Poet of witness and an ability to contain multitudes

Agha Shahid Ali (1949–2001) hailed from various worlds, Indian-American, Kashmiri-non Kashmiri, English-Urdu, but did not fully belong to any one.

by Rakhshanda Jalil

They ask me what Shahid means: Listen, listen:/It means “the beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

Seldom, if ever, does a poet leave behind such consistent milestones in his poetic journey which may be used as signposts later to study his life and work in a purely chronological manner. Agha Shahid Ali’s (1949–2001) work has that contextual quality. The markers have been picked up and put to good use by his biographer, Manan Kapoor, to tell the story of a life that was extraordinary and a body of work deeply rooted in the Indian tradition. Though written in English, his poetic voice draws from other literary traditions — Urdu, Persian and Kashmiri; it speaks of the intensely personal and the political, often blurring the boundaries.

Loss, and the memory of loss, remains Shahid’s lifelong concern. He discovered his engagement with loss early in his poetic career and remained true to it, often returning to an early loss such as the death of Begum Akhtar, his muse. Belonging to multiple worlds — Indian/American, Kashmiri/Non-Kashmiri, English-speaking/Urdu-speaking — and yet not fully belonging to any one, he is in the true sense a poet of witness: he sees and records his experiences as in this elegy In Search of Evanescence: It was a year of brilliant water/in Pennsylvania that final summer/seven years ago, the sun’s quick reprints/in my attaché case: those students/of mist have drenched me with dew, I’m driving…

At the University of Delhi, Shahid read Milton and Shakespeare; his parents introduced him to Ghalib and Faiz in their home in Kashmir. He went on to teach English and creative writing at colleges across the U.S. while continuing to write and publish his poetry to much acclaim, acquiring a near-iconic status in his own lifetime. His friendships as much as his eclectic reading and experiences find expression in a stunning turn of phrases (‘crimsoned spillages’ for the bloodshed in Kashmir), or a forgotten history (‘The Dacca Gauzes’), or grief over his beloved mother’s death (‘Lenox Hill’); influenced as much by Emily Dickinson as Husain, the martyred hero of Karbala, Shahid’s singular quality is his ability to contain multitudes. Then there are his experiments with the ghazals, such as this sher from Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals: In the heart’s wild space lies the space of wilderness./What won’t one lose, what home one won’t give forever!

Making common cause with a host of issues, his poetry reflects these diverse interests: the gayaki of Begum Akhtar, the loss of a way of life that once was in Kashmir, of living in different cities in America, the resistance movement in Palestine. But then there’s also the vexing business of remembering, and remembering things differently from others; as Shahid writes, ‘My memory is again in the way of your history’.

Memory, loss, remembrance recur in poetry collections such as: Bone – A Walk Through the Yellow Pages (1987), The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987), A Nostalgist’s Map of America (1991), The Beloved Witness: Selected Poems (1992), The Country Without a Post Office (1997).

He also translated the poems of Faiz as The Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Poems (1992), and edited Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (2000).

Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, Kapoor fits in snippets from interviews and essays, anecdotes narrated by friends and family, as well as fragments of poetry to bring out Shahid’s piquant charm, humor, whimsy, zest for life. There are anecdotes, some of them legendary among the legions of his students and admirers, such as this: Asked by a security officer at an airport, “Are you carrying anything that could be dangerous for the other passengers?”, Shahid replied: “Only my heart!”


A Ghazal in English by Agha Shahid Ali

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?

Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful—”

“Trinket”—to gem—“Me to adorn—How tell”—tonight?

I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—

A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar—

All the archangels—their wings frozen—fell tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;

Only we can convert the infidel tonight.

Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities

multiply me at once under your spell tonight.

He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.

He’s left open—for God—the doors of Hell tonight.

In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed.

No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.

God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day—

I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.

Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.

The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer

fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.

My rivals for your love—you’ve invited them all?

This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—

God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.

From Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals


Image courtesy of Courtesy The Hindu

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