After Sixteen Years: Aga Shahid and His Poetry

After Sixteen Years: Aga Shahid and His Poetry
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By Prakriti Sharma

“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 Aga Shahid Ali’s poem “A Pastoral”, which he dedicated to his friend Suvir Kaul, are culled out from a collection of poems expressed in “The Country without a Post Office”. This particular collection of brilliant poems depicts hope- in the times of nemesis, gruesome violence and despair.
Aga Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet, who died 16 years ago on 8th December in 2001, due to brain cancer at his brother’s home has left us with utmost 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. Being a polymath, Shahid spoke many languages like Urdu and English but most of his work is in English. Born in New Delhi and growing up in Kashmir, Ali moved to America in 1975 due to successive violence in Kashmir. Considered as an expatriate, his work depicts darkness, grief, misery, trauma, blighted rebels and hope.
Kashmir , in the 1990s , witnessed massive structural violence, from the Gawkadal massacre which killed over 50 civilians when the Indian Army open fired at the crowd at Srinagar’s Gawkadal Bridge on January 20 to the Bijbehara Massacre which again killed 50 civilians and injured 200 on October 22, 1993, Ali’s dystopian poetry highlighted the plight of Kashmiris and the power of resistance movement against the armed forces, like George Orwell’s, “1984”, Margaret Atwood’s, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and other modern writers.
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.” Shahid’s most famous poem, which was originally published as “Kashmir Without a Post Office”, later revised and included it in a collection of poems known as “The Country without a Post Office” in 1997 enunciates grotesque events which Kashmir witnessed by the armed and paramilitary forces in the form of abductions, mass rapes, fires, massive turbulence, tortuous incidents faced in the interrogation cell rooms like Papa II and Hari Niwas.
For 7 months, due to perennial violence and political disruption, there was no mail delivered in Kashmir, which in other words meant 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 condition of Kashmir, either houses are burnt, or they are empty due to mass disappearances; most of them have left their houses due to backlash and turbulence. In the same section he mentions, “the soldiers light it, hone the flames, burn our world to sudden papier-mâché 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 security forces have also been responsible for extrajudicial executions. This form of “noir” which means darkness is amply visible in Ali’s poem.
In the last section , one witness’s nemesis, whining to the deaf world, which has become stoic to the plight of Kashmir and Kashmiris.
Shahid writes, “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 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.
As Muzamil Jaleel has pointed out that in the retrospective 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?” These lines depict loneliness, forlornness, devastation. Yet, there is also an abstract message of reconciliation and freedom.
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.” Other poems like, “I see Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight, I dream I am the only passenger on flight 423 to Srinagar” express trauma, anguish, devastation and barbarity, which doesn’t restrict to him, but is quite beautifully comprehended by Kashmiris and by people of other conflict-ridden zones, like the Modern period poet W.B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming”, T.S. Eliot’s, “The Waste Land”, and so on. These were similarly understood by the writers of contemporary period as it they 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 these called “Tonight” he writes, “I beg for a 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 reflect 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 making the call for prayer which , has faded into “the wounded gazelle tonight.”
Being a poet or a literary scholar, Shahid 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 and so on. Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry traces the ever-lasting disruption in Kashmir which still bewilders us; his words persuade the readers to arouse his/her imagination and contemplate about what the Paradise was, through meadows, its rich landscapes, Jhelum lake, gigantic mountains, and what the Paradise endured in the form of bloodshed, tears, pellet guns, destruction of shrines and monuments. It gives an epochal insight about the Jhelum river 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?”

References:
The Country without a post office-Agha Shahid Ali
A Nostalgist’s Map of America-Agha Shahid Ali Of Graves and Garden-Suvir Kaul Curfewed Nights-Basharat Peer
Documentaries:
Jashn-e-Azaadi- Sanjay Kak
Papa 2-Gopal Menon
https://www.amitavghosh.com/aghashahidali.html
http://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/26/arts/agha-shahid-ali-52-a-poet-who-had-roots-in-kashmir.html
http://www.achrweb.org/reports/india/AR08/jammu.html
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69597/agha-shahid-ali-tonight

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