Love and the Insurgency

Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)

By: Preston Merchant

After Agha Shahid Ali died on December 8, 2001, of brain cancer, Tehelka, an Indian website, presented an online tribute by his friends and admirers. Shahid would have delighted in the fact that he was being featured on a news and gossip site (tehelka means “sensation” in Hindi) whose prior investigations into illegal arms dealings and influence peddling rocked the Indian government. Hidden cameras captured ruling party officials taking stacks of cash from Tehelka journalists posing as arms merchants. Prostitutes and other seedy favors were also allegedly accepted in return for government contracts. The “Tehelka Tapes” triggered a supreme court investigation and led to the resignation of the minister of defense (he has since been reinstated) and other officials. Shahid would have cackled with wicked delight at the idea of being included on the site that had brought down a host of venal politicians.[private]

But there is also an irony that would not have been lost on him. The night-vision goggles and thermal imaging capabilities the government thought it was getting would have been dispatched to Kashmir, Shahid’s homeland, the flashpoint of extremist violence and brutal repressive response in the simmering ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan.

Shahid was born in New Delhi in 1949, two years after the subcontinent’s partition into India and Pakistan and during the waves of sectarian violence that killed hundreds of thousands. He was one of “Midnight’s Children,” Salman Rushdie’s phrase for the generation born after the stroke of midnight on August 16, 1947, when India was granted its independence from Britain. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru famously proclaimed:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of midnight, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.

Like Shahid, Nehru was Kashmiri, and while Shahid might have appreciated the poetic sensibility behind the prime minister’s words, Shahid’s own poetry bore witness to the fact that the pledge remained largely unfulfilled. Shahid was not, in the main, a political writer, though his poems are shot through with the violence and turmoil that have dominated Kashmir’s history for two generations.

As a poet, he occupies a strange position. Born and schooled on the subcontinent, he taught creative writing in the United States for many years and sought to bridge eastern and western traditions. Was he an American formal poet mining Kashmiri history and politics for his material, or was he a Kashmiri writer expanding his technique to include such traditional western forms as sonnets, canzones, villanelles, and arcane syllabic exercises? It’s really not possible to say. He wrote exclusively in English and translated frequently from the Urdu. He undertook a campaign to educate westerners about the virtues of the ghazal, a complicated Urdu form (he was adamant that people pronounce the word correctly: it is “guzzle”). He mined western literary history, finding inspiration (and points to argue with) from Emily Dickinson, Yeats, Hopkins, Mandelstam, Tacitus, Zbigniew Herbert, Shakespeare, Eliot, Apollinaire, Auden, Mann, Pushkin, and many others. He also incorporated a range of Muslim writers throughout the ages into his work and introduced them to western readers.

If part of the subcontinent’s unfortunate legacy is that the drawing of borders spills blood, Shahid fervently destroyed linguistic and cultural boundaries on the page. He took issue with Rushdie’s description of contemporary Indian literary English as being a “chutnification”–in which various indigenous and foreign elements are blended, like chutney, into one condiment. Shahid offered his own term, “biryanization”–in which the disparate components are mixed, but as in a biryani they do not lose their individual character. With such capacity, he argued, “Indian English should become a medium for the sublime.”

Despite his multiple affiliations, Shahid really believed himself independent of all of them; he was a poet accountable to the ages and not to the multi-culti university crowd that loved to pigeonhole him. East is East and West is West, he might have observed, but he was determined that the twain should meet. And they should do so without a hyphen.

Shahid’s best work displays a great integrating and unifying sensibility. His incorporation of Kashmiri politics and history, Muslim and Hindu (and Christian) myths, traditional English forms, and his own personal witness was possible only because he was–first and foremost–a love poet. And an elegist at that.

In “From Amherst to Kashmir,” the sequence about bringing his mother’s body home for burial, Shahid incorporates Islamic history (including the accounts of battles fought centuries ago), the current Kashmiri troubles, songs from Hindi films, prayers, his own personal grief, and the Hindu myth of Krishna’s love for Radha, the shepherd girl. Included in his last book (Rooms Are Never Finished, which was a finalist for the National Book Award), it is a powerful performance in twelve parts. For Shahid, the experience of love and grief is both universal and acute, as his personal poems are usually his most public:

“In the Name of the Merciful” let night begin.
I must light the lamps without her–at every shrine?
God then is only the final assassin.

His long elegy for his mother is also an elegy for Kashmir–though, let not the land and people be thought dead. Shahid mourns a way of life, a connectedness, and a sense of history, which are rapidly and systematically being destroyed. Yet he still yearns to make historical sense of it all. Here is the opening of “The Fourth Day,” the eleventh section of the sequence:

The dead–so quickly–become the poor at night.

And the poor? They are the dead so soon by night . . .

But whom the news has reached in the Valley of Death

(The Belovéd is gone The Belovéd is gone)

they are not the dead, they are the poor at dawn,

they who have come from the shrines after breaking their heads on the threshold-stones of God.

The timeless and the timely blend with haunting lyricism. Here “the poor at night” suggests both present-day India and the ageless scenes from the Bible or Dante–the groups of lost souls gathered around a fire in the bazaar (“The poor will be with us always,” Jesus had said). The “Valley of Death” comes straight from the 23rd Psalm (Christianity’s most popular comforting words), but it is also the Vale of Kashmir, the site of a decade of insurgency and violence. The lyric that drifts through the scene could be the work of Ghalib (the ghazal writer from whom Shahid has taken the poem’s epigraph) or a Hindi film song blaring from a tape deck. The image of those who are “breaking their heads on the threshold stones of God” also cuts two ways. Certainly they are the Muslim faithful (who touch their foreheads to ground at prayer), but the image also suggests frustration in the approach of the divine (idiomatically, to “bang your head against a wall” is to experience futility and pain). Irrespective of the faith, a shrine marks the boundary between the sacred and the profane; the threshold is the breaking point between the two. All of this information tumbles together without any sense of progress. The dead and the poor, the faithful and the doubting, the spiritual and worldly all share the experience of grief.

This one aspect of Shahid’s work is, for me, his most compelling: the sense (is it uniquely Asian?) that the wide world is an utterly fascinating place, whose cultures have throughout the ages brushed up against each other, borrowed and stolen ideas and trends, mixed joyously and painfully, loved and fought, celebrated and eulogized. “Mutliculturalism” is not a recent phenomenon (though its propagation in universities is pernicious). There is no one culture separate from another, and there is no human being divorced from humanity.

The poet, Shahid–both witness and martyr–is the great synthesizer and revealer.


I knew Shahid a little, having published him in a feature of Verse on poets from India in which I served as guest editor. I met him for drinks a few times in New York right before he was diagnosed with the tumor. He had taken a visiting-writer position at New York University and was now comfortably installed in the enormous apartment the university had provided him in the heart of Greenwich Village. Asking about the best places to purchase housewares, used clothing, and books and inquiring about the “scene” at various nightspots along Bleecker Street, he had all the verve of a first-year student, newly arrived in the big city and filled with youthful enthusiasm. He was a long-time visitor and part-time resident of New York for many years, but this new lavish appointment made him feel like the kid in the candy store.

He gave a reading some months later, after he had been diagnosed and was undergoing treatment. His time at NYU had drawn to a close, and he was living in Brooklyn, teaching part time. Until the reading, I hadn’t known that brain cancer had killed his mother in 1997. Shahid’s new book about her death was soon to be published. My own mother had died of cancer in 2000, so I listened with even greater interest as he read “Lenox Hill,” a poem that takes its title from the Upper East Side hospital where his mother received her cancer treatments:

I enter this: The Belovéd leaves one behind to die.
For compared to my grief for you, what are those of Kashmir,
and what (I close the ledger) are the griefs of the universe
when I remember you–beyond all accounting–O my mother?

On my way home after the reading, as I came up from the subway on 77th Street, a woman (my mother? a god?) stopped me to ask directions to Lenox Hill.[/private]

About PMerchant

Preston Merchant has worked as a documentary photographer; he is at work on a project on the worldwide Indian diaspora. A preview, and other galleries, are available at his website. His poems, reviews, and translations have appeared in the Antioch Review, Sewanee Review, New England Review, Missouri Review, Tameme, and Verse. He also edited the special feature of Verse on poets from India. He lives in New York City.
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