Reading Agha Shahid Ali

Shahid means ‘the beloved’ in Persian, ‘witness’ in Arabic

I want to live forever. What else can I say?

It rains as I write this. Mad heart, be brave

—Agha Shahid

Agha Shahid Ali (1947-2001) was Kashmiri-American Poet, grown up in paradise on earth called—Kashmir. An alumni of University of Kashmir, he obtained his masters in English from University of Delhi, PhD from Pennsylvania State University, and a MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) from University of Arizona. He had a great beginning of his academic career at Hamilton College in New York in 1987, then to University of Massachusetts Amherst as a director of the MFA creative writing in 1993 and finally he became professor at the University of Utah in 1999. Shahid is the voice of poetry rather poetry is the environment where he was born.

Agha Shahid was born and raised up in an environment of literary atmosphere, he says that his grandmother during his childhood days used to quote, Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Hardy in English, Hafiz Sharazi and Maulana Rumi in Persian, Ghalib and Faiz in Urdu, Habba Khatoon, and Mahjoor in Kashmiri. He grew up in English and Urdu language, where Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Begum Akhter were his family friends which later on resulted in the creation of some masterpieces from Shahid's pen in the form of The Half-Inch Himalayas, The Country Without a Post Office, Rooms Are Never Finished, Call Me Ishmael Tonight, and A Nostalgist's Map of America, etc. Arguably, one gets lost/remains unmoved while reading his poetry—where he tries to translate his anguish, pain, nostalgia etc. He represented Kashmir, his valley in broader horizons of academia, providing a voice to the voiceless.

Shahid was distressed to see this paradise, torn into pieces, where one only sees pain and loss. Kashmir was always on his mind, no matters how far he was from it. Though a million miles away, he captures his beloved valley in a small mailbox as he writes in Postcard from Kashmir:

Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.
I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.

Shahid is one the most Kashmiri born English poet to be read, studied and researched across the world. I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight, is one of the most outstanding poems depicting the brutality, pain, suffering and bloodshed in Kashmir, vis-a-vis the reference of Zero Bridge, Gupkar Road, Residency Road, Pan House, Shah-e- Hamdan, as the poet bangs:

Don't tell my father I have died, he says'

And I follow him through blood on the road

And hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners

Left behind, as they rain from the funeral…

Kashmir is burning.

Ghazal, one of the beloved genres of Urdu literature acquired its definite face and format in English with Agha Shahid. Furthermore, he observed ghazal's formal requirements like—matla (opening couplet), maqta (concluding couplet, in which poet uses his/her name or pseudonym), rhyme and rhythm. It was Shahid, who introduced Faiz Ahmed Faiz—one of famous poets of Urdu to America and translated his poetry into English. Poetry and Shahid are the two sides of the same coin, as he writes in his book 'The Rebel's Silhouette' that 'poetry was the part of air he breathed'.

Who can forget the profound lectures of Dr Iffat Maqbool on Agha Shahid? Ma'am used to teach us Shahid during our PhD course-work, for a pretty good time? Her insightful lectures on this literary giant made the scholars mesmerize. Iffat Ma'am would go on talking Agha Shahid on multiple issues—like there is hybrid, multinational, multicultural, diaspora, witness, resistance, nostalgia, transnationalism, hyphenated cultures, cosmopolitan, etc. in his poetic oeuvre.

In Shahid's poetry, there is pain, suffering, and longing for his treasured Kashmir that is probably why he wrote in The Blessed Word: A Prologue, immortalizing his beloved Vale:

I write on that void,

Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir…

Aga Shahid has journeyed from Kashmir to Delhi, Delhi to America—there is triple exile in him—his loss is more than that of a common man—a universal loss. But the distance of leaving away from his beloved was not a hindrance to his memory. So he could get a glimpse of whole Kashmir in a mailbox of six-inch. He was the poet who knows how to translate his loss into a position of power. He affirms his strong faith in the possibility of the new identity of diaspora citizen, an identity that is—transnational and is both local and mentioned by the whole world.

Agha—a poet of witness and resistance, to him nothing caused more outrage and pain than the troubled of his beloved Kashmir. As poet of great poets he never tried to make a boundary on basis on religion, sex or race, significantly he writers; "the point is you are a universe//you are the product of immense historical forces//, there is the Muslim in me, there is the Hindu in me//there is the western in me"//.

It is not easy to define Shahid's identity, he has a hyphenated identity and a multi-geographical background in Kashmir, India, and America—a self-chosen exile. There is exile in exile, a diaspora in diaspora, an ordeal in ordeal. Poetizing Kashmir was his main argument, and he did it characteristically. Surprisingly, when it rains in Amherst, he is reminded of rains in Kashmir and cries out 'the monsoons never crosses the mountains into Kashmir'. His lines are no less than the aphorism of Bacon, which are on the lips of so many poetry lovers, likewise these lines from his single poem Farewell:

'My memory is again in the way of your history'.

'Your memory keeps getting into the way of my history'.

'They make desolation and call it peace'.

'At a certain point I lost track of you'

There is nothing to forgive. You won't forgive me'.

His poetry leaves a deep impact on poetry lovers. In most of the poems, he seems to talk in nostalgic mood, yearning for beloved Kashmir, haunting the readers about gruesome situation of this heaven on earth—called Kashmir. In one of the famous ghazal 'In Arabic' he writes about himself:

They ask me to tell them What Shahid means: listen, listen

It means the 'the Beloved' in Persian, 'Witness' in Arabic.

Shahid died, like his beloved mother from brain tumor at 52 in 2001 in Amherst Massachusetts, leaving a great and large legacy of poetry behind. It can be argued—that a literature student is incomplete without reading a great poet like him.

(Author is doctoral fellow at department of English—University of Kashmir).

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