The poet’s Kashmir is a broken promise; it is the Jhelum that carries a dismembered body, Zero Bridge and Zero Taxi Stand, the songs of Habba Khatun, Gupkar Road and Residency Road, the Times of Rain. The poet’s Kashmir is a geopolitical vision, revisited in memory, its horrors an image of graphic beauty:
From Zero Bridge— From “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight”
a shadow chased by searchlights is running
away to find its body.
A shadow in search of its body, slipping in and out of Srinagar’s deserted streets, is a terrifyingly exact pictograph of Kashmir now, perhaps more than ever before. Perhaps the news of the massacre of forty Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel by a suicide bomber in the Pulwama district, if it were to find its way into Agha Shahid Ali’s verse as a report in the Times of Rain, would dwell on the commotion of shadows trying to identify their bodies, their body parts. In verse after verse, Shahid reconfigures the politics of his homeland by offering metaphorical alternatives to dispassionate reportage. What might the shadow of a CRPF jawan say to an eyewitness? Perhaps this:
“Don’t tell my father I have died,” he says,— From “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight”
and I follow him through blood on the road
and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners
left behind, as they ran from the funeral,
victims of the firing.
The news becomes a requiem for Hans Christian Ostro, a twenty-seven-year-old Norwegian tourist who was kidnapped and decapitated in 1995 by the separatist group Al-Faran. The poem “Hans Christain Ostro”, crisscrossed with trains, jade rivers and arms “turquoise with veins”, weeps in stanzas inconsolable with mourning for the young hiker:
“Or will your veins’ hurt lightning –
the day streaked with charcoal –
betray you, beautiful stranger
sent to a lovelorn people
longing for god?”
Kashmir, in Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry, is in the saturated colours of a postcard; it is also the monochromatic desolation of mourners, sentries in bunkers, the coal of burning leaves. To read the cluster of poems that belongs to The Country Without a Post Office, first published in 1997, is to walk through the “rubble of downtown Srinagar” in a stupor, and witness its devastation in extravagant verse, swollen with grief.
Several of his poems are dingily lit, quite literally, with candles, kerosene lamps, the dim lights of army trucks, “stillborn suns”. His landscapes, strewn with bodies and canvas bags of undelivered mail, also blaze with chinar leaves, and suddenly erupt in the songs of Mahjoor, on Radio Kashmir. “His poems – like his conversation, for that matter – sounded like no one else’s, no doubt because of the remarkable range and variety of his sources: the literature of several continents; Bollywood, Hollywood, and art-house cinema; classical Indian and classical European music; and American pop”, wrote Daniel Hall, in the Foreword to the 2009 compilation, The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems.
Shahid’s range, his inexhaustible bank of images, his cultural apparatus, are deployed to turn his homeland into a pastoral, a ghazal, a passionate incantation. His exilic yearning infiltrates a familiar and beloved landscape with an invocation:
Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void:— From “The Blesséd Word: A Prologue”
Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire,
Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Cašmir. Or Cauchemar
in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire,
There are eighteen variations of the word “Kashmir” in the Roman script, mutations of the Sanskrit káśmīra. The French cauchemar or nightmare, also included in this enumeration, raises the pitch of the poet’s lament. His homeland, desiccated water, is a desolation, a country of ash and anonymous graves, a recurrent nightmare. He returns to it, compulsively, in memory, to delineate its tragedies.
Shahid Ali, who was born on February 4,1949 in Newf Delhi, but spent most of his childhood in Kashmir before migrating to the United States in 1976 when he was in his early twenties, brings these geographical shifts and spatial ruptures to his poetic aesthetics. The poets and historians who appear in the epigraphs and quotations that prefix many of his poems – Osip Mandelstam, Taticus, WB Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Laurence Hope, Zbigniew Herbert, Gerald Manley Hopkins – pervade his elegiac reminiscing. Although geographically distant from Kashmir, his muse, his melancholic yearnings are no less intense for that reason.
In Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie describes this need to look back:
“It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must do so in the knowledge – which gives rise to profound uncertainties – that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.”
Shahid Ali died on December 8, 2001, in Amherst, Massachusetts, but not before creating many Kashmirs of the mind. Of these, the image of the post boat, piercing through the fog to call at each houseboat, is an impossibly picturesque reminder of a troubled homeland:
“Has he been kept from us? Portents— From “The Floating Post Office”
of rain, rumours, ambushed letters…
Curtained palanquin, fetch our word,
bring us word: Who has died? Who’ll live?
Has the order gone out to close
the waterways…the one open road?