“Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void:
Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire,
Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Casmir. Or Cauchemar
in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kachmire,
(Ali, The Veiled Suite 171)
Torn between his love for Kashmir and the helplessness to save it, Agha Shahid Ali (The Kashmiri-American poet) created a niche for himself in the world of exceptional poetry. Loss, pain, nostalgia being his ideal themes, Kashmir’s unsung poet never failed to craft magic.
Born on February 4th, 1949, Shahid Ali came from a distinguished and a well-educated family in Srinagar. His grandmother, Begum Zafar Ali, was the first woman matriculate of Kashmir. Schooled at Burn Hall and later the University of Kashmir, he was a PhD holder in English from the Pennsylvania State University. A teacher by profession, he taught at various colleges and universities in India and the US.
Kashmir- a Paradise, a Home, has a deep and an uncompromising romance with every denizen of hers. Shahid Ali remains one faithful lover. Renowned for his platonic love for Kashmir, Ali in his poetry makes us slink into the past years of happiness while holding onto the painfully dreaded rope of occupation at present. His poetry pleads the case of his beloved Kashmir; the crimson Jhelum, torned pherans, blood bathed Himalayas, and the houses set ablaze. Ali documents in his poems the discord between a loving vision of home and it’s harsh actuality.
His ability to blend Urdu, Arabic, Persian and European literary techniques makes his collection of poems a mosaic of cultures and ethnicities. He began publishing his works since the early 1970s but his major breakthrough was A Walk Through the Yellow Pages (1987). His next book, A Nostalgist’s Map of America (1991), narrates a series of travels through landscapes often blurred between his American home and his boyhood from Kashmir. Inspired by the famous uprising of 1990’s, his next book, The Country Without a Post Office (1997), was published. A magnum opus in nature, it’s still one of the best gifts to Kashmir any artist could ever give. Similarly, in 2001 came out Rooms Are Never Finished. Culture, Politics, and personal events are quite latent in his poetry. He also translated the works of Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz in The Rebel Silhoutte (1992).
Unlike many other poets, Shahid Ali’s style of writing remains unmatched. Where everyone tries to exhibit the beauty of Kashmir, Agha Ali presents the picture of politics, occupation, mass graves, half widows, along with ultra marine Jhelum and green threads of Shah Hamdaan symbolising hope. Stitched together with the pains of silence and the temerity to stand against the occupation, Agha Shahid’s passion for Kashmir speaks up in his works. Apart from this, Agha Shahid Ali has also successfully attempted at poems with diasporic themes; “Postcard from Kashmir” is one exemplary poem. His writing style mainly focused on Kashmir, it’s history, and everything related, but he seldom attempted to knit fine tales of foreign themes as well, for example, Dacca Gauzes, At The Museum and, The Wolf’s Postcard to ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.
Painful, traumatic, and brimming with loud shrieks of reality, there is magic in every single poem he crafted. What makes him different is the way he paints Kashmir, crimson and crystal. Blood and peace. Abstract ideas and thoughts are poured into pellucid and unambiguous vessels ensuing in the themes comprehensive to all. Agha Shahid talks about the horror and despair in Kashmir in such a way that even to a non-Kashmiri the context would sound relatable. The despair and agony is always coupled with faith and hope. Faith in Kashmir. Hope in the better times for Kashmiris. He did not only present his love for Kashmir but also reflected that some essence of this peerless love of his will continues to live on in him with his words, which stands right till this date.
But unfortunately, Shahid Ali’s incredible attempt at drawing Kashmir in his poems has not been recognised as it should’ve been. Lost somewhere in the pages of History, we have not properly given this virtuoso the credits he truly deserved. This man, whose ethereal romance with Kashmir still reverberates in his words and sentences, promised his beloved hometown so much but the remorselessness of time seized every promise, every dream. Leaving all his unfulfilled dreams and promises behind, Agha Shahid Ali passed away at an age of 52, on 8th of December 2001, at his brother’s home in Massachusetts. Cause of death being Brain Cancer. His death was (and is) a great loss for us. He wrote for Kashmir and Kashmiris, and we forgot him and his contributions altogether. What more deplorable? What worse? While his beloved Kashmir still waits for someone like Shahid Ali to compliment her surreal beauty and impeccable flaws, the denizens of Kashmir await for what Agha Shahid dearly desired. Peace and liberation.
Today on his 16th death anniversary, paying rich tributes to the radiant poet who is always missed by his loved ones, I conclude with my favourite poem by him, which also stands as his self-elegy;
Yes, I remember it,
the day I’ll die, I broadcast the crimson,
so long of that sky, its spread air,
its rushing dyes, and a piece of earth
bleeding, apart from the shore, as we went
on the day I’ll die, past the guards, and he,
two yards he rowed me into the sunset,
past all pain. On everyone’s lips was news
of my death but only that beloved couplet,
broken, on his:
“If there is a paradise on earth,
It is this, it is this, it is this.”
-The Last Saffron (The Country Without a Post Office)
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