Agha Shahid Ali. Photograph credit: Copyright © 1990 by Stacey Chase.
“Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void: Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire, Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Cašmir. Or Cauchemar in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire, Kasmir. Kerseymere?”
– Agha Shahid Ali
Once, Agha Shahid Ali, the legendary Kashmiri poet, was stranded at Barcelona international airport. A female guard asked him if he was carrying anything with him that could be dangerous to the other passengers. At this, Mr Ali clapped a hand on his chest and cried, “Only my heart.”
Mr Ali was born in Delhi on 4th February 1949 in a culturally sophisticated and educationally rich native family of Kashmir. His father, Agha Ashraf Ali, is revered as a cerebral educationist and remembered for his unparalleled services as the inspector of schools. His grandmother, Begum Zaffar Ali, is known as the first matriculate from the valley. Owing to the family’s educational tradition, Mr Ali developed a literary bent of mind from an early age.
He started writing poems at the tender age of 12 and was exposed to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s work at the same time. To commemorate his legacy, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City has constituted an award in his name — Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, for young poets and writers.
Mr Ali spent most of his life in the US, but his parents lived in Srinagar, and he used to visit them every summer. But the summer of 1989 was different for Kashmir, and so for him. The militancy started appearing on the surface, right ahead of the nose. He wrote:
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.
As per Mr Ali’s elder brother, Agha Iqbal Ali, he was a humorous person, who would often answer your queries in a bardic register. Amitav Ghosh, an Indian fiction writer, writes about Mr Ali in a biographical essay named, The Ghat of the only world, that he had a special passion for his regional food, specially—Kashmiri food in the Pandit style. Mr Ghosh explains it as a recurrent dream of Mr Ali, in which all the Pandits have vanished from the valley of Kashmir and their food has become extinct.
The exodus episode was unsettling for Mr Ali, who had grown amid the syncretic structures entwining the Kashmir together. He couldn’t make peace with the fact that Pandits doesn’t exist in the valley anymore. It inspired one of the opening poems in his book, Country Without Post Office:
“You needed me. You needed to perfect me:
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.”
Mr Ali’s work was Inspired by a league of poets with diasporic consciousness like W.B Yeats, a rebel poet from Ireland revolution. He also drew longingness in the pain of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda and the Russian poet, Mandelstam, both of whom lived in exile. In the prologue of his book, Country Without a Post Office, the poem—The Blessed Word— dedicated to his friend, Irfan Hassan, was inspired by the work of Mandelstam. Pulitzer Prize-winning, American poet, James Merrill also influenced Mr Ali’s work. While he was in Arizona, he got a chance to meet James Merrill, who allegedly changed the direction of his poetry completely. It was after this meeting, that he began to experiment with strict metrical patterns and different verse forms.
In an interview with Jalki Layden in 2000, Mr Ali also talks about his initial rejections from publications. The rejections were so frequent, that one of the publishers even sent him a personalised note describing his writing as mediocre.
He went on to publish a number of books in his life ahead, among which some are: 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 ,a collection of ghazals by Shahid (published posthumously in 2003), and posthumously collected volume, The Veiled Suite (2009).
His work spoke about the longing he felt for home. His work reflected the yearning hope to see peace returning to Kashmir. The poem, Postcard from Kashmir, is the mirror of his love for his motherland.
“Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
My home a neat four by six inches.
This is home. And this the closest
I’ll ever be to home. When I return,
the colours won’t be so brilliant,
the Jhelum’s waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love so overexposed.”
In February 2000, Mr Ali suddenly lost his consciousness. After a thorough medical examination, he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Accounting to one of Mr Ghosh’s telephonic conversations with Mr Ali, he writes: “The first time Agha Shahid Ali spoke to me about his approaching death was on April 25, 2001… Although he had been under treatment for cancer for some fourteen months… I heard him thumbing through his engagement book and then suddenly he said, ‘Oh dear! I can’t see a thing.’ There was a brief pause and then he added, ‘I hope this doesn’t mean that I am dying.’ ”
On the night of 8th December 2001, the poet faced the final punctuation.
As per his knowns, he wanted to travel back to Kashmir in his last days and wished to die there. Somehow, complicated by the logistical and other considerations, he remained in the self-imposed exile and took US citizenship few months before his death.
“I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir,
And the shadowed routine of each vein
will almost be news…”
Content with his second choice, he wished to be laid to rest near Emily Dickinson, an American poet, whom he always adored as one of the favorites. She rests in Amherst, Massachusetts, just a few miles away from his grave in Northampton, US.
“Then be pitiless you whom I could not save—
Send your cries to me, if only in this way:
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 this. Mad heart, be brave.”