that the poet is describing a moment that is self-referential and self-contained, rather than needing an external perspective or interpretation to validate its existence.

In her commentary on Ali’s poetry, Deborah Kletonic has drawn attention to the situation of the expatriate Kashmiri, who has “an intense desire for news and communication” originating in the homeland. Ali himself has recollected a curious incident that revealed that “somehow, communication happens despite terrible barriers.” His father’s friend in Kashmir had received no mail for several months in 1990, and wandered idly by the post office, pausing to look at the mountains of undelivered mail lying inside. Glancing at the nearest pile, he saw that the letter on top was addressed to him from Shahid’s father. The statistical improbability of his finding the letter is remarked upon by Ali as an instance of how political barriers cannot seem to be able to contain the imperative to communicate through linguistic channels.

The relationship between linguistic and literary landscapes and personal imperatives is further explored in Ali’s concern with the belief that “the mythic terrain of [poetry] is not the actual historian’s terrain.” He remarks on Edward Said’s contrapuntal rhetoric, where one “read[s] something with several things happening simultaneously.” Ali seems to accomplish such a rhetoric by blending disparate landscapes seamlessly in his work. He writes in ‘Ghazal’:

Memory is no longer confused, it has a homeland —
Says Shammas: Territorialize each confusion in a graceful Arabic.

It seems, therefore, to be in language that memory finds a home. Ali seems to subscribe to what he calls “the exilic temperament”, which he describes as “the ability to inhabit several circumstances and several national and historical backgrounds simultaneously.” This state of mind is represented in several of his poems, and notably in ‘From Amherst to Kashmir’, which describes his train of thought as he drives on a route in Ohio after dropping his sister off at the airport. He writes:

But even when I pass — in Ohio — the one exit

to Calcutta, I don’t know I’ve begun

Mapping America, the city limits

of Evanescence now everywhere.

The ludicrousness of finding an exit on the route in Ohio to a place named Calcutta cannot be considered a mere coincidence in the observer’s mind, who sees it in retrospect as the beginning of the process of ‘mapping America’; of understanding a landscape in terms of his memory and his experience.

“Words mix cultures and leave me rootless,” writes Ali in ‘Dear Editor’. The simultaneous identification of one’s identity with two or more disparate cultural contexts can perhaps only be possible through language and its ability to enable the poet to map empirical landscapes through his memory. Speaking of the personal subtexts in Ali’s poetry Dan Freeman points out, “his poetry is about grief and separation, a universal language that speaks to the international community about our moral duty” to understand the inherent otherness of every cultural landscape. As novelist Amitav Ghosh observes in his reflective piece on Ali, “Shahid’s gaze was not politicized in terms of policies and solutions — his vision tended towards the inclusive.” Ali writes in his poem ‘I See Chile from My Rearview Mirror’:

I once went through a mirror.

From there too the world, so intact, resembled only itself.

Once again, we find an image of a landscape that is almost completely self-referential, peopled in part by familiar names and geographical markers but resembling only itself, indescribable through any attempt at identifying similarities with other landscapes or cultures. Ali seems preoccupied by the belief that “we do not witness things as they are — we witness them as we are.” It is perhaps Ellen Bryant Voigt’s words in her obituary for Ali that sum up the observation best: “We read, in part, to understand the ‘other’. He wrote, in part, to help us understand.” It is a literary perspective that is almost completely inclusive in its vision, seeking to validate its authenticity by claiming dissimilarity with everything else. Although Ali himself would probably hate the idea of being associated with anything formulaic, his method remains what is probably the best prescription for what ails both ideas and writing in our times.


Dr. Meghna Mudaliar has taught literature at Stella Maris College and Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. Her research has focused on imaginary homelands and the contrapuntal in Agha Shahid Ali’s work.

Works Cited

Ali, Agha Shahid. A Nostalgist’s Map of America. London and New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.

— “A Calligraphy of Coils.” Himalmag, 1998. Retrieved 12 April 2004 from

Freeman, Dan. “The Face of Displacement.” The Harvard Political Review, 2002. Retrieved 13 October 2003 from .Displacement-220176.shtml?nowrite&

Gage, Joshua. “The First of Many Wells: A Review of Agha Shahid Ali’s Call Me Ishmael Tonight.” Retrieved 20 September 2004 from

Ghosh, Amitav. “The Ghat of the Only World: Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn.” 15 December 2001. Web. 5 December 2005.

Voigt, Ellen Bryant. “In Memoriam, Agha Shahid Ali: 1949-2001.” 2001. Web. 21 November 2005.


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