It was for the first time I was reading Agha Shahid Ali. The English class was particularly noisy. In that din my mind fastened onto a name that felt suddenly known. I heard my teacher speak of Shahid. He told us Shahid was a poet. He was from Kashmir. Then he announced the heartbreak. Shahid died in 2001. He had cancer. It felt like he’d died only yesterday. A pal of gloom descended upon me. I was visibly in mourning. Words failed me. That was it.
I grew curious. I wanted to know more about him. Who was he ? The introduction was over. It was followed by a brief commentary on the poem we were reading. In the poem, which was titled ‘ The season of the plains’ , with deceptive coherence running through it like a neat thread, knitting the three line stanzas together, Shahid reminisced his mother’s memories of her childhood she had spent in Lucknow, and that of the remembered monsoon in plains in India, around which the whole plot of the poem revolved. The references like ‘Krishna’ , ‘Bansras thumri singers ‘, ‘ Siddheshwari’, ‘Rasoolan’ were flummoxing. I couldn’t connect to them. The names felt distant. Though I had an idea who Krishna was, I could have stood up before the class and told them he was a raucous naughtiest flute playing gopi wooing Hindu god, I refused to acknowledge I knew him. More so because he was a Hindu god. In Islam we were not allowed to address him as a god. It was a blasphemy. And also because 2010 intifada was still afresh in my memory I hated everything that was associated to the inherent identity of India. I hated Krishna. I hated Banaras. But later after the class was over I asked my teacher about the sacrilegious references in the poem. What meaning could they possibly have in the poem? I was angry. He gave me a warm smile. I smirked. He told me ‘ literature is a tiny bird. It is something beyond all this. We shouldn’t/can’t confine it to our hate only. To make itself universal it traverses borders, nations, religious boundaries etcetera which is where lies the beauty of literature in its truest sense. ‘ I understood my ideological shortcomings. He said ‘ If you began to put restraints to literature, to what you should read and what you should reject, based on your personal/religious bias, you would never really be able to grasp the essence of reading literature.When you read something new you are exposed to new idiosyncrasies, cultures, struggles, emancipatory movements etcetera.. you learn.’ I felt enlightened. When I went home, after my school was over, I reread the poem. I couldn’t get on with the fact that I had felt enraged over the names in the poem I knew nothing of at all, or knew – albeit less than what was expected of me. I felt naive. But this was to change for good, once and for all. In my third reading of the poem I was finally able to decipher language of rain Shahid chose to write in. His stylistic innovativeness attracted me. His language gave me a key to the nuances of poetry I had no access to. This was something that stayed with me among other things. I read his other poems on internet. And somehow with great difficulty I memorized few of them. ‘ The prayer rug’, ‘ Taxidermist’, ‘ Postcard from Kashmir’, ‘ Stationery’. They touched the subject of nostalgia, and immense loss of a home away from a home, so delicately that it stirred nameless emotions in me when I read them, always over and again. At that point, in my otherwise directionless life, I knew I was going to write poems too. I knew I was going to be a writer. I was going to read books. Shahid anchored me. It was a vast sea of measureless blue. I did not have a boat. I had to wade through the water of words to reach to the island of poetry. My wandering was over. I imagined myself as a poet. I imagined myself blind. I imagined myself navigating my way to the slope of the island of poetry through thorns. I imagined myself telling from the smell of apricots if it was mid summer or early autumn.
But soon after I passed my 12 th I spent one winter reading Rumi while I prepared for my pre medical entrance test. This was a digression. I bought the book from a local bookstore. It was body of translatory works of Rumi by Coleman Barks. The cover art of the book enticed me. Thoughout the winter, as it snowed outside, in srinagar, I read Rumi to my friend in obstinate classrooms. He would ask me ‘ Okay, what does this mean here, the seven skies, seas etcetera ?’ and I would make up stories ‘ Rumi was thinking of tearing up skies when he wrote about sky. He wanted to see God. So in his madness he ended up writing that.’ He would believe me. But also this conviction which made me speak so much, and so and so, about rumi stemmed from the belief that Rumi was a prophet or something. His book of poetry was no less than a relic in my hands. At times I felt scared to read him. What if god punishes me for reading his verses without having my ablutions done ? So scared that one day I decided to never return to his books. The tryst with Rumi was over. I returned to Shahid. From Rumi I had carried with me the utmost respect for books. Since then I have always thought of books as relics.
It was spring now. The blossoms had set in. I had joined city college after terribly failing to secure a seat in medical college. While I was coming back from college one day little way off near Lambert Lane I crossed a bookstore. It’s entrance had a large glass frame. From outside I could see books arranged in a particular order on wooden shelves. They had magnificent covers with illustrations of keyholes, windows, countryside, macabre depictions of war. The illustrations were a lure. I stood there on the terraced sidewalk wondering when can I read enter the heaven of these book I stared blankly into. As my passionate gaze went from one title to another, journeying between variety of stories, each story reminding me of a story I remembered from my childhood, it finally rested on a book in the corner which stood leaning against the glass. I blurted out in joy ‘ Agha Shahid Ali’. It was ‘ Veiled Suite ‘. I went inside, inquired the price, and left. ‘Veiled Suite ‘ is a book of poetry which has selected poems collected from six collections of poetry Agha Shahid wrote until he was alive . And also a penultimate poem from which this book has got its name.
Two days later I returned to buy the book. When I bought it I felt it in my hands. I smelled its pages. The pages gave off a fragrance closest to nostalgia. At home I slept with the book in my arms. This became a routine. The book accompanied me everywhere. If I went out to sit by the riverbank in the evening the book would accompany me. I would open it and read poems to the river. It would accompany me to the college and back. Still, bearing in mind that I have to read each poem, feel each word on my tongue, I would hurry across pages.
To the river I would read out :
They make it desolation and call it peace.
Who is the guardian tonight of the Gates of Paradise?
I would pause, speak to the passing breeze, cry out hysterically :
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. You can’t forgive me.
That year summer announced itself briskly. I had lost myself to Shahid. I would walk down the Bund – I had heard of Shahid’s love for this walkway – past colonial buildings along the Jehlum bank reading poems. It was madness. I had grown my beard long. It was unkempt, dirty. I wore my hair like a mad poet. One day I confronted my grandfather at dinner. I told him right away I had gone mad. He didn’t say anything anymore. I kept reading poems, thumbing through the pages. I knew I was in agony.
‘ From Zero Bridge
a shadow chased by searchlights is running away to find its body. ‘
Where Shahid? I went to look for the traces of the shadow in the hope that I might salvage it from the wreck of your language. I came back home dejected. In the hollow of the night I only heard screams. This was all there was ever to it.
‘ On Residency Road, by Mir Pan House’
This was Shahid’s another favourite spot. When I went to smoke there with my friend when I was in Kashmir in March earlier this year I asked the man behind the counter if he knew Shahid, the poet. He said someone else did. I told him this corner happens to be a place where a poem, an elegy for kashmir, was born. He looked away. He did not understand what I was trying to say.
The rest of the poem follows :
‘ Unheard we speak : ” I know those words by heart ( you once said them by chance ) : In autumn
when the wind blows sheer ice, the chinar leaves
fall in clusters –
one by one otherwise. ”
“Rizwan, it’s you , Rizwan, it’s you, ” I cry out
as he steps closer, the sleeve of his
phiren torn. ”
Rizwan, in the poem, became the interpretation of innocence. His innocence was all that was left in the world. When it was taken away from him everything began to crumble, ‘ even the rain’.
A poem on Faiz, ‘ as always, you were witness to “rain of stones,” though you were away from Pakistan, from the laws of home which said : the hands of thieves will be surgically amputated. But subcontinent always spoke to you : in Ghalib’s Urdu….’ , introduced me to the distant territory of Urdu. Before this I had been harbouring an unfathomable hate for Urdu from my high school days. That summer however as everything was to change I began reading Faiz and Shahid together. It seemed preordained.
Through Shahid I discovered Mendalstam, Lorca, Merrill.
Through Shahid I discovered Darwish.
Through Shahid I discovered myself.
The time had stopped for me. My solitude, Shahid and Faiz became my eternal abode. Years later, after returning to Shahid’s poems after a brief hiatus, I wrote in a poem dedicated to Shahid :
Again, I have returned
to your poems
with tools for
a mass excavation
to dig deep
and deeper into your
after how many years, just how many
As I read you now,
all I have ever felt lost is found again
in your each verse..
( Omair Bhat)
– Previously published in Mizraab last week. Mizraab is a student run tabloid in Kashmir.