Through the lens of Kashmiri literature: Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry 16 years after his demise

“We shall meet again, in Srinagar, by the gates of the Villa of Peace, our hands blossoming into fists till the soldiers return the keys and disappear. Again we’ll enter our last world, the first that vanished in our absence from the broken city.”

These poignant lines are taken from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “A Pastoral” which he dedicated to his friend Suvir Kaul. From a collection of poems mentioned in “The Country without a Post Office” these verses depict hope, in the times of gruesome violence and despair.

Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet, who died 16 years ago, on 8th December in 2001, due to cancer at his brother’s home, has left heartwarming poetry and books like “A Nostalgist’s Map of America”, where through a slew of travel series he entwines his American home to his young adolescent years in Kashmir.

Born in New Delhi and grown up in Kashmir, Ali moved to America in 1975 due to the violence in Kashmir. Considered as an expatriate, his work depicts darkness, grief, misery, trauma, blighted rebellion and hope.

Kashmir in the 1990s which witnessed unspeakable violence, from Gawkadal massacre which killed over 50 civilians when the Indian Army opened fired at the crowd at Srinagar’s Gawadal Bridge on January 20, to Bijbehara Massacre which again killed 50 civilians and injured 200 on October 22, 1993, Ali’s dystopian poetry highlights the plight of Kashmir and the power of the Kashmiri resistance movement against the armed forces, like George Orwell’s ‘1984’, Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s tale’ and other modern period writers.

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Amitav Ghosh observes about Ali, “his voice was like none I had ever heard before, at once lyrical and fiercely disciplined, engaged and yet deeply inward. He had a sorcerer’s ability to transmute the mundane into the magical.”

His most famous poem, which was originally published as ‘Kashmir without a post office’, later revised and included in a collection of poems known as “The Country without a Post Office” in 1997, enunciates about the grotesque events which Kashmir witnessed by the armed and paramilitary forces in the form of abduction, mass rapes, arson, massive turbulence and tortuous incidents faced in the interrogation rooms like Papa II and Hari Niwaz. For 7 months due to perennial violence and political disruption, no mail was delivered in Kashmir, which in other words means a complete shutdown of post offices and zero mode of communication, Ali dedicated this poem to his friend, James Merrill.

In the very first section he uses phrases like “letters with doomed addresses, each house buried, or empty,” which patently depicted the conditions in Kashmir. In the same section he mentions, “the soldiers light it, hone the flames, burn our world to sudden papier-mache inlaid with gold, then ash.”

Reports reveal 1,158 complaints of human rights violation were received against the Army and CRPF from January 1994 to December 2008. The forces have also been responsible for extrajudicial executions. This form of “noir” was amply visible in Ali’s poems.

In the last section one witness’ nemesis, whining to the deaf world, which has become stoic to the plights of Kashmir and Kashmiris, he wrote, “I light lamps, send my answers, Calls to prayer to the deaf worlds across the continents. And my lament is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent to this world whose end was near, always near. My words go out in huge packages of rain, go there, to addresses, across the oceans.”

The fallout of the prolonged violence in the valley remains unheard and unaffected. Nonetheless the last phrase in the poem, “Mad heart, be brave”, shows signs of strength, power and valor in the poet.

Muzamil Jaleel, a senior journalist, pointed out that in the retrospect period of conflict, Kashmiri poetry had become a significant medium for the articulation of trauma and of perversity in a time when censorship and fear made writing in prose dangerous, Ali’s remarkable poems like Farewell, in which he uses phrases like “They make a desolation and call it peace”, “I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy”, “if only somehow you could have been mine, what would not have been possible in the world?”, depict loneliness, forlornness and devastation. Yet an abstract message of reconciliation and freedom exists.

Suvir Kaul notes, “the poem becomes a testimonial not only to emotional suffering but, to political subjectivities that grow out of community responses to such sustained, profound distress.” Others poems like ‘I see Kashmir from New Delhi at midnight’, ‘I dream I am the only passenger on flight 423 to Srinagar’ enunciate trauma, anguish, devastation and barbarity, which doesn’t restrict to him alone, but are comprehended by Kashmiris and by people of conflict zones, like the Modern period poet W.B. Yeats’ poem ‘The second coming’, T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land, The Hollow Men’, which was similarly understood by the writers of contemporary period as it was entwined with the aftermath of two great World Wars.

Ali’s other remarkable works include his book of Ghazals, “Call Me Ishmael Tonight”, in which he introduces the term Ghazal, in one of them which is “Tonight”, he writes, “I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates, a refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight”, “the hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight,” these lines reflects a light on Kashmir’s emptiness, which has turned into a refugee camp for its own citizenry to seek shelter. The mosques are empty, no priests are calling to pray which faded into “the wounded gazelle tonight.”

Being a poet or a literary scholar, he never stopped himself from sensing the beauty of various languages which was entwined with his social conditioning and his culture. He embraced his vernacular Urdu through these Ghazals and wrote poetry in English.

History is often understood through past events, circumstances, places, battles, monuments, Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry traces the ever-lasting disruption in Kashmir which still bewilders us through words, which persuade the readers to arouse their imagination and contemplate about what the ‘Paradise’ was, through meadows, its rich landscapes, Jhelum, gigantic mountains, and what the Paradise endured in the form of bloodshed, tears, guns and destruction, of shrines, monuments and homes.

It gives an epochal insight about Jhelum in which many innocents were drowned. Ali’s question in his poem “Farewell” still resonates in the hearts of Kashmiris and many others, “Who is the Guardian tonight of the Gates of Paradise?”



Prakriti Sharma is a freelance journalist from New Delhi. 


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