Talking books

The Daily Star, Bangladesh
May 22 2004

Talking books
Agha Shahid Ali
Yasmeen Murshed

The transience of human life is much with me these days and I find
myself recalling lost friends and lost opportunities with increasing
nostalgia. I would have loved hearing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in person
because his CDs are a poor substitute for the drama of the real life
version, but it was not to be, and I would have greatly enjoyed
meeting the talented poet, Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) whose
premature death has saddened his many admirers and a poetry lovers
throughout the world. It has deprived South Asia of a blazing talent
from taking its rightful place among contemporary English poets.
Born in New Delhi, brought up in Kashmir and later to become an
American, Ali taught at a number of prestigious institutions in
America including the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His poetry
collections include The Half-Inch Himalayas (Pub: Wesleyan University
Press 1987); A Nostalgist’s Map Of America (pub: Norton 1992); The
Country Without A Post Office (pub: Norton 1997); and Rooms Are Never
Finished (pub: Norton 2001) which was a finalist for the National
Book Award in the US in 2001. He was a ghazal enthusiast and
translated Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poems in The Rebel’s Silhouette —
Selected Poems (pub: University of Massachusetts Press 1991). He
cajoled and encouraged a wide range of well known modern poets into
contributing to a poetry anthology entitled Ravishing Disunities —
Real Ghazals In English (pub: Wesleyan University Press 2000) which
he edited.

I reread The Country Without a Post Office recently and it reminded
me what a strong and vibrant poet Ali was. These poems are a poignant
and nostalgic evocation of his lost homeland particularly in the
tragic era of events when the troubles began in Kashmir. A haunting
volume it establishes this Kashmiri-American poet as a very important
poetic contributor to the body of work in English by South Asians.

In this book he focuses on the tragedy of his homeland which has been
devastated by the internal strife wrought on the land with “mass
rapes in the villages/towns left in cinders”. Ali finds that
contemporary history has forced him to return not as a tourist as he
would have liked, but as a witness to the savagery visited upon
Kashmir since the 1990 uprising against Indian rule. Amid rain and
fire and ruin, in a land of “doomed addresses”, Ali evokes the
tragedy of his birthplace. These are stunning poems, intensely
musical steeped in history, myth, and politics all merging into Ali’s
truest mode, that of longing. The Hindu-Muslim conflict reminds Ali
of similar genocidal wars in Bosnia and Armenia but in Kashmir the
blood of victims falls like “rubies on Himalayan snow” while “guns
shoot stars into the sky”. With the population decimated and the Post
Office destroyed, Ali’s poems become “cries like dead letters,” and
the poet becomes “keeper of the minaret.”

Ali’s strong affinity for Urdu is evident in his language which
eerily brings the cadences and drama of South Asia into English
poetry and in a sense each poem translates across the boundaries of
continents to result in a fusion of cultures. He seems to have a very
deep understanding of “words behind the words” as will be seen from
this short poem entitled “Stationery”.

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
The day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

Ali was imbued with the romance of Urdu poetry and he brings to his
work an inventive formalness infused with passion and grief. Kashmiri
myth and culture imbue these poems dramatising the importance of
eastern imagery and the Ghazal while Ali’s vast readings in, and
knowledge of, English Literature shines through in his allusions
which range from Tacitus through to Eliot.

After his death his friend Rukun Advani wrote of him, “In the early
1970s, Agha Shahid Ali already had a high reputation as an Indian
‘University Wit’. He was known in poetry coteries as a connoisseur of
verse, a fund of learning on T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (he went on to
write a fine Ph. D. on ‘T. S. Eliot as Editor’), a ghazal enthusiast,
an inspiring lecturer of English, a bird of the most dazzling feather
who everyone in our university wanted to look at and hear. His
reputation had spilled out of Hindu College, where he didn’t so much
teach as captivate and infect his students with his knowledge of
Hindustani music, Urdu verse, and the Modernist movement in
Anglo-American poetry. He was much in demand in the other colleges,
where he would invariably be encored and asked to read some of his
own verse.

This he always did with consummate, engaging immodesty. We are all
narcissists in some way, but Shahid had perfected the art of
narcissism. He displayed it unashamedly and was universally loved for
the abandon with which he could be so unabashedly and coyly full of
himself. He was just so disconcertingly free of pretence in this
respect, so entirely unique just for this reason. As he said of
himself once, ‘Sweetheart, I’m successful in the US of A only because
I’ve raised self-promotion to the level of art.’

But he deserved every accolade he got. He had one foot in the realm
of mushairas and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the other in the world of Western
versification and translation activity. His own achievement was to
blend the two. Eliotic blank verse was, in the main, not for him
because he thought it an easy way out for poets. His own evolution as
a poet is marked by his increased interest in mastering the most
complex verse forms of Europe, such as the ‘canzone’ and the
‘sestina’, and deploying them as moulds for sub-continental ideas,
Kashmiri themes, Urdu sentiment. No one did this as successfully as
Shahid. Literary criticism does not yet possess a proper vocabulary
to describe the ways in which he pushed English poetry in new

My own favourite is his “The Wolf’s Postscript to Little Red Riding
Hood”, from A Walk Through The Yellow Pages (pub: Sun Gemini 1987). I
have included it in its entirety because I find it one of the most
engaging and witty pieces of writing of recent times.

“First, grant me my sense of history:
I did it for posterity, for kindergarten teachers and clear moral:
Little girls shouldn’t wander off in search of strange flowers
And they mustn’t speak to strangers.
And then grant me my generous sense of plot:
Couldn’t I have gobbled her up right there in the jungle?
Why didn’t I ask her where her grandma lived?
As if I a forest-dweller, didn’t know of the cottage
under the three oak trees and the old woman who lived
there all alone? As if I couldn’t have swallowed her years before?
And you may call me the Big Bad Wolf, now my only reputation.
But I was no child-molester though you’ll agree she was pretty.
And the huntsman: Was I sleeping while he snipped my thick black fur
and filled me with garbage and stones?
I ran with that weight and fell down, simply so children could laugh
at the noise of the stones cutting through my belly, at the garbage
spilling out with a perfect sense of timing, just when the tale
should have come to an end.”

Yasmeen Murshed is a full-time bookworm and a part-time educationist
. She is also the founder of Scholastica School.